Well, this may not be the final everyone expected when the tournament began, but it’s definitely the final that everyone always wants to see. In some ways, it seems only fitting that Djokovic lose to Federer. “The Streak” started after a loss to Roger Federer and it ended with a loss to Federer, one win shy of John McEnroe’s 42 to start a year and 3 wins short of Guillermo Vilas’s 46 in a row at any time. The loss will keep Rafael Nadal at #1 in the World if he can win on Sunday, at least for a few more weeks. The road for Nadal has been a little bumpy, with Nadal struggling but gradually picking it up each match. Nadal is 9-2 in Grand Slam finals and has never lost a final at Roland Garros. To compare Rafa to other all-time greats, Federer won 12 Slams before losing his third final and Pete Sampras won 13. Nadal is well on his way to joining that illustrious group in many categories, but Roger will have a say in whether or not he can reach those benchmarks.
Rafa had some trouble with spurts of great play from Andy Murray in their semifinal match, but ultimately the Brit fell short in his upset bid. Nadal did play the best tennis we have seen from him here this year, but still left a lot of balls short and was a far cry from his level around 2008. Federer should look very carefully at the fact that Murray broke Nadal 3 times (and more importantly earned 18 break point opportunities) and try to emulate him. Murray managed to move Rafa around the court on many occasions and really used his backhand to open things up. Federer will have to do something similar and really go after the returns of serve instead of just blocking them back in.
Nadal’s Keys to Victory:
1. Don’t be Passive: Nadal has been happy this entire tournament to play great defense and just put balls into play, letting his opponents beat themselves. The windy conditions lately this week have really helped him in that. But it will not be enough against Federer. Roger is hitting winners from everywhere and really keeping balls deep. If Rafa will just try and play defense he will get worn down very quickly. Federer will keep the court open and will just hit winner after winner.
2. Attack the Backhand: Nadal has made a living attacking Federer’s backhand. Roger has had trouble dealing with the high bounces of Nadal’s since Rafa came onto the scene. Nadal needs to keep that up and keep the balls deep. Don’t give Federer a chance to hit winners off that wing or attack the net, which Federer has been much more willing to do recently.
3. Be Careful on the Forehand: Nadal has a strong tendency to try and run around backhands. His forehand has been the biggest weapon in tennis, at least on clay, for the past 6 years. Federer is one of the few players in the world that will really be able to take advantage of that. Nadal’s defense has been more than adequate in protecting the open court over the years, but his movement has not been perfect this tournament and Federer might be able to make him pay for giving so much space.
4. Forget the Pressure: All the pressure in this match will be on Rafael Nadal for once. Rafa is definitely the favorite and has to win this match to remain #1 in the World. His motivation has seemed lacking at times, but hopefully playing Federer will bring out the best in Nadal. It should be encouraging that Rafa celebrated his win over Murray so strongly. Also, Nadal has never lost to Federer at Roland Garros and has only lost twice to him on clay out of 13 matches.
Federer’s Keys to Victory:
1. Stay Relaxed: Federer somehow managed to play this tournament entire under the radar. He has only lost one set against some very tough opponents. No one counted him out, but everyone seemed to ignore him. I even took some flak for keeping him on the “favorites” list (just barely) and not a “dark horse” in our French Open Preview. Federer always knew he was still in this and played like the champion that he is throughout.
2. Keep attacking: Federer beat Djokovic by becoming the first player this year to actually just hit the ball past Djokovic’s defense. He went behind Novak a lot and pounded the ball into the open court. Djokovic has been a better defender than Nadal in 2011 and there appears to be little reason right now that Federer can’t do the same to Nadal. Roger also needs to be able to really take advantage whenever he sees even a tiny opening in the court. Similarly, he will need to go for some big returns, even though he usually just tries to block them back deep. Part of this will also be to keep his serve big. We saw what Isner did to Nadal with huge serving. Roger can’t serve quite that big but has better placement and should really be able to use his serve to keep himself in the match, even if Nadal can dominate the rallies.
3: Use the Drop Shot Effectively: Murray showed that Rafa can be susceptible to the great drop shot. And a lot of people forget, but Federer first started really playing the drop shot because he needed some type of advantage over Nadal on clay. He needs to use it to keep Nadal honest behind the baseline and to test Rafa’s legs if this match goes on for a long time. He played a good deal of drop shots poorly agaisnt Djokovic. He’s going to have to do better against Nadal.
4: Play the Big Points Like Federer: Federer is one of, if not the, best tennis players ever because throughout his career he has played the important points better than his opponents. The one thing that Federer has not managed to do throughout this tournament is take advantage of openings. He has squandered huge quantities of break points and has allowed himself to be broken on way too high a percentage of opponents’ break points. Something tells me that missing opportunities will cost Roger dearly against Nadal. He also needs to get the crowd involved. This French Open crowd has no lost love for Rafa and has always backed Federer. Roger needs to get the crowd to help him, especially on those big points.
What’s at Stake:
Federer looked amazing getting here, dropping only set along the way. Nadal has struggled at times but won and looks to be peaking at the right time. Federer, in his 23rd Grand Slam final, looks to have the momentum, but nothing else in tennis right now compares to beating Nadal at Roland Garros. Rafa’s sixth Roland Garros title to tie Borg against Federer’s 17th Grand Slam overall. And a win here would put Federer in prime position to take over World #1 at Wimbledon and finally take that elusive weeks-at-World #1 record from Pete Sampras. Nadal needs this win just to stay at World #1 for another week, when he could once again have to defend it from Djokovic at Queens.
I really want to pick Federer in this match based on how he played the semifinal. I really do. I have learned the follies of both picking against Nadal on clay and against Federer ever. Still, that 11-2 head-to-head on clay and 4-0 head-to-head advantage for Nadal in Roland Garros have to be the deciding factors.
Prediction: Nadal in 5