The Awakening: Federer shrugs off recent woes, tops Nadal for Madrid title

19 May 2009 by Matthew Zemek in Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open

Roger Federer knew that Rafael Nadal’s physical condition wouldn’t decide the championship match of the inaugural Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open. He also knew that mere awareness of a situation doesn’t lead to success in the heat of battle. Quality execution and top-shelf tactics had to emerge if a storied rivalry was to acquire a delicious new taste of intrigue.

After 86 minutes of unexpectedly clean tennis inside the Magic Box tennis center, the tennis world has indeed turned.

The Federer-Nadal story, the greatest two-man show in the sport over the past four years, suddenly owns a new aura of life and freshness. Federer, given no chance to win this event when it started, suddenly reclaimed a measure of stature and swagger with an efficient 6-4, 6-4 win over Nadal on Manolo Santana Centre Court. In one lightning-quick display before a disappointed Spanish crowd, the world No. 2 breathed excitement into the back end of the claycourt season while achieving a number of milestones in the process.

The drama surrounding the latest installment of tennis’s best rivalry concerned Nadal’s energy… but only to a point. After a draining, 4-hour and 2-minute victory over Novak Djokovic in Saturday’s semifinals, Nadal had to step on court the very next day. Given that Federer needed barely more than an hour to dispose of Juan Martin del Potro in Saturday’s other semi, the Swiss had a chance-in the eyes of some pundits-to take advantage of the situation. However, Federer knew as well as anyone-if not more so-that Nadal is a master at transcending bodily limitations.

Nearly four months earlier at the Australian Open, Nadal shrugged off a 5-hour, 14-minute semifinal match against Fernando Verdasco to wear down Federer in a 4-hour, 23-minute final that lasted five sets. If a part of Federer secretly felt that fatigue could expose Nadal under the most daunting circumstances, those inner thoughts were certainly dashed on a defining night in Melbourne. On this day in Madrid, Federer knew that he couldn’t try to wear down his celebrated adversary; he’d have to take the fight to Nadal and pounce when the opportunity presented itself. That’s exactly what the 27-year-old icon did in disposing of his 22-year-old opponent.

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Yes, Federer will take some satisfaction from knowing that he claimed his 15th Masters 1000 title, tying Nadal (who passed Federer at Rome just two weeks ago) for second on the all-time list behind Andre Agassi’s record of 17 Masters shields. Sure, Federer will notice that he stopped Nadal’s 33-match winning streak on clay, two years after ending Rafa’s 81-match run on red dirt in Hamburg. Of course, Federer will breathe easier now that his head-to-head record with Nadal stands at 13-7 for the Spaniard instead of 14-6. Beating the one man whose ascendancy has blocked him from attaining epic achievements will make Federer sleep peacefully in the week to come. There’s no question that this moment in Madrid will rate as one of the more satisfying Sundays of a career full of fabulous feats. With all that said, however, the real and enduring significance of this win for Federer can be found in the manner through which it was attained.

When Fed travels to Paris for a French Open fortnight that just got a lot more interesting, he’ll take great encouragement not from statistics or historical records, but from the way he played in Madrid against his personal piece of kryptonite. Nadal has bedeviled the entire ATP Tour-and especially Federer-over the past year and a half with an array of shots that might not seem to devastating in isolation, but whose overwhelming effect becomes clear after 30 or 45 minutes of exertion between the painted lines. Nadal doesn’t blitz opponents the way Federer did in his halcyon days, but the mighty Mallorcan grinds down his foes with a superior work ethic, and spin-loaded strokes that prevent opponents from gaining leverage in extended rallies. In order for Federer to solve the puzzle posed by Nadal, he needed to bring a few weapons to the brand-new tennis facility in the Spanish capital: a consistent first serve, an attacking game, and a willingness to shorten points. Long story short (pun intended), Federer displayed those qualities throughout his soaring straight-set victory.

Federer hit 63 percent of his first serves, a number that will certainly keep him in the conversation whenever he plays Nadal (the number will need to be higher at the slams, but not by a huge extent). By mixing up speeds and placements, Federer got Nadal off balance and prevented the Spaniard from gaining the rhythm he relies on to see him through every match. Federer also hit 25 winners to accompany 25 unforced errors. The numbers might not seem spectacular, but on clay-a surface that usually involves negative winner-error ratios, especially against defensive stalwarts such as Nadal-that figure is impressive. Federer has historically faltered against Nadal in most claycourt meetings, especially at the French Open, by hitting dozens more errors than winners. An even-steven ratio is not only tolerable, it’s substantial-that statistic shows that Federer sensibly used an attack-first approach, going for shots when he had the chance but not overhitting to bail out of a long rally.

Many experts will understandably note that a tired Nadal’s shots lacked their customary zing, but it’s just as true that Federer had to serve effectively, play cleanly, and think clearly in order to pull off this shocker. In just under an hour and a half, that’s exactly what a proud Swiss champion did on a day that turned heads… and fortunes… on the ATP Tour. By showing the old, free-flowing form of his very best years, Federer-his serve clicking and his game rounding into shape-has re-established himself as a factor for the rest of the 2009 season. Djokovic-who softened up Rafa for this Federer final-will be heard from on tour, and Andy Murray will be fully in the mix once the clay season concludes, but after months without titles and weeks of vultures picking at his tennis corpse, Roger Federer has awakened from his slumber. Men’s tennis is the winner at the end of the first-ever Madrid Open claycourt championships.


Madrid Open WTA Final: (1) Dinara Safina d. (9) Caroline Wozniacki, 6-2, 6-4

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