“I threw the kitchen sink at him. He went to the bathroom and came back with the tub.”
This is what Andy Roddick had said after losing the 2004 Wimbledon final to Roger Federer.
Federer will probably empathise with his old foe now. It’s how he has been made to feel again and again, when playing the ‘King of Clay’ at French Open.
A year after this quote, Federer would lose his first Grand Slam match to this teenager called Rafael Nadal. That 19-year-old would go on to win the next four titles as well at Roland Garros.
On Friday, when the long-time rivals and close friends played each for the sixth time, it was a familiar tale even 14 years after they first met on the red dirt of Paris. Nadal was too strong, when Federer threw the kitchen sink at him, he returned with the bathtub to win 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in two hours and 25 minutes.
In their 39th meeting – despite the equation heavily favouring the younger man 24-15 – there was something new: surreal windy conditions. On a day where weather conditions suspended the other semi-final, the match seemed to be played in an almost sandstorm.
But the real storm was the force of Nadal’s cross-court backhand that cracked a winner on almost all the big points. Federer had been playing with a larger racquet frame, a move that has helped the Swiss reinvent his game. Playing with it for the first time on clay against Nadal, the 37-year-old’s usually weak backhand was much better against Nadal’s fearsome topspin forehand. But it didn’t matter when Nadal was part of the force of nature that makes winning against him at Roland Garros near impossible.
Their head-to-head on clay before this match was at a lopsided 13-2 and 6-0 at French Open. It was here that the Spaniard had all but crushed Federer’s spirit in 2008 when he beat him in the final dropping a total of four games. It was here that he had brushed aside Federer after he played one of his career’s best matches to end Novak Djokovic’s 2011 streak.
And it is here, four years after he last played the clay court Major, that the 37-year-old Federer appeared most relaxed, and most competitive, against his nemesis.
A total of nine games won may not necessarily seem like a good contest. After all David Goffin took a whole set of Nadal in the fourth round. But given the history Fedal have shared at the French Open and otherwise, this straight sets win was actually an absorbing contest.
So what does that say about the victor and the vanquished?
Before the match began, you sensed Federer came in with a different mind-set given his quotes on how he partly returned to play Nadal again. But even the best from Federer – who was in the middle of his best-ever winning streak against the Spaniard at five – was not enough when taking on the king in his kingdom.
The Swiss tried all he could: he served and volleyed, he sent down drop shots, he tried attack moving forward, he tried to cut the points short even as he tried to absorb the ground strokes and stay in rallies, he even got early breaks of serve and some superb angles. However, Nadal simply found another gear, raising his level perceptibly every time his opponent even got close.
The first game lasted eight minutes and Federer earned a break point with (surprise, surprise) a backhand winner. But it was Nadal who drew first blood, breaking Federer on a backhand error. It was a pattern thereon: big plays from Federer, neutralised by Nadal.
It was at 4-4 in the second set that you finally knew that Federer was going to go down in straight sets. He was 40-0 up on serve but his opponent pushed relentlessly to break him with net play.
The crowd was unabashedly cheering “Roger! Ro-ger! Ro-ger!” even when he was match point down, but Roger seemed to have left the building.
If it was any consolation, Federer played one of his best shots in this game in the routine third set, followed by the longest rally of the match at 27 shots which he stayed in for most part. But the result was a foregone conclusion.
Federer committed 34 unforced errors, almost double than his opponent’s 19. He won less than half the point he played at the net (17/35) while Nadal won only nine of 20 but the bossing from the baseline and the breath-taking backhand did all the damage.
The loser analysed this dominance succinctly: “It’s really hard to find holes [in Nadal’s game], especially in the wind… He’s the best clay court player, so I can accept that. It’s not a problem.”
Analyse him? he could. Affect him? he could not.
But even in the loss, there is much to gain for Federer. After two years of skipping the clay season to rest his aging limbs, he returned to reasonable success. He reached the quarters at the two Masters events he played and this semi-final was his best finish at a Grand Slam in more than a year. The loss perhaps wouldn’t be as crushing with the Swiss getting ready for the grass court season.
As for Nadal, he is in his 12th French Open final hunting for his 12th trophy. Come rain, wind or Djokovic / Thiem, it will be near impossible to stop him from maintaining that 100% record in final if he keeps raising his level as he does.