Federer Beats Nadal in Madrid

13:05 Sun 17 May 2009
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In straight sets (6-4, 6-4), no less. It’s a big win for Federer, who finally wins a Masters Series event after nearly two years without one (his last was Cincinnati 2007). This brings his career Masters Series win total to 15—catching him up to Nadal, with the pair of them trailing Agassi’s all-time record of 17.

I didn’t get to see the match, but a number of factors made me think that Federer had a better chance than usual. First, Nadal was likely worn out, not merely by playing a ridiculously long semifinal against Djokovic on Saturday, but also by a fairly demanding clay court season. Second, the high altitude suits Federer a lot more than Nadal, and affects the clay to make it play faster (also suiting Federer more).

The real question was whether Federer would fall apart, as he did in the semis at Key Biscayne against Djokovic. His mental toughness has been highly questionable all year, and it wasn’t inconceivable that Nadal, whose mental toughness is rather solid indeed, would gut it out for long enough for Federer to crack.

It could have happened that way. The key statistic from the match is probably that Federer fought off all four of the break points against him, while also converting both of the two break points he had against Nadal. That’s not luck, exactly, but this time fortune favored Federer.

In the coverage of his year so far, which has highlighted his mental problems and his poor results against the top four in the world, a lot of people seem to have missed the fact that, those issues aside, he’s been extremely consistent. His only loss against someone outside the top four was to Wawrinka in Monte Carlo, and he was a last-minute entrant into that tournament. Apart from that, he’s lost to top four players in the late stages of tournaments. Not great for him, but it’s still a high level of consistency, one that’s protected his number two ranking, and which was crucial in getting him the opportunity to beat Nadal under favorable circumstances.

In maligning Federer for his inability to beat Nadal, many commentators overlook the fact that during Nadal’s unbelievable (and historic) period of clay court dominance (2005–present), only one player has beaten Nadal in a clay court final: Roger Federer, who has now done it twice. It’s entirely possibly that Nadal was worn out both times, but only Federer has had both the consistency to be there to face Nadal and the ability to take the opportunities.

I think this result is probably good for both players going into Roland Garros: Nadal gets reminded that he can lose on clay, which is likely to motivate him even more for the French Open, and Federer gets some much-needed confidence and reminded that he can still overcome Nadal. Both of them should be favorites to reach the final. Mental questions will hang over Federer if he faces Djokovic or Murray, but at a Slam he’s still likely to overcome either of them.

In the final, if it is Nadal and Federer once more, Federer will again be a significant underdog. At that stage he would still have more of a shot against Nadal than anyone else in the world would, and shouldn’t be counted out.

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