The faces say it all. Federer, looking glum. Coach Tony Roche, cupped his face with hands to cover his expressions. Federer’s girlfriend Mirka Vavrinec, staring blankly at the proceedings.
Just when it was looking that this era’s greatest player may have found clue to Nadal and Clay, the left-hander came up with a mechanical, though some times erratic, display to subdue the Wimbledon, US and Australian Open Champion in straight sets. Nadal, even when on run, can hit deadly winners. He did the same on Sunday in the first set.
In less than a hundred minutes, the Spaniard’s 6-4 6-4 win at the Masters series event in Monte Carlo buried the psychological edge gained by Federer after his victories in the final of Wimbledon 2006 and the semifinal of the Tennis Masters Cup at Shanghai. The two victories which had reduced the career score sheet from 1-6 in Nadal’s favour to slightly more respectable 3-6.
Federer says he is improving on Clay. If that means gaining initial advantage then of course he is improving against Nadal. But if that means converting that advantage into decisive edge, then much more improvement is still to be needed. For every one unforced error by Nadal, Federer made two!
The World Number one did have his chances. He had three break points in the first set. The first one could have put him 2-0 ahead. Converting any of the next two would have given him the opportunity to serve out the set at 5-3.
Precisely at this stage, the champion blinked. He was too eager to convert, and Nadal too patient to take his chances. Usually the reverse happens when Federer is facing other players.
The first set to Nadal at 6-4 was the beginning of the end. That the tournament this year had a best of three set final instead of a five setter was never going to help. It did not.
Federer says his backhand has improved considerably by playing Nadal. It sure did produce winners in the contest on Sunday. But his forehand let him down. He could never imperiously blow Nadal off court, as he did in Wimbledon Final last year.
On Sunday’s performance, it will take a lot of doing from Federer to win against Nadal on Clay. He has come much closer before, but on Sunday, it looked as if he had taken a few steps backwards.