I don’t know what got into Roger Federer. It was beautiful. He was more aggressive against Novak Djokovic than he has been in years. He was less afraid. For any strategy plans or details, or fired up serves or mixed up paces, that’s really what it came down to.
Now, Federer, having beaten the unbeatable Djokovic, is in the final of the French Open Sunday against Rafael Nadal. And one truth of sports is this: You cannot stop the momentum of true greatness.
So I’m struggling here with a prediction. I’ll be honest. Because I don’t see how Federer can lose this match, but I also know that Nadal is an anti-Federer machine playing on a court and a surface that he owns. Nadal also has owned Federer in this rivalry.
I’m not in the business, or habit, of flipping coins or calling for a tie or saying that it’s a shame someone has to lose. It is never a shame. So here it is.
Nadal is going to beat Federer in a five-set classic.
Federer is 29 years old, but his footwork was miraculously fine again against Djokovic Friday. His serve was better than it has been in years. Maybe he just had enough time to get used to his new aggressiveness on the backhand under newish coach Paul Annacone. Or maybe he just asked himself “What do I have to lose anyway?’’
Some people think I’m nuts for harping on the new ball being used. It seems plain, though, that it is a terrible fit for Nadal and a great one for Federer. That new Babolat ball, thrown into use at the French Open when no one had seen it before, is harder and lighter than the usual ball. It flies like a missile at first. And then, quickly, it fuzzes out and slows down.
All balls change some during the nine games they are used. But this one? Night. Day.
Nadal struggled with it for four matches, unable to figure out how much topspin he could get on it. And without knowing how much his shots will dip down, he couldn’t know how much of an angle to hit. In his past two matches, easy wins over No. 5 Robin Soderling and No. 4 Andy Murray, he showed that he was getting used to the ball. He had adjusted.
But it’s nothing like the relationship Federer has with that ball. It is a brother to him. Federer is so adaptable, so willing and able to alter speeds and spins and styles. He has practiced everything. So when that ball starts changing, he is changing with it, as needed.
What Nadal is, though, is an all-time great player who has spent years focusing on and mastering how to beat Roger Federer.
The crosscourt forehand, from a lefty, goes right over the lowest part of the net and to Federer’s backhand. The massive topspin makes that shot jump up and to Federer’s shoulders. If you have a one-handed backhand, as Federer does, you know that you can’t get on top of a ball over your shoulders. It’s particularly tough with Federer’s old, flexible racquet. And on the crucial ad points, Nadal is able to hit his lefty slice serve.
Over the years, that assault on Federer’s backhand has worn some holes into it. Now Federer has moved up to crowd the baseline, which should cut off some of the rise of Nadal’s shots. That’s assuming Federer can stay there, and not allow himself to be pushed back.
Nadal’s jittery play the first week and a half was not just based on the ball. It was based on Djokovic, too. Now Djokovic is gone, thanks to Federer. But Nadal is also dealing with Bjorn Borg, whose record six French Open titles is just one more than Nadal has. And if Nadal loses to Federer, then he loses his No. 1 ranking. . .to Djokovic.
So I said that you cannot stop the momentum of true greatness, and then predicted that Nadal would do it. He has his own momentum at Roland Garros, with just one loss there his entire career.
You wonder how many chapters will be left in this great rivalry. This could be it.
This should be great.