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The road to the final was a study in contrast for both men. Federer started slowly struggling a nd being stretched in the early rounds to finally regaining his magical touch as the tournament progressed. He pulverized Del Petro and Andy Roddick in the quarters and semis with such nonchalant ease that Nadal would've shuddered. Nadal, on the other hand, looked brutal and clinical in his early rounds but had a tough (to put it mildly) match in the semis with compatriot Fernando Verdasco. He may have crossed the net and hugged his opponent graciously after the win, but I bet he wasn't feeling quite so gracious half way through the match when he was staring at a shock exit from the Australian Open.
Federer went into the match as a marginal favorite as the hard court slams still remain his last standing bastion. And the way he's played since being taken to the edge in the fourth round is ominous for all Nadal supporters. Nadal was also expected to be fatigued coming into the game at the back of a 5 hour plus challenging match in the semis.
Nadal won the toss and decided to receive first. Federer started gently winning the first point but Nadal quickly earned a break point due to unforced errors from Federer. The Swiss just couldn't keep the ball in and Nadal got the early break. The second game was a battle worthy of the two warriors as Federer broke back after Nadal saved four break points with both trading amazing winners. After the jittery first couple of games both settled down and held on to their serves till 3-2. But in the sixth game Federer anticipated Nadal's serves and ground strokes and retaliated with fire. A cruel down the line slam off Nadal's serve at break point meant that Federer was up 4-2 and things began looking rosy for the Swiss. But the set was far from over. Nadal clawed back chasing down everything that Federer threw at him and broke back to 4-3. Nadal held on to reach 4-4 and then the set went to 5-5. An uncharacteristic error at this critical juncture from Federer saw Nadal breaking Federer's serve for the third time and serving for the set at 6-5. Possibly the most crucial game of the match was upon us now and Nadal came good when it counted with some superlative groundstrokes to make the Swiss run around for a change. Nadal won the set 7-5 in 58 minutes.
The second set was going to be the 'make or break' set for Federer. In the first game he survived an early scare to manage to hold his serve. The world number two, arguably the best player of all time, was looking a lot more confident and in better touch than in the first set. A determined Nadal managed to hold out till 2-2 despite magical play from Federer. Nadal went a break up (3-2) as Federer hit the ball out; off a high forehand from Nadal. Federer fought back immediately and leveled the score with a superb cross court winner. The next two games were the most competitive of the set but Federer's forehand came into its own as he blasted cross court and down the line winners almost at will to first hold his serve and then break the Spaniard's serve. At 5-3 Federer served exquisitely and leveled the match a set each at 5-7, 6-3.
Was this going to be another epic five-setter between the greatest players of this generation?
Federer was looking stronger and stronger as the match progressed and it was evident that Rafa was feeling some adverse effects of his tiring semi-final. Both men held on to their serves till 4-3. Nadal called out his trainer at this point for a quick rub down on his leg. Things looked ominous for Nadal when he was serving at 4-4. He moved a lot slower and his inside out forehands seemed to have deserted him. Facing three break points after a series of unforced errors, he tightened his game again and saved all three of them. Nadal went to advantage, but an unbelievable rally brought the game back to deuce. But Nadal was not to be denied as he blasted an ace and followed it up with a powerful angled return to go up 5-4. Nadal really needed this set because he certainly wouldn't have been able to maintain his pace if the match went to five sets. But nothing comes easily when you're facing the Swiss legend! Federer held on to make it 5-5. Two tightly fought games later the match saw its first tie break.
The tiebreak witnessed some desperately scintillating tennis from both players as both wanted to close the set quickly. Going head to head they changed ends at 3-3 but then it was Nadal all over as he took three points in a row to get two set points. But the normally unflappable Federer couldn't take the pressure and double faulted to give Nadal a 2 sets to 1 advantage in the match (7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (7-3))
The see-saw continued in the fourth set as Federer broke Nadal quickly to race 2-0 up. But just as things could've got comfortable for the Swiss, Nadal came back with a flurry of running angled passing shots that should not have been possible for anyone from the human species. He broke Fed and then managed to hold his serve and leveled the set at 2-2. The next game had Nadal racing to get two break points. But a challenge by Federer (followed by some 'advice' to the chair umpire) and a powerful passing shot saw him save both. After a long deuce-advantage game he finally managed to save his serve. The next game proved crucial as Federer fought hard to break Nadal to lead 4-2. Federer found his serving rhythm and served out a quick love game to go closer to the record equaling 14th grand slam title at 5-2. Nadal served out a game of his own to close down the gap to 3-5. But the Fed-express was unrelenting and won the set 6-3.
With the match perched at 7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6 we had another five-set rematch! Next time these guys play I'm keeping enough foodÂ near meÂ to last a siege!
Nadal has an 11-3 record in five setters, Federer's is a much more modest 13-11. It could be anyone's match now.
The set started with both players holding serve but in the fourth game Federer made some uncharacteristic unforced errors and Nadal broke him to lead 3-1. Could this be the crucial game that'd prove that Nadal could hold his own on the hard court as well? Federer seemed to have lost his zeal as errors flew thick and fast from his racquet. Two unforced errors with Nadal serving meant that Nadal held the crucial service game and pulled away from Roger. At 4-1 down it looked like Sampras' Grand Slam record was safe, atleast till Roland Garros.
Federer pulled back to 4-2 but the most important game of the match was coming up next. If Nadal could hold onto his serve Federer would have only an outside chance of making a late come back. And Nadal didn't seem to be in a relenting mood at all. He took the game without giving Federer a single point to lead 5-2.
A crestfallen Federer served to stay in the championship and hit the ball long to go down 0-15. A more mistimed double fault would never have come off Federer's racquet as the score went 0-30 in Nadal's favour. With two championship points Nadal hit a forehand long and then sliced a backhand wide to bring the game to deuce. But Federer seemed to have lost his will and faced with another superb cross court winner he went down an advantage. A long rally which ended with a forehand that Federer pushed long sealed the championship for the Spaniard.
The 22 year old Spaniard has now won a Slam on each surface. The 14th Grand Slam may well be the toughest that Federer will ever chase.
Heart and guts overcame everything else to win the glory today. Congratulations Rafa!
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