If one had asked any tennis commentator or fan for the name of the men’s French Open champion at the start of last week—or indeed at any time in the past year—one would have been hard pushed to find any name but Rafael Nadal uttered in complete confidence.
Yet the 15th Masters Series win and 58th title overall for Roger Federer in last week’s Madrid final against Nadal—in straight sets and little over an hour—has been met with surprise and jubilation in equal measure across the tennis world, somewhat shaking the predictions for the next Grand Slam.
Next Sunday in Paris, the French Open begins—and Federer’s victory in Madrid has given at least a little hope that Nadal’s fifth successive win on Philippe Chatrier court is not a done deal.
Hyperbole aside, Federer’s chances may not be as great as some would like to believe.
The same optimistic rumours circulated two years ago when Federer snapped Nadal’s 81-clay match winning streak by beating him triumphantly in the Hamburg Masters Series Final (the event which preceded the French Open and has now been replaced by Madrid).
As has been the case for four consecutive years, Nadal pushed all fears aside with a four-set win over Federer in the Championship final.
At least Federer can draw from the fact that he stopped yet another Nadal clay-court streak with this latest tussle, marginally improved his head-to-head record and ranking points difference against Nadal, and, once again, stopped Nadal’s hopes of winning all three clay-court Masters events in one season.
Federer has no doubt gained some confidence in his game and, most crucially, in his mind, which will with all hope release some of the previous months’ tensions and fears in time for Paris. Mental fitness plays arguably the biggest role in tennis—especially in matchups with Nadal—so perhaps this clay-court victory will strengthen Federer’s soul.
“I’m sorry that I spoiled the party,” Federer said to the Madrid crowd during his prizewinner’s speech. Yet will there be an even bigger party to spoil—and a gargantuan shock to uncover—in the coming weeks?
Could this really be the year in which Federer completes the career Grand Slam?
Of course, Nadal has other plans. Tellingly, in his last press conference, he boldly stated: “Roger earned this victory, but I wasn’t 100 percent. This tournament has no meaning for Roland Garros.”
This latest victory may have done wonders for Federer’s confidence; but on the other hand, as the tennis world heads for his majestic palace, has it really damaged Nadal’s? Only time will tell.
(Published on Bleacher Report; 19th May 2009)