FRENCH OPEN: Rafael Nadal, the Look of Tennis Dominance, Beats Roger Federer Again

Rafael Nadal. French Open champ...again


This is the look of dominance. Roger Federer is not the best anymore. Novak Djokovic is not the best today. Juan Martin del Potro might be the best later. They are all great, but keep your focus on the right place and the right time.

Rafael Nadal beat Federer Sunday 7-5, 7-6 (7-3), 5-7, 6-1 to win the French Open. His sixth French Open title, tying Bjorn Borg’s record. Nadal holds on to his No. 1 ranking, goes into Wimbledon as the defending champ and favorite.

And, oh yeah, he also validated himself. Huh?

Two weeks ago, Sports Illustrated proclaimed Djokovic “The Most Dominant Athlete in the World.’’ Four days ago, Nadal previewed the Federer-Djokovic semifinal by calling it the greatest player of all time vs. the greatest player of today. Nobody blinked. On Sunday, Nadal won his fourth major in the past 12 months. He has won four of the past five majors.

Best today? Yes.

Best ever? “No. For sure, no,’’ he said. “What Roger did is almost impossible to improve. He is best player in history in my opinion. I am 25; this victory is very important for this year in my career.’’

Nadal has won 10 majors now, to Federer’s 16. But he has beaten Federer in 17 of their 25 matchups.

To me, Nadal is the best ever, as things stand. His best is better than Federer’s. But Nadal’s story is nowhere near fully played out. Federer’s greatness lasted much, much longer than Nadal’s has. Nadal has owned Federer, but what if, say, del Potro owns Nadal over the next four years? Or what if Djokovic does?

This is still the greatest individual rivalry in sport, and it’s always special for tennis  when it happens. But I wonder how much more of it we’ll see in major finals.

At the Australian Open in January, someone asked Federer whether his time was winding down. Federer boldly said to give it six months and see where things stand then. These past two weeks, he proved his point, re-established himself, became aggressive, held his nerve (for the most part) on his backhand, arrived with a dominant serve we haven’t seen from him in years.

He beat Djokovic, who hadn’t lost all year. And he even moved fluidly and fast again, after appearing to have lost a step before the French. Tennis ignored Federer for more than a week of the French Open, and then celebrated him the final few days. He earned the second half of that. You hope he gets the grand goodbye, the way Pete Sampras did. Sampras, passed his time, won one more U.S. Open, and then left.

Well, Federer isn’t there yet.

But men’s tennis is at an amazing point now with three all-time great talents and one (del Potro) who figures to be there by the U.S. Open, when he finishes recovering from wrist surgery. Andy Murray is now relegated to the top of Tier II, and Andy Roddick might be the bottom of that tier.

The point is, with all of that talent at the top of the game, it isn’t going to be easy for Nadal and Federer to reach major finals at the same time anymore.

Well, this win meant plenty to Nadal. Strangely, the No. 1 player in the world was in position where he had to defend himself. He had lost several times to Djokovic in non-majors this year. But tennis champions are decided in majors, not in Miami or Madrid. Still, Nadal was nervously working on things, searching for answers to Djokovic after spending years tailoring his game to beat Federer.

Nadal started the tournament looking jittery, barely surviving John Isner in the first round. After that, he won matches handily, but didn’t seem like himself. It was the pressure of Djokovic, of Borg, of No. 1, and of the new hard, light tennis ball French officials introduced at this tournament. Nadal couldn’t find the spin on it.

“Well, for sure, a lot of doubts,’’ he said. “I always try to stay positive in every practice, to be practicing every day with an open mind, and trying to find solutions. Sometimes I’m able to change situations, some days not.’’

Oh, he did find the solution to Djokovic, all right. The solution was Federer, who mixed up speeds and paces and spins, and by crushed serves.

So that left Nadal-Federer again, and by now, Nadal is an anti-Federer machine. He angles his lefty crosscourt forehands with killer spin to Federer’s backhand, and the ball bounces up high to Fed’s shoulder. One-handed backhands, such as Federer’s, do not produce power over the shoulder.

Federer took a fast lead on Nadal with big serves and with a new plan to move into the doubles alley on ad-points to prevent Nadal’s serve from attacking his backhand. Federer even had a set point in the first set, but barely missed a dropshot.

