Sunday 30 April 2017

Tennis: Nadal digs in to draw level with Borg record

Spain's Rafael Nadal rests with his French Open trophy in the players
dressing room after defeating Roger Federer at Roland Garros yesterday. Photo: AP
Spain's Rafael Nadal rests with his French Open trophy in the players dressing room after defeating Roger Federer at Roland Garros yesterday. Photo: AP

Mark Hodgkinson , in Paris

So there will soon be a sixth replica of La Coupe des Mousqetaires in the television and trophy room of Rafael Nadal's family home in Majorca, after he fended off Roger Federer in four sets to put himself level with Bjorn Borg's record number of French Open titles.

Only once has Nadal ever returned from a trip to Paris without a mini-version of the silver cup to put by his TV, and the pink-eyed champion had just dropped to the floor at the moment of victory when the debate started as to whether the Spaniard is already the greatest clay-courter of all time, above Borg.

There is not much between them now. Nadal, at the age of 25 years and two days, was just 24 hours older than the Swede was when he won his sixth title in 1981.

It took Borg eight visits to reach six titles, and Nadal has attained that same number by playing this tournament seven times, as the only occasion he has not ended up making the champion's speech was when he lost in the fourth round in 2009 to Sweden's Robin Soderling at a time when he had pain in his knees and his parents were going through a divorce.

compelling

By retaining his title with this 7-5 7-6 5-7 6-1 victory, which was the most compelling of the four French Open finals he has shared with Federer, Nadal ensured he will remain as the world No 1 going into Wimbledon. Had Nadal lost, the beaten semi-finalist Novak Djokovic would have moved to the top of the rankings.

In keeping his French Open title and his status as officially the best tennis player in the world, Nadal also became the second youngest man to reach double figures for slams, only older than Borg, who was 24 years old when he won his 10th. There can be little doubt, though, that Nadal has not been at his absolute best during this year's clay-court swing.

In the final of the last two tournaments before the French Open, in Madrid and then in Rome, Nadal lost in straight sets to Djokovic, and in the opening round here he had to scramble his way back from two sets to one down against John Isner. And he was certainly pushed by Federer. "To win this final is one of my most beautiful dreams," said Nadal.

On what was Federer's first appearance in the final of a slam since beating Andy Murray at last season's Australian Open for his sixteenth major, he was often in full attack-mode. Federer's aggressive play was certainly promising for Wimbledon.

The backhand dropshot that Federer put just wide in the tramlines when he had a point for the opening set -- there could hardly have been a clay-court granule or two in it -- will be replayed many times over on television networks, and also in the cinema in Federer's head.

Federer would lose seven successive games. And yet the Swiss player, having looked for a while as though he had been crushed by that missed backhand, came back into this match, producing boiling spasms of delight around the stadium on a muggy afternoon and early evening.

He forced a tiebreak in the second set, won the third, and in the opening game of the fourth had three break-points against the Nadal serve. But Nadal saved those points, and then dominated the set.

The last time they had met at Roland Garros, in the 2008 final, Federer gathered just four games, yet it never appeared as though there was going to be another cruel and howling embarrassment for the Swiss.

So, after five French Open finals, Federer has just one title, which came through beating Soderling a couple of years ago.

close

If it was not for Nadal, Federer could now be close to Borg's record, with five of those replicas.

For long periods, Federer was stepping inside the baseline, taking the ball early, and taking great, confident, aggressive swings at the ball.

The only way that Federer was going to win this match, and so beat Nadal at a slam for the first time since the 2007 Wimbledon final, was to take risks and go for his shots.

The tennis that Federer played in the opening seven games of this final was his finest of the tournament, above even the performance he gave against Djokovic on Friday evening, and it brought him a 5-2 lead.

There were any number of options available to Federer when he had a point for the set in the eighth game, and the one he chose was to play a dropshot, which landed just wide.

Nadal would hold for what was the first of that unbroken sequence of seven games. He fought back to take the opening set, and he then established a 2-0 lead in the second. Though Federer broke Nadal back for 4-4, he then lost his serve again.

And though Federer broke again when Nadal served for the set at 5-4, a game that was interrupted by a short rain delay, the third seed was perhaps a touch too aggressive in the tiebreak.

In being too bold, he made too many mistakes, and he won only three points in the shoot-out.

Federer, who had trailed 2-4 in the third set, rallied to take this into a fourth, and immediately had Nadal at 0-40 down in the opening game. But Nadal raised his level, to win this tournament once again. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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