Order was restored to the world of tennis this week. Roger Federer is again the game's best and most versatile player. Novak Djokovic, who stole the Australian Open from a mononucleosis-stricken Federer earlier in the year, isn't quite consistent or healthy enough to pull off a winning streak that would earn him the top ranking. And Rafael Nadal, the world no. 2, doesn't lose on clay. Ever.
Nadal won the Monte Carlo Masters yesterday for the fourth straight year, a feat not accomplished since Anthony Wilding did it from 1911 to 1914, back when men played tennis in pants only slightly longer than Nadal's trademark knee-length shorts. Federer was Nadal's opponent in the final for the third straight year and he took control of the match in the early goings of both sets. But as good as Federer was in several stretches, flashes of brilliance are not enough to topple Nadal. One must be brilliant all the time a task that not even Federer is up to. Federer served with a 43 lead in the first set and led 40 in the second set, but watched as Nadal recovered both times to win 75, 75. Nadal didn't lose a set the entire tournament, despite falling behind by two breaks of serve in two different matches (yesterday's final and his quarterfinal match against David Ferrer).
Nadal is now 71 against Federer on clay, with the only defeat coming last year in the final of Hamburg, where the damp and heavy conditions deaden the bounce of Nadal's forehand and give Federer more predictable shots to hit. If not for that loss, Nadal would boast a 990 record on clay since April 2005. Instead, he's 98-1 in that span, which includes three victories at the French Open, where he has never lost a match in his career. Of all the great clay court players in the history of the game Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Guillermo Vilas, Gustavo Kuerten, Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, and Jim Courier, to name a few none have dominated this surface as thoroughly as Nadal. A 981 record? Considering the depth of men's tennis, and the number of superb athletes on the tour who prefer clay to other surfaces, it's astounding. It's also unlikely to be matched for decades, if ever.
Nadal's dominance extends beyond singles, too. After defeating Federer yesterday, he teamed with Tommy Robredo to win the doubles title over doubles experts Mark Knowles and Mahesh Bhupathi, 63, 63 (Knowles and Bhupathi were 225 on the year with two titles). Earlier in the tournament, Nadal and Robredo defeated the no. 3 seeds and the always difficult pairing of Jonas Bjorkman and Kevin Ullyett. No truth to the rumor that next year, Nadal will attempt to win the doubles tournament without a partner.
The question in the minds of Federer fans, of course, is, "Did Federer squander this match?" Dropping a 40 lead is rare in tennis, and Federer did make a few seemingly egregious errors in the second set. But as in previous matches between Federer and Nadal on clay, the outcome had more to do with Nadal than anything Federer failed to do. Against Nadal, errors that seem unconscionable a routine forehand at the baseline that sails long or an attempt at a winner that flies wide by 4 feet oftentimes are not. The Spaniard's forehand spins so much, and bounces so high off the court, that hitting "routine" strokes takes more concentration, and can lead to errors more often than one might expect.
Federer played superbly to win the first four games of the second set. He didn't miss his forehand, volleyed well (and often), and returned serve aggressively. Nadal then not only stopped making mistakes (he played more than 20 points without an error), but also began hitting the ball with greater height over the net and greater depth. Federer tried to remain aggressive, but Nadal made such tactics nearly impossible. The result, in a few key moments, was indecision. This is what Nadal does to players. He remains the same, for hours and hours if that's what it takes to win. Somewhere along the way, his opponents lose confidence or they panic, as Federer did when he attempted a short, forehand slice approach on set point in the first set, despite ample time to club a winner. And then it's over.
Federer's tactics for this match were spot-on. He attempted to serve and volley at times. He approached the net when possible and hit several beautiful backhand volleys. He varied between backhand slices and topspin drives and played more aggressively on service returns than he has in the past (passive returns have hurt him at the French Open the last two years). He successfully used drop shots, a shot that Federer has scoffed at in the past. (The drop shot and the aggressive returns, I'm guessing, are an early product of Federer's new relationship with Jose Higueras, most famous for his coaching of Courier). This much should be clear to Federer fans: Federer knows how to play against Nadal on clay. Unfortunately, this should be clear, too: Federer might not ever beat Nadal in a best-of-five set match on clay, which is what he'll have to do to win the French Open.
Can anyone play that well over five sets? Probably not. At times, Nadal has looked vulnerable on clay, but never quite beatable. The French Open is a long way off, and a lot could happen before then (an injury, an illness, a sudden inexplicable loss of confidence). Right now, though, the reigning King of Monte Carlo looks primed for his fourth consecutive French Open title, a streak that would tie Borg's best run (Borg won six times in Paris, but not consecutively). Next up, this week's tournament in Barcelona, where Nadal hopes to defend his title for the fourth consecutive year. Catch him if you can.
Mr. Perrotta is a senior editor at Tennis magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]