Federer came tantalizingly close to his 14th Slam, and, once again, Nadal snatched another landmark away from him.
It was a match that went into its fifth hour. Less than 48 hours after Nadal went to bed after the marathon with Verdasco, he lifted his first hard-court slam.
Federer broke down during the presentation ceremony, and though it is his wont to shed a few tears after a tough victory or defeat, one understood the tears of helplessness here; how does he tackle Nadal? I had asked in this post of mine, after Nadal handed him a bagel in the final set of last year’s French Open, if Federer would ever be able to recover. The pasting at Roland Garros might not have been so bad – it was, after all, Rafa’s home turf – but then Nadal went on to win, in perhaps the best tennis match I have seen, at Wimbledon. And suddenly, after years of effortless cruising at Number 1, Federer’s dominion was under siege.
At Melbourne, last week, Federer demolished Del Potro, and a lot of us thought that the ghosts of the French Open and Wimbledon had been exorcised, and the King was back.
We were mistaken.
As anyone who watched the Australian Open final could tell, the ghosts were still messing with Federer. His ever-so-dependable serve was, well, just not there – only 52% of first serves in. Ditto his backhand. His scintillating form, on display in the run-up to the finals, seemed tentative and hesitant. And, despite having 19 break points, he converted only 6. Federer choked. And Nadal won his 6th Slam.
Here’s a little hypothesis I have come up with: both Nadal and Federer have demons in their heads. Recall how tentatively Nadal played against Verdasco. Verdasco is a good player, and was in great form, but Nadal had no business allowing that match to go to five sets. Nadal would have hated to lose to the 14th ranked player and that pressure played on his mind. He gave Verdasco too much respect, played too safe – and Verdasco piled on the pressure. Now, examine Nadal’s game against Federer. Nadal, though he hates losing, sees no shame in losing to Federer. So he played a much more assured game against Federer, taking his chances. Federer, on the other hand, was screwed by his ghosts, and faltered. Perhaps, like Nadal did with Verdasco, he gave too much respect to Nadal, and his own game suffered.
And where is all this leading? As I never tire of saying, I root for Nadal, but I hope Federer gets his 14th Slam. Unfortunately, he will have to rely on other players to beat Nadal. Like Djokovic, Tsonga or Murray. This is what happened in the US Open. And once he is in the finals of a slam, playing against someone other than Nadal, he’ll win his 14th and come level with Pete Sampras. Not quite the way of a champion, but I think he’s got no answer to Nadal’s game.
I hope he comes back stronger, though. He’s too great a player to suffer an ignominious exit. He should go out a champion.
As Dylan Thomas said, do not go gentle into that good night.