Just over 15 months ago, Rafael Nadal sat in the press conference at the Chennai Open, like he had at most press conferences, ruing his luck for playing in the same era as the “great” Roger Federer. At no other point in men’s pro tennis did a player have more than 7000 points to his name and was still the second best in the world.
But Nadal chased him down. He chipped at the heart of the champion till Federer appeared human again. The weaker Federer became, the stronger Nadal grew. He hauled himself to the No 1 position last August and going into this year’s French Open, is the holder of three Grand Slams.
Not since Bjorn Borg has a player dominated the French Open so. And Nadal has lined up for yet another record, as he pursues his fifth straight Championship.
While Nadal has well and truly expanded his reign over the tennis world, the seeds of his rise, and the doubts in Federer’s mind, are sown in the red earth of Roland Garros. For four years in a row, the Spaniard has denied Federer the chance of completing a career Slam. The Swiss has come up with a weaker response with each progressing year, and was decimated 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in the finals last year.
The years are ticking away for Federer. And for the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place this year may prove even more difficult. Not only does he have legs older than most, but also a mind which has been mired in clay failure. He no longer even has the comfort of Wimbledon to back on.
He gave an account of his loss of confidence at the Miami Masters, smashing his racquet during a three-set defeat to Novak Djokovic and appearing unusually sulky later.
He has only won one title (Madrid Masters) in the season so far and though the timing couldn’t have been better, Federer, as well as Nadal, knows that Madrid was only an aberration. The Centre Court at Roland Garros, which Djokovic claims is a lot slower than other courts at the venue and which is the only place Nadal has ever played, will be another story.
And Federer, still without a coach, would be lucky if he only had Nadal to contend with. Lurking in the same half as the world No 2 is the gifted Serb, Djokovic, who battled back from a set down to beat Federer in their two previous meetings. He could also have a tricky run-in with last year’s semi-finalist Gael Monfils in the quarter-finals.
Though Federer could take heart from the fact that the Open has been a graveyard for top seeds — 2001 champion Gustavo Kuerten was the last No1 seed to win — to topple a fit Nadal will need a massive effort and some cosmic conspiring.
For, Nadal is not just kryptonite to Federer’s Superman. He is a super force in himself — immovable in defence. And it’s Federer who’s doing all the ruing now.