PARIS — If Roger Federer had gone all out when he was leading 5-2 in the first set, he might — but sports often consist of might’s turned to didn’ts, which is probably why they work as dramatic spectacles. They are like so much else, with breaks and luck and almosts and not-quites.
The tournament was a vindication for Roger Federer, and a triumph for Rafael Nadal, both of whom overcame doubts about their will and endurance, and fixed technical problems in their games. The fans saw this, at least on the last day. In the end, the crowd at Roland-Garros watching the men’s final at the Internationaux de France aka the French Open was tilting, it seemed, slightly for the great champion with his classic form and stoic manner, but they knew there was a match here for the anthologies, and the cheers for Ra-fa answered the ones for Rod-ger, and finally the applause, after some three and a half hours, was for both of them.
Even the French spectators and commentators were in a good mood, despite their side’s dismal showing. The Open was framed by a great soccer victory by a Cinderella team from Lille (a northern city), and a superb rugby championship won by a traditional southern power in that sport, Toulouse, so the sports world here is happy and the skies opened just after the closing ceremonies at the west side stadium that the mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, saved for Paris despite strong arguments it was too small for today’s sports audiences, promising to expand it over the next few seasons. There is plenty of room in the suburbs but he wants the prestige — and presumably the revenue. But let us not be mean about it, it is a traditional, classic place and there is surely an argument in that.
Sportsmanship and courtesy prevail in this tournament, among fans and players both, and it was unfortunate that the polite feeling was marred by lousy officiating at the end of the ladies’ final the previous day. The competitors were admirable, examples of graceful play, tenacity, intelligent tactics. Francesca Schiavone, defending champion, lost a closely fought first set and was on the edge of getting the ad while leading 6-5, breaking Na Li and taking the second set, and then who could say? She did seem to have the momentum, but then again, Na Li, clearly in very good form and by no means discouraged, could have found a second wind too.
Idle speculation: the ump gave Li a point that, if you go by the IBM shot tracker, was clearly out. But at Roland-Garros you go by the ump’s judgment calls based on his or in this case her study of traces in the clay. Schiavone was demoralized, lost the game and let the tie-break slip away, 0-7.
It is impossible to say Francesca would have won the third set, had it come to that; but it is not inaccurate to say she was deprived of a chance. Which renders her grace in defeat all the more admirable. Italian officials’ anger (“[the ump] doesn’t know anything about tennis,” was their most printable comment) is understandable. Yet Li’s pride (the first Chinese victory in a major tennis tournament) cannot be grudged, and Miss Schiavone said as much.
The day before, Federer and Nadal had set up their 25th clash, in which Nadal led 16-8, by outplaying Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Djokovic’s relaxed, confident attitude did not last long, as Federer quickly revealed why he had not yet lost a set in this tournament which was supposed to mark his continued decline in relation to the two younger champions. He had no problem answering his opponent’s power and made full use of his famous one-handed backhand, slicing and spinning and hitting flat as the need arose, and of course of his classic forehands with the breath-taking accuracy down the lines. Federer’s legs were carrying him like some kind of thoroughbred, his feet were like a ballet dancer’s on this red clay that he appreciates but that is not his favorite surface. The man from Basel was showing why he is acknowledged as the Genius of his generation in this sport.
Federer took Djokovic apart with perfect symmetry. The score, 7-6, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6, expressed a strategy nurtured 10 months ago, at the U.S. Open semis. It was conceived during the winter and rehearsed on the clay tournaments at Madrid and Rome earlier this year. Like most winning strategies, its primary strength was its simplicity. Djokovic, with his prodigious athleticism and the reliability of his shots, cannot be beaten defensively, say, in the “crocodile” style of the Roland-Garros stadium’s first host, René Lacoste. Returning the ball is insufficient, because he could do the same. You have to play the full range of shots across the whole court, surprise him, force “unforced errors” — a misnomer: somebody has to force your “unforced” shot — attack at the net, and use the service ace with absolute tactical precision.
As it happens, on serve Federer is surely one of the all time geniuses. If he needs two aces in a row to even the score, he gets two in a row and evens the score. If it is time to discourage the opponent with a demonstration of place shots, winning game-love entirely on aces, he does it. He used both tactics in this match to breath-taking effect. I do not think he was worried when Djokovic came back strong in the third set after being thrown completely off the dominant game he has used during his remarkable run since the Australian Open (nearly surpassing John McEnroe’s record of 42 straight, not Martina Navratilova’s 75). The game plan stayed on course. If he resists well, do not precipitate a change of pace that might throw everything off, just wait for the tie-break. When Federer is in charge, he does not lose tie-breaks. And he knows this.
The men’s half of the tournament unfolded with a kind of inevitability. It is in fact unusual, at least here in Paris, for the top four seeds to end up in the semis; usually there is at least one upset along the way. Federer is officially No. 3 to Djokovic’s No. 2, and the tyranny of these rankings coupled with media conformism fooled most reporters, who evidently did not notice how well Federer played all his matches.
In Nadal’s case the lapse was perhaps more excusable, because he did run into some trouble in his early matches. Going into the final, all bets were off, although Nadal had the weight of precedent on his side: he never lost a final here, and Federer beat him on clay only once, at Madrid in 2009.
Federer’s strategy, carefully rehearsed at least from the beginning of the clay season, worked against Djokovic; would it work against Nadal? Nadal’s strategy may have been better suited to prevailing against Federer; we will not know until Djokovic meets him. To counter Federer’s all court game, Nadal had to run after everything, and he did. While Federer made effective use of sliced drops, straight returns on the sidelines, and his devastatingly placed aces, he could not get ahead and stay ahead of the Nadal power game coupled with what seemed a constitutional inability to miss a shot if he got his racket on the ball.
Power against finesse, brawn against brain? It would be to underestimate Rafa Nadal to suggest he does not play as intelligently as Roger Federer. But at the level that they are both playing this year — and that Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are playing — intelligence means speed and brawn when needed. And even though Federer’s footwork, for which he is justly famous, was on display on the red clay, it became clear that it would not keep pace with Nadal’s, which is perhaps less elegant but, with its leaps and stretches, finally more effective, at least here. After three nearly even sets, marked by sometimes long rallies and talented catches, returns, place shots, genius seemed to acknowledge it could not match relentless strength. Some beautiful volleys, perfectly executed drops, and lightning cross-courts saved face, but the fourth set was essentially a walk-away. Well, as the greatest American sportswriter put it, you can look it up.
They congratulated each other after. It was clear they were both happy the clay court season ended this way. The sky acknowledged it, opening up shortly to drench northern France after a month and a half of drought, very bad for agriculture. Rafa and Roger like and respect each other and, as it would be inhuman not to do, they appreciated that their nemesis had stumbled, and they could begin plotting how to take him apart on the grass courts of England that come next. As he and Murray surely are doing too.
You run out of sets, but there is always another match.