Nadal makes no bones about it
KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- When he was carving out his legacy as perhaps the greatest male player in tennis history, Roger Federer never seemed to be in a hurry. His dazzling ability, the sheer intricacy of his footwork, always made it seem like he was just having a cup of coffee and reading the morning paper.
On Friday night, a sold-out Sony Ericsson Open house was desperately hoping the 29-year-old could somehow channel the game that won 16 Grand Slam singles titles. But against Rafael Nadal, the 24-year-old who has supplanted him as the No. 1 player, Federer could not summon his once-ethereal game.
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There were times during Nadal's 6-3, 6-2 humiliation that Federer looked like a man chasing a bus -- with his hair on fire. If you are a fan of tennis, regardless of who you support, this was a sad, almost pitiful exhibition. Federer, who tied his second-fewest total of games he's ever won against Rafa, was MIA in Miami.
"Well, always the key to playing against Roger is to play very well," Nadal said in his on-court interview. "Sometimes is not enough. Tonight was enough. He probably had a few more mistakes than usual."
This was beyond diplomatic; it was the only bone Nadal threw to Federer all night long.
"It was an off night for me," Federer said.
The last, way-too-quick forehand into the net was Federer's 38th unforced error -- a huge number for so brief a match. Nadal broke his serve no fewer than four times; Federer couldn't convert the one break point he was offered.
Nadal moved on to a berth in the final opposite the searing Novak Djokovic, where he will attempt to end the Serb's 23-match winning streak to start the year. After Friday night, it is clear that, at least on this occasion, the numbers don't lie. The No. 3-ranked Federer finds himself a growing distance behind Nadal and Djokovic.
Federer was understandably subdued in his postmatch media conference. Hunched forward, arms crossed, he answered the tough questions with typical matter-of-fact grace.
The chief culprit, he said, was the speed of the court. The humid air and the slow sticky surface -- made slower by the heavy night air -- left Federer a little jumpy in an attempt to end points quickly. He never seemed to be able to hit the ball past Nadal.
Federer allowed that he had been out of rhythm all week long here, perhaps because he did not adapt to the conditions as well as some other players.
"Those are not excuses," he said, "those are just the facts."
There was a moment when Federer had it within his power to narrow the first set to 4-5, to put himself within a tenuous service break of level par. It was 30-all and the ball came back, almost too easily, from Nadal. Federer had plenty of time to set up, but he swung a little quickly and shanked a forehand a dozen rows into the end-zone seats.
Under the circumstances, it was almost shocking to see. One point later, Nadal owned the set and, as it turned out, the match.
Nadal began his career as a clay-court specialist and quickly evolved into an all-court player. He crept closer and closer to the baseline on grass and on hard courts, bringing the geometry more into his favor. Against Federer, he hit some of his groundstrokes right on top of the line, something that requires phenomenal skill and strength. Which gave Federer less time to react and explained his hurried, harried pace.
Two other tactical observations: First, Nadal's two-handed backhand never looked heavier, nor Federer's one-handed backhand weaker. And second, when Nadal added some heft to his serve last year and started collecting the free points that Federer and Pete Sampras lived on for years, well, he became close to unbeatable.
Rafa now leads their celebrated series 15-8, but it was instructive that this victory leveled his record on hard courts, where Federer has usually reigned, to 4-all.
Rafa explained his strategy this way: "I had to put more serves inside, a little higher percentage, and put the ball into his backhand earlier in the points."
In fact, Nadal converted a very solid 77 percent for his first serves. His end game seemed to be very simple: Wait for Federer to make a mistake.
Federer is now 0-4 against Djokovic and Nadal this year.
"I wish I could play better against those guys but it is what it is," Federer said. "I don't feel like I'm 35 like you guys make me sound I am. I'm still only 29, and I have many more years left."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.