Nadal maintains mastery of Federer


PARIS -- One more tap of the racket on the bottom of his red clay-caked shoes. One more deep breath before the final serve. And then, one more point -- a perfectly struck swinging forehand volley from midcourt that slammed down with such accuracy that Roger Federer knew instantly his next move would be a handshake at the net.

Predicted by many two weeks ago, Rafael Nadal, like Justine Henin-Hardenne a day earlier, has won back-to-back French Open titles, and this 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (4) triumph was so emphatic that it left one wondering whether he is now Federer's equal, regardless of what the rankings say.

Federer not only will remain at No. 1 this week but will increase his lead over No. 2 Nadal by about 250 points because he reached the final this year and the semifinals in 2005.

Nevertheless, with four Nadal wins over Federer this year and six out of seven overall, the question of who is the best player in the world is clearly an open question with just about everyone except the terminally humble Spaniard.

"If you look at the list, you look a lot of points difference, no? So he is the No. 1. So I admire him. He's a very complete player. I can't say I'm better than him because that's not true," Nadal said.

Perhaps he can't, but there are going to be a growing number of people that will say it for him.

After a dreadful opening set, in which he had four winners and 17 unforced errors, Nadal recovered to win 14 consecutive service games, twice came back from 40-love and love-40 deficits to win key games and in the most important moments did a brilliant job of exploiting Federer's strangely debilitated backhand ground strokes.

It has been many years since Federer's backhand was as bad as it was in the second set, and though it improved in the third and fourth sets, it remained a liability right into the tiebreak, when he struck one backhand long to go to 1-1, hit a poor backhand chip shot into the net for 2-2 and had errors on service returns while he had the advantage to go down 2-4 and then 4-6.

"That I make mistakes on my backhand side with the aggression of Nadal, that's normal," said Federer, who didn't do a good job of hiding his extreme disappointment at failing to win the only Grand Slam trophy to escape him.

How disappointed was he? "I mean, I have no other choice than to accept the fact, right?" he replied. But he said he has had tougher moments.

"I am at a different stage in my career now than I used to be where every loss was another world. That's not the case anymore because I tried hard ..."

To celebrate his 60th straight clay-court victory, Nadal climbed into the stands to join his family.

"I kissed my father because he did everything for me. And my uncle gives me motivation to continue," he said.

Charles Bricker writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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