Monday, June 9, 2008

Nadal denies Federer all-time greatness again


Roger Federer did not look like the world's No. 1 tennis player Sunday. In fact, he looked far from it. Like, maybe, No. 81.

Blame Rafael Nadal.

Once again, the Spaniard blew away Federer's chance of the career grand slam by dominating him on Roland Garros' clay surface. The score was 6-1, 6-3, 6-0, and Federer had to work extra hard just to steal those four games.

Yes, Federer wasn't at his best. But even his A- game wouldn't have won a set. That's how near-perfect Nadal was. The 22-year-old covered the entire court brilliantly, chasing down every potential winner hit by the overly aggressive Federer. And when he had a chance to end a point, his form was flawless.

Nadal didn't lose a set during the two-week French Open, and he's never lost a match in four years at the tournament. If not for his presence, well ...

1. Federer would have at least one French Open title, considering he's been in the final the past three years as the world's No. 1.

2. Federer might be tied with Pete Sampras for career grand slams won at 14. As it stands, Federer is still two shy with 12.

3. Most importantly, Federer might be considered the greatest men's tennis player of all time. As it stands, a feisty Spaniard stands in his way.

Because as great as Federer has been on grass -- with his five consecutive Wimbledon titles -- and on hard courts, with his four straight U.S. Opens, he can't be considering the best of all time sans a first-place finish at Roland Garros.

Again, blame Rafael Nadal.

Entering this tournament, Federer said he was playing his best clay-court tennis. He even won a tournament on the surface to back up his claim. He lost a couple sets during the rounds leading up to Sunday's final, but he was never in danger of losing.

He felt good about himself, about his chances. And when he has that confidence, there's usually no stopping him.

But instead he suffered his worst French Open final loss yet. What does that say about his chances next year and the year after? At 26, Federer is past his prime. He's still good -- really good -- but he's not going to get better on clay. Nadal, on the other hand, is still improving.

The only chance, in my mind, Federer has of winning that elusive fourth grand slam is for him to face a bracket that doesn't include Nadal. Maybe an injury. Maybe an out-of-nowhere upset. That's what Federer will need.

But first, he has to show that he can still win a grand slam -- any grand slam. For the first time since 2005, Federer will arrive in London devoid of a calendar-year major. And forget the streak he has there. Last year, Nadal took him to five sets in the final. Now, Nadal is a year wiser and more skilled. Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic shouldn't be forgotten either. He ousted Federer in the semifinals of that tournament.

Federer could, potentially, win the next three majors to eclipse Sampras' milestone. But chances are he won't have broken the record a year from now, and don't expect it to happen at Roland Garros in 2009.

It's not because he's a bad clay-court player.

Rather, the reason is the presence of the Clay King.

Again, blame Rafael Nadal.

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