From there, every tennis fan expected Federer to fold. Admit it. Yes, even you, Fed fans. He did drop off for a few games, seemed to get dejected and lose his gameplan. But then he found himself again and fought evenly into the fourth set. Finally, Nadal crushed him.

It was Federer’s best-played major claycourt final, but it still wasn’t enough to stop Nadal.

Not here. Not now. Not to the king.




About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

6 responses to “FRENCH OPEN: Rafael Nadal, the Look of Tennis Dominance, Beats Roger Federer Again

  • Maxshade7

    I just cant buy the argument that “as things stand” Nadals career is better than Feds. Nadal has owned Roger on clay but in Rogers defense Nadals owned everyone. Nadal is the greatest clay court tennis player of all time but lets look at their rivalry outside of clay courts. Its kinda even. Actually in grand slam finals outside of the French. Its 2-2. Let see if Nadal can make it to 15 majors and then we’ll start talking.

    • gregcouch

      You make a good argument. I still think that as things stand, I’d put Nadal over Federer. But it’s really one of those arguments with no factually right, or wrong answer.

  • John

    This is a Joke, right? His best is better than Roger’s best? How? His record? Most of his wins on clay? Their record on other surfaces is very even and it has evened out with Roger getting older. Greg. Maybe you can put your head in the sand and ignore the fact that Nadal can run for hours without getting tired. But some of us are not too blind and don’t forget the Barry Bonds, Armstrongs, and all the people you media folks feed us and pretend they are our heroes.

    So here is my “opinion:” the fall of Nadal will finally disgrace tennis once and for all. We already know Agassi was doing Meth. We already know many are suspicious of top players. You can call Nadal the best. He has not won all those 5 setters because of his talent and you know it.

    Is Federer the best? I am not saying that. This era is tainted. But I guess it is too much for someone who “loves to talk about tennis” to be objective and look at the facts.

  • John JM

    You can always depend on the GOAT argument to get nowhere. Personally, I think it’s simplistic and a waste of time. Players match up differently against one another, so it’s never an easy analysis. And to that point, I will say this: Nadal got a bit lucky on the draw (nevermind Isner, he survived it). He was able to avoid Djokovic altogether, his biggest problem. Good thing too, cause I don’t think he was ready to beat him in the final. Fed really was the solution: He matches up perfectly on clay with Djokovic, the way Rafa matches up perfectly with Fed on the stuff. I’m not denying that Rafa’s victory over Fed was great, but it happened against the wrong guy. After being owned by Djok 4 times in a row in finals, Nadal had an obligation to prove himself again as the best. Maybe he’s the best now, maybe not. We still don’t know because he avoided the test. But Wimbledon’s coming, so hopefully we’ll see.

  • samir

    Really, Nadal’s best is more impressive than Federer’s best? Watching Federer at the top of his abilities is mind-blowing, especially live because you can see in real time just how quickly his mind runs through all his options (more numerous than any other player on tour) and seems literally to sculpt points. He’s the one who comes up with things we’ve actually never seen before, things that should be impossible with a racquet, as opposed to Nadal who does only what we’ve seen many times, but amped up to 11, showing us nothing but what medical science tells us is definitely not possible with the human body, without some help that most sports don’t allow (who knew that all the tennis players who used just tennis to sculpt their bodies in years past could have looked like Nadal if they had done things differently?).

    Also, without the illegal on-court coaching, the subtle gamesmanship and stall tactics, superfluous and perfectly timed medical timeouts, the larger racquets and new string technology, and the recomposition of court surface elements, Nadal would be a nobody. Nadal needs all these things to gain an edge. Yet Federer doesn’t fall back on such cheap tactics to turn the momentum when an opponent outplays him, and one can imagine him being a success in any era with any kind of technology, like the other greats of the game. Plus, when I watch players like Federer and Sampras, I see innate gifts at work. With players like Nadal and Djokovic, I see the strain of the effort, I see people who learn really well. Do you honestly believe that if playing with wooden racquets, that if they were reliant on strategy and point construction alone, that Nadal would have this much success? No human being would be able to conjure the racquet head speed necessary to generate the kind of spin upon which Nadal’s game revolves around at least as much as his defensive skills, even with great strength, technique and musculoskeletal dexterity, were it not for these strings that most players rely on in lieu of superior skill. These kinds of distinctions matter if you’re really going to go to the trouble of naming someone the best ever, and Nadal comes in at the very bottom of the list when you consider all the factors, and resist the allure of the day’s journalistic hyperbole.

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