Tracking down the broadcast of the Roger Federer–Rafael Nadal semifinal match at the French Open was harder than getting crosstown at rush hour. The match was moved from ESPN2 to NBC though it was still on the ESPN2 schedule and NBC listed Jane Pauley at 10am. When I clicked on Jane Pauley I got a tape of the Nadal-Ferrer quarterfinal followed by the Henin-Hardenne–Petrova semifinal. Evidently there was a ninety-minute rain delay before the five set Davydenko–Puerta semi-final which preceded, yes, Federer and Nadal. Since NBC didn’t show the Davydenko-Puerta match, we watched retreads till the main event arrived. And that was later than it should have been because NBC showed the match live on the east coast and tape-delayed on the west coast. Tennis. It stills gets no love.
This is the big bang we’ve been waiting for. The number one player, Federer, against the white hot clay court player, Nadal.The last time these two played, on a hard court in Miami, Federer pulled out a highly improbably five set win after coming within two points of losing the match.
After all of that mishegoss this morning, is there still enough time to get this match in before dark and can I keep myself from looking at the live scoring on the web?
The answer to that last question is…no. Let’s see how the rest goes.
Nadal opens with a passing shot down the line on the very first point and goes on to break Federer who has three forehand errors in the first game. This will all start to look pretty familiar. Federer is having trouble with his forehand and Nadal is targeting his backhand. It’s harder to go up and meet the ball over your shoulder when you have a one-handed backhand, even a gorgeous backhand like Federer’s.
Federer’s strategy is clearly to attack the net and make the points as short as possible so he doesn’t have to run down too many of those high spinners. He doesn’t move as well on clay as Nadal. How many clay court tournaments has Nadal won this year? Five. How many clay court tournaments has Federer won? One.
Problem is, if you are fighting off high shots to your backhand and making loads of errors with your forehand, it’s very hard to attack. By the end of the first set, Federer has 18 unforced errors, over 75% of them forehand errors, and Nadal has broken him four, count’em, four times. When was the last time Federer was broken four times in one set, elementary school?
Worse than that, they are not entertaining me. In the last game of the set, Nadal screams a return down the line for a winner from outside the doubles alley, otherwise there’s not a lot to report.
Federer improves his first serve, comes to the net more – four times in one six point game – and keeps more of his forehands in the court. It’s a big turnaround and gets him to 5-1 in the second set. His forehand is still a bit shaky, though, and Nadal breaks him and holds serve enough to get to 4-5 before Federer wins the second set 6-4.
Is Federer going for too much on his forehand because he knows that Nadal is a superior defensive player or is he just having a bad day? Some of both. Federer is mishitting an unusually high number of balls. One chopped backhand slice makes it only halfway to the net. The long delay before the game seems to have bothered him more than the French Open rookie Nadal.
And the conditions seem to be bothering him more. Let me set the scene. There has already been a short rain delay, the flags are blowing and the wind is whipping the players shirts as the clock reads 8 o’clock. It’s starting to get dark. Evidently they don’t believe in lights at Roland Garros.
In the third set the players trade breaks and Federer serves at 4-5 to stay in the set. Nadal drops a perfect drop shot to get two breaks points at 15-40. Federer manages to get to deuce then hits a backhand slice long. On the second break point he attacks the net with a good enough shot to get an overhead to hit but Nadal tracks it down and sends it back hard enough to go on the offensive and win the point, and the third set, with a forehand approach down the line. The kid knows how to play the big points.
At this point, Federer has 54 unforced errors to Nadal’s 27, exactly twice as many. It is now 8:35pm. The announcers tell us that the television screen makes the court look lighter than it really is.
It looks like the long delay, the rain, the darkness, a man yelling in the crowd and, most of all, Rafael Nadal’s tennis game, unnerved Federer.
Federer breaks Nadal in the third game of the fourth set as Nadal makes four unforced errors. Serving with a 3-2 lead and the score at deuce, Federer serves up his fifth double fault after someone yells at the beginning of his service motion. He gets back to deuce but loses the game on another dreaded forehand error.
At the end of the next game he goes up to the chair umpire and asks him to suspend the match due to darkness. Evidently the plan is to complete the fourth set and then suspend the match. All Federer has to do is hang on and win this set.
The next game is a microcosm of Federer’s tennis game today. Serving at 3-4, on the first point he gets to the net and repels three point blank hard shots from Nadal finally putting the last one away with a winner. At 30-30, he hits an approach winner after a strong serve. Then he misses an inside out forehand and completely mis-hits a backhand to give Nadal the opportunity to serve for the match.
Nadal takes advantage of the first match point he sees and get to the title match with a 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win.
It looks like the long delay, the rain, the darkness, a man yelling in the crowd and, most of all, Rafael Nadal’s tennis game, unnerved Federer. In the last set his first serve percentage was 33% (!) and he had three times as many errors as winners. In the same set, Nadal served at 85% with almost the same number of errors and winners.
Wimbledon is probably not a fair test for the best clay court player in the world. Let’s see if Nadal can get deep into the US Open draw. Then we can officially call him a crossover star.