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Nadal slams door again on Federer

Spaniard wins his third consecutive French Open title, preventing tennis' top-ranked star from holding all four major titles at once.

June 11, 2007|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

PARIS — Roger Federer annexed yet another tennis feat for his voluminous list Sunday.

He actually won a set against Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros in 2007.

He lost the other three, but really now, if you pooh-pooh the one, then you just didn't see Nadal here these last two weeks running around, grunting and gobbling up 21 of 22 sets.

You couldn't have seen the set Federer did win and the outlandish rigor it demanded, how it bulged with a 12-point game and a Hundred Years War of an 18-point game, how it took five grinding set points for Nadal to yield even that morsel.

The second set of the 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 final demonstrated how beating Nadal in a French Open might require the construction of so many grinding or spectacular points that it would seem humanly impossible.

It's humanly impossible at the moment. Since debuting at the clay-court major at age 19 in 2005, Nadal has won all 21 of his matches to stand halfway to Bjorn Borg with three titles. He's the first man since Borg to win three in a row. Nobody has taken Nadal to five sets, and only seven of his matches have required four sets, including one in each year against Federer.

As Federer at 25 begins to exhaust chances to claim the lone major he lacks, Nadal continues to play each French Open better than the last. "My best Roland Garros, maybe," he said Sunday. "I think that."

The French Open would be that anomaly where you can hear one of the best players ever, Federer, stick up for himself thusly: "I'm the only one who managed to win one set against him."

It would be the place where a 10-time Grand Slam champion who snuffs the living suspense out of many a tournament somehow ends up with fans chanting his name partly because, well, he's the underdog against this one player.

It's where the women's champion, Justine Henin, said on Saturday she'd like to see Federer win so he could own all four major titles, but then added in ominous prediction, "But what I saw from Nadal is pretty strong."

Unlike Pete Sampras, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker or Jimmy Connors, who all finished a French Open shy of the full Grand Slam dinner set, Federer has reached two French finals and one semifinal, and Federer owes his shortcoming to a single nemesis.

"After playing three very good French Opens, you know, the last three years, Rafa came along and took them all," Federer said. "But, you know, I did the same thing to Roddick in Wimbledon, and that's just how it goes. Sometimes you collide and that's what happens."

His French misfortune concerns not single shots or agonizing turning points or even the 16 break points out of 17 he failed to convert on Sunday. It revolves around Sebastian and Ana Maria Nadal of the Spanish island of Mallorca deciding to start a family in the mid-1980s.

So even as Federer might've felt gutted Sunday after 190 fruitless minutes of tennis, he kept offering one explanation: Nadal.

What about all those break points? Nadal. Disappointment over not becoming the first player to hold all four titles simultaneously since Rod Laver in 1969? Nadal. His inability to play his best tennis? Mr. Muscles over there with his liquid court coverage and his pounded shots that dive down just inside lines. Which stroke failed Federer most amid the 59 unforced errors?

"My opponent was tough, made it hard for me," Federer answered.

"He's such a different type of player, you know, and he kind of wears you out or wears you down, you know," Federer said. "He's the type of guy that's going to make you miss, you know. So you can never really say you played great against him, for some reason, you know."

He leaves Federer pining to play "against a righty, you know, where the game is played in a normal manner."

"With Rafa being a lefty, the whole thing gets kind of screwed up, you know," Federer said. "So that's the tough part. That's why I can never really say I played fantastic or bad against him, because it's just awkward."

Only at the French Open and only against Nadal might you hear a grunt and a little wail on consecutive points from Federer, as in the second game of the fourth set, his last chance at a service break. Only here and only against Nadal does Federer's body language start to look fluent in distress, especially if Nadal serves 86% in the fourth set and hogs 18 of his last 20 service points.

Even just three weeks after Federer beat Nadal in Hamburg to improve to 1-5 head to head on clay -- now, 1-6 -- Nadal plus Roland Garros red winds up equaling certainty, even in the match of the year. So as Federer walked out to field the last of Nadal's 19 service games and the 18th Nadal would win, doubt had left the premises.

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