PARIS, France—Early in the second set of the French Open final, not quite halfway into what would wind up as Roger Federer’s worst loss in 173 career Grand Slam matches, he watched intently as Rafael Nadal pushed a forehand wide to end a lengthy exchange.
Federer saw the ball land out, punched the air and yelled. Neither the exact words—English? French? Swiss German?—nor the precise sentiment—delight? relief?—could be discerned. That he would be so moved was noteworthy in itself.
A man who has won 12 major championships, who has been ranked No. 1 a record 227 weeks in a row, who has placed himself squarely in any discussion about the greatest players in tennis history, found significance in the winning of one measly point.
Because Nadal so thoroughly, so untheatrically, outplayed Federer in every possible facet Sunday, beating him 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 to win a fourth consecutive title at Roland Garros.
During the trophy ceremony following the most lopsided men’s final at the French Open since 1977, and at any Grand Slam since 1984, Nadal felt compelled to say: “Roger, I’m sorry.”
“He dominated from the first point until the end,” said Federer, who hadn’t lost a 6-0 set since 1999, and hadn’t won fewer than five games in a match since 2002. “It’s the strongest Rafa that I’ve ever seen. He was more dominant than the previous years.”
Federer, much to his chagrin, is in perfect position to make that comparison. For the fourth year running, he came to Paris needing a French Open championship to complete a career Grand Slam, something only five men have accomplished.
In 2005, Federer reached the semifinals, then lost to Nadal.
In 2006, 2007 and 2008, Fededer went a step further, reaching the final, then came up short against his nemesis every time.
Think of it this way: Over the past four French Opens, Federer is 0-4 against Nadal, 23-0 against anyone else. Or this way: Federer is a combined 12-0 in finals at Wimbledon (beating Nadal the last two years), the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, and 0-3 in finals at the French Open.
“He no longer plays short balls, the way he did in the past. You can no longer attack him on his forehand, the way I could in the past,” said Federer, now 6-11 overall against Nadal, 1-9 on clay. “He is getting much more aggressive, and it’s becoming much more difficult.”
That said, Federer insisted afterward he can win the clay-court major championship.
“I still go out of this tournament with a positive mind-set,” he said. “Not with a mind-set: ‘Oh my God, I had no chance today.”’
That might be. But had Federer figured out a way to win, it would have been considered an upset. Sound silly? The top-ranked player wins a match, and it’s an upset?
Well, yes. Do not forget how invincible Nadal is on clay, and at this tournament. He’s the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win the French Open without dropping a set, the first since Borg from 1978-81 to win the tournament four years in a row.
Sunday’s victory also makes Nadal:
— 28-0 for his career at the French Open;
— 115-2 on clay since April 2005;
— 22-1 in clay-court finals.
“I am humble,” Nadal said, “but the numbers are the numbers.”
His match statistics against Federer were stunning, the sort that make you want to go back and reread them.
Nadal held break points in 10 of Federer’s 11 service games, converting eight times. He won the point 24 of the 42 times Federer went to the net. He won 16 of the 24 points that lasted 10 or more strokes, according to an unofficial tally compiled by The Associated Press.
Most tellingly, Federer finished with 35 unforced errors, Nadal with seven. Yes, seven.
“When I was playing,” Nadal said, “I didn’t believe the match is like this.”
There were times it seemed that Federer couldn’t figure out how to play. Try serve-and-volley? Nadal picked the perfect place for a passing shot. Try to hang behind the baseline and trade groundstrokes? Nadal scrambled around, playing defense, until the opportunity arose to switch to offense, and with a grunt and an uppercut of a forehand, the 22-year-old Spaniard would flick a winner.
Unlike, for example, the 2007 Wimbledon final—filled with artistry and grit from both players until Federer won in five sets—only Nadal played with elan Sunday.
“To lose the way I did today—it’s obviously hard and it’s a rough loss, but it’s OK,” Federer said, a blue baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. “I’ll move forward from here, and I’ll try again.”
Nadal recognized it was not Federer’s finest day.
“If I am playing my best tennis ever, I’m never going to win 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 against Roger Federer, no? For sure, it’s impossible,” the second-ranked Nadal said. “He didn’t play very well. Everybody knows that.”
For one fleeting moment, Federer appeared to have a chance to make things interesting. After breaking Nadal for the only time, and later holding serve without facing a break point for the only time, Federer pulled even in the second set at 3-3. The match was an hour old, and finally the tiniest hint of drama broke through the gray clouds.
In the next game, Nadal—gasp!—frittered away two forehands, allowing Federer to get within one point of a 4-3 lead. Nadal, however, brought it back to deuce, ending an 18-stroke point with a drop shot that Federer reached but slapped into the net.
Federer lost the following two points by missing forehands. And that, essentially, was that. The man who stands two Grand Slam titles shy of Pete Sampras’ record would not win another game, losing the last nine.
“I don’t know whether he didn’t have a good feel for his shots or if he was over-thinking,” said Nadal’s coach and uncle, Toni. “What I see is that he’s missing a bit of self-confidence. He never looked comfortable. Maybe it’s a mental block.”
“To beat Rafa on this type of surface, you need to play your best tennis,” said Borg, who watched from a front-row seat. “But Roger’s going to be back. And so will Rafa.”
Borg, who thinks Nadal could break his mark of six French Open titles, was among the tournament’s past champions who stood on court Sunday during a prematch ceremony marking the stadium’s 80th anniversary: Guillermo Vilas, Gustavo Kuerten, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Mary Pierce and others also were there.
Among the uninvited, seeing as how they never won a singles title at Roland Garros: Sampras, John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker.
His outward optimism aside, Federer could be forgiven if, deep down, he wonders whether he ever will be asked to participate in such festivities, whether he ever will get past Nadal at the French Open. Glum as he was after the match, Federer already was thinking about 2009.
“I mean, after a loss like this, you don’t want to play Rafa again tomorrow, that’s for sure,” the 26-year-old Federer said.
And yet, seconds later, he added: “Let’s see what happens again next year.”