For the fourth time in French Open history, Roger Federer faced Rafael Nadal in the final. And for the fourth time, Federer failed to beat his arch-rival on the Roland Garros clay.
At this point, he probably never will.
Rafael Nadal won his sixth French Open title on Saturday afternoon, defeating Federer in four sets 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1. Nadal has now tied Bjorn Borg for the most French championships in the Open era; he was won four of the last five Grand Slam titles overall and now has 10 Grand Slams for his career.
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Nadal, who just turned 25, is about six months younger than Federer was when he won his 10th. Federer, who will turn 30 in August, has a record 16 Grand Slams, and is generally recognized as the greatest player of all-time. Nadal, who is now 17-8 against Federer in his career, has plenty of time to wrestle that honorific from the sublime Swiss champ.
Coming into this year’s French Open, Novak Djokovic was the men’s tennis story of the season. He entered the tournament with a new gluten-free diet – he was diagnosed with celiac disease this off-season – and a 37-match winning streak. Djokovic looked unstoppable until he ran into Federer in the semifinals Friday; Federer beat him in an epic four-setter, the match of the tournament, which ended right before nightfall.
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Nadal, meanwhile, struggled earlier in the tournament, even needing five sets to dispatch American John Isner in the second round (The U.S. is a practical tennis non-entity. Just one American, on either the men’s or women’ side, is ranked in the world Top 10 – Mardy Fish is tenth. No American advanced past the third round at this year’s French, the first time a U.S player failed to make the Round of 16 at a Slam since 1973).
And in the first set of the Final, he trailed Federer 2-5. On set point, Federer tried a stylish backhanded drop shot that would have sent Roland Garros into a frenzy. It sailed just wide, however, taking some air out of Federer’s game. Nadal then won five straight games to take the set. On clay, where Nadal’s speed and superior energy allows his to chase down the high bounces, it’s almost impossible for anyone, even a player of Federer’s caliber, to recover from such a wound.
Now, tennis moves on to Wimbledon, where Federer has won six titles, one short of Pete Sampras’ record of seven. Federer won his last Grand Slam at the 2010 Australian Open. He may never master Nadal on clay. He’ll have to settle for one more taste of glory on grass.
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