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Federer's Dream Turned to Dust

Bid for fourth straight Slam title is denied by Nadal, who rules on clay again to retain French Open title.

June 12, 2006|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Leading man turned supporting actor is not a customary role for Roger Federer at a tennis tournament, let alone a Grand Slam final.

But that's what happened Sunday when his bid to win a fourth consecutive Grand Slam title came out on the wrong end of a collision with Rafael Nadal's record clay-court match winning streak. The second-seeded Nadal defeated No. 1 Federer, 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (4), to win his second consecutive French Open title, extending his clay-court streak to 60 consecutive victories.

"I said, 'I think there's God and there is Rafa Nadal coming,' " said two-time French Open finalist Alex Corretja, a commentator for Spanish TV. "It looks like it. Why? Because he just came out of nowhere. Somehow, he finds always the way to win. Not just against my mom or my uncle, against Roger Federer."

Federer was caught in the spotlight -- two sets from joining Don Budge and Rod Laver as the only men to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time -- but blinked in the harsh sun, as the temperature hovered around 90 at Roland Garros. He seemed almost stuck in a self-induced malaise after the first set.

His coach, Tony Roche, called it a "funny match," lamenting Federer's blown service game early in the second set, after leading, 40-0, which turned the match, and four wasted break points in the fourth game of the third set.

"Nadal, to his credit, he was too tough on the big points," Roche said. "Roger's backhand I just thought let him down badly. It just wasn't on fire today for whatever reason."

Federer -- who was 7-0 in Slam finals, a streak ended by Nadal on Sunday -- was not as aggressive as he was last month against the Spaniard in the Italian Open final, in which he had two match points before losing. Perhaps the weight of history kept him from moving forward often enough.

"I would have thought he would have taken it to him a lot more, like in Rome," Roche said. "I thought he attacked a lot more, sort of picked his spots with Nadal's backhand. Whereas today, I think he struggled with that."

Federer seemed strangely flat even when he received a lifeline of sorts by reaching the fourth-set tiebreaker. But after leading, 2-1, he lost the next four points, surprising longtime observers.

"And he walked past him like it was juniors versus the man," said three-time champion Mats Wilander. "David and Goliath, but the opposite direction. Very strange."

Then again, many of Federer's opponents in previous Slam finals, such as Mark Philippoussis, Andy Roddick and Marcos Baghdatis, lacked the mental strength of Nadal. Federer never found another emotional level in the final to counter him.

"No, he doesn't have an extra gear here," Wilander said. "Game-wise, he has the extra gear. But emotions, he doesn't. This is the first time someone challenged emotionally since he became No. 1."

Federer has lost to Nadal four times in finals in 2006, three times on clay. Despite the Nadal factor, Federer does come to his favorite Slam event, Wimbledon, with a major title in 2006, the Australian Open. Last year, he had been 0-2 in Slams before the grass tournaments.

The weight of joining Budge and Laver in the record book is gone for now, eliminated by Nadal's ever-increasing clay-court streak.

"Both of us [have] this real unique opportunity that we haven't seen in such a long time in tennis," said Federer, who has won the last three Wimbledon titles. "Obviously, it's a pity, but it goes on, right? I've got the grass-court season coming up, and looking forward to that one."

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