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Monday, May 18, 2009
Federer-Nadal rivalry restored heading into Paris

Well, it looks like they didn't name that new stadium in Madrid "The Magic Box" for nothing. It turns out the first event ever held in the joint left the capacity crowd, as well as an enormous television audience, scratching it's collective head and asking, "Hey, how did he do that?"

"He," of course, is Roger Federer, who pounded Rafael Nadal, 6-4, 6-4 in the final of the first-ever Madrid Open, a 1000 Master Series event (and one of the elite "dual" events, featuring men's and women's draws). Going into the match, Nadal had a 13-6 head-to-head advantage in the rivalry but, even more significantly, a five-match winning streak covering three surfaces (clay, grass and hard court). And on clay, Nadal has owned Federer.

Let's cut right to the nitty-gritty and bullet-point the main elements that enabled Federer to post the result that helped restore the sense that we're watching a rivalry rather than a runaway:

Federer's confidence. At the start of the match, Federer looked grumpy and out of sorts, as he has in the past when his confidence isn't at peak level. But this time, his ability to contain Nadal in the first few games seemed to make Federer think, "Hey, maybe I can do this." By the end of the match, he was grinning.

Federer's serve. A poor first-serve percentage or unwise and/or predictable placement of the second serve is suicidal against Nadal because nobody wins any rally that Nadal is allowed to control. Federer's first-serve percentage was good but not great (63 percent, compared to Nadal's outstanding 80), but his overall serving efficiency was excellent, and his second serve was outstanding. (Federer reached his first match point with a second-serve ace.)

The fine tuning. A newly introduced drop shot, a forehand that could both sting and thread the needle down the backhand line and a greater willingness to move into the court and press for a chance to attack the net worked cumulatively to help Federer keep Nadal off-balance and force him to play more defensively.

The ambient conditions. Coming up on Madrid week, Nadal had been somewhat coy about whether he would play the event. He expressed concern that the altitude in Madrid would cause his shots to fly and thus disrupt his desired buildup to the French Open. He probably never thought seriously about skipping Madrid, but Nadal's ambivalence had to be self-defeating. He made his point and Federer underscored it: The combination of altitude and a "fast" clay court really aided the Federer cause.

Novak Djokovic. Nadal had to play four hours and change in his semifinal against the resurgent Serb on Saturday (Nadal brushed off three match points). It isn't fair to Federer to focus on Nadal's physical and emotional fatigue, but it certainly played a part in the final. And let's remember it was Federer who once suggested that a Masters can be more demanding than a major, simply because a player may find himself playing long or debilitating matches against top competition on consecutive days. As Nadal said, "I never tend to use an excuse, and if I'm tired it's because I played longer than I should have yesterday, and today I played less. That's the way sport works."

And on Sunday, we once again saw how a high-quality rivalry works: in gloriously unpredictable fashion, leaving you hungry for the next episode.