After a 12-month hiatus, Sunday’s Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open final saw the eagerly anticipated resumption of Roger Federer’s rivalry with Rafael Nadal.
Nadal and Federer have spend their on-court lives trying to knock lumps out of each other and yet, when the dust has settled, they form a remarkable double act. Respectful and amicable, they appear as the best of chums.
But, as with many relationships, one personality dominates – and when it comes to clay court tennis, the man in overall charge is Nadal.
As Nadal won his 18th Masters trophy at the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open, so breaking Andre Agassi’s record of wins at this level, he defeated Federer for the 10th time in 12 meetings on clay. He also beat him for the 14th time in 21 meetings overall. He won 6-4, 7-6 and for all that Federer launched a decent comeback in that second set, no one at the Caja Magica really thought the result would be any different. When it comes to playing on the red dirt, Federer is very much Nadal’s deputy.
And when the professional hostilities were over, Federer described Nadal as “supreme” (cue much cheering in the Spanish crowd) while Nadal called Federer “amazing”. Theirs is truly is a mutual admiration society and, after watching their latest encounter, it is obvious to all that the membership is exclusive and limited to just two. Nadal knows that he only has one true rival: Federer. Others may try but no one can come close to breaking up Federer and Nadal’s duopoly at the very top of the game. And, just to prove the point, as of today, Nadal has been restored to the world No.2 position behind Federer.
It had been 12 long months since the pair had met, a year in which Federer had been elevated to greatness by winning his career Grand Slam at the French Open and following that up by breaking Pete Sampras’s record of grand slam titles by winning his 15th at Wimbledon and then winning his 16th major at the Australian Open. At the same time, Nadal was sidelined for a couple of months last year with severe tendonitis in both knees and then spent the second half of 2009 trying to put his game back together.
In the absence of Nadal as a rival, Federer has dismissed the challenges of almost everyone. Only Juan Martin del Potro managed to beat him when it mattered, prising the US Open trophy from his grasp. But del Potro has not played a match since the Australian Open and, following wrist surgery, may not fit enough to play again until the US Open. Alas for him, his moment in the spotlight was all too brief.
Others, like the Andys: Roddick and Murray, have faced Federer in major finals and come away with no more than a bitter memory and second place.
Now, though, Nadal is back. By winning in Madrid, he became the first man to win all three of the clay court Masters titles in one year. He now heads to Paris as the undisputed favourite to win a fifth Roland Garros trophy. After he won the Rome title (on clay, unsurprisingly) last year, he had to wait for 11 miserable, grim months before he lifted another piece of silverware. But from the moment he did win again – in Monte Carlo last month – there has been no stopping him.
Federer tried everything he could think of to counter Nadal’s march to the title in the Spanish capital – he even wheeled out his drop shot, to pretty good effect, in the second set – but it was not enough. The Madrid courts are not to the Nadal’s liking (the bounce is dodgy, the footing is treacherous and the altitude makes the ball fly) yet, even so, he was unstoppable.
Provided both Nadal and Federer stay fit and injury free, it is hard to see anyone else appearing in the French Open final.
Will this resumption of normal service at the top of the men’s rankings roll onto Wimbledon?