Roger's reign on hold with Nadal's dominance

For the fourth time this year, Roger Federer has shown that he can beat everyone in the world. Everyone except Rafael Nadal.

Updated: June 12, 2006, 12:45 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- Between French Opens, Roger Federer's reign as the world's best tennis player has been complete.

The Swiss champion won at Wimbledon in 2005 and then the U.S. Open, and again in Melbourne in January -- three Grand Slam singles titles out of three. The No. 1-ranked player was poised to make history on Sunday, attempting to become only the third man to win four consecutive Grand Slams.

When Federer, at his liquid best, took the first set of the 105th French championship by the score of 6-1, history seemed to be beckoning.

Roger Federer
AP Photo/Michel EulerRoger Federer won the first five games of the match. But for the fourth time this year, the Swiss could not beat Nadal.

But at Roland Garros, where the clay dulls his array of gorgeous angles and trajectories, Federer has this little problem. His name is Rafael Nadal, and he has utterly destroyed Federer in the last two championships here. There is a suspicion that as long as the 20-year-old Spaniard is around, Federer may never win here, putting him in the good company of Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, Jimmy Connors and Stefan Edberg.

Nadal, after losing that first set, blinded Federer with a savage barrage of shots and won his second consecutive French Open title, 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (4). Technically, he is the world's No. 2-ranked player, but head-to-head he has now beaten Federer six times in seven matches.

Nadal, who missed time earlier this year with a foot injury, said the second title meant more to him.

"In December and January, I had a difficult injury," he said. "When you have a problem, and you don't know exactly if you'll be at the same level as before, you value it a little bit more."

Federer, for the record, was Nadal's 60th consecutive victim on clay, a mark that seemingly has no end in sight. And so, Federer's own streak -- he had won 27 consecutive Grand Slam matches, two shy of Rod Laver's Open Era record -- is over. Further confirming Nadal's mastery, it was the first time in eight Grand Slam finals that Federer has lost.

"I have no other choice but to accept the fact," a glum Federer said after the match. "I tried. I can't do more than that. Both of us having this real unique opportunity that we haven't seen in such a long time in tennis. Obviously, it's a pity, but [life] goes on, right?

Men's Clay-Court Win Streaks*
63 Rafael Nadal April 2005-current
53 Guillermo Vilas May-Sept. 1977
46 Bjorn Borg Oct. 1977- May 1979
40 Thomas Muster Feb.-June 1995
38 Thomas Muster Aug. 1995- April 1996
38 Ilie Nastase May-Oct. 1973
*Open era (since 1968)
"Maybe I missed a few opportunities. Maybe [I'll] hear that for years, but that's my problem."

The absurdly anticipated match did not rise to the level of the hype it generated; the immensity of the moment produced, at times, some exceedingly ugly tennis. The match required a relatively lean 3 hours, 2 minutes, but it felt longer. The victory for Nadal, however, was no fluke. Nadal is a perfect 14-0 at Roland Garros, and he has now beaten Federer on clay three times in a span of seven weeks.

It was an oppressively hot day touching the 90s that, in theory, favored Federer's heavier game. And that's just how Federer opened the match, tres chaud. He needed only 37 minutes to win the first set and, in some minds, anyway, the coronation had already begun.

Nadal, of course, was unmoved. He needed only 32 minutes to level the match, breaking Federer in the second and sixth games. And so, a seemingly simple transaction, as so often happens in France, evolved into a nuanced negotiation.

If Nadal has a singular skill, it is turning a defensive position into a launching point for offense. This, in a larger sense, is essentially what he did in the fourth and fifth games of the third set -- the match's critical juncture.

Nadal, down 1-2, was serving to get even when Federer won the first three points, the last an elegant forehand pass down the line. Nadal erased the first break point with a superb cross-court forehand winner. The second evaporated with a terrific backhand drop volley. The third, which came with Federer in control of the point in the middle of the court, was a forehand that sailed inches wide. It was reminiscent of his two forehand misses when he held matchpoints in Rome.

Nadal eventually won the game with a 123-miles-per-hour ace that was originally called out. The chair umpire, upon inspecting the mark, called it good and Nadal had produced an extraordinary escape.

Rafael Nadal
AP Photo/Michel SpinglerRafael Nadal became the first left-haned player in the Open era to win back-to-back French Open titles.
And then he followed it with an aggressive beak of Federer's serve. It was an unsteady game for Federer, who blew an easy overhead to give Nadal two break points and then pushed a relatively simple forehand into the net for the game. Up a break, Nadal went on to win the set.

Federer rallied at the end, breaking Nadal in the 10th game of the fourth set and forcing a tiebreaker. Federer held a 2-1 lead, but lost both points on his serve (a nervous, ill-advised drop-shot attempt and a queasy forehand that sailed long) and Nadal won it with a swimming, midcourt forehand volley.

He fell back in the red clay, making a mess of his shirt. Sitting and applauding the 15,000 cheering spectators at Philippe Chatrier, Nadal looked like a dirty kid in a sand box.

Federer has still won seven of the last 12 Grand Slams contested. On anything but clay, he has been dominant. But what will it take to win the French Open?

Federer did everything right in the run-up to Roland Garros. He played two terrific tournaments in Monte Carlo and Rome, losing in both finals to Nadal. He arrived 10 days early here and practiced hard. He was in the best condition of his life. And yet, it wasn't enough.

By The Numbers:
French Open Men's Final Boxscore
  Nadal Federer
1st Serve Percentage 77 61
Aces 3 8
Double Faults 0 1
Unforced Errors 28 51
1st Serve Winning Pct. 69 68
2nd Serve Winning Pct. 65 53
Winners (including service) 25 35
Break Points 4-12 3-10
Net Points 10-16 30-41
Total Points Won 121 109
Time of Match
3:02
"Maybe, you know, at the end of my career, I miss this moment, to have it again, to win the French Open right away today," Federer said. "But it didn't happen, so I've got to create this opportunity once again."

Nadal becomes the youngest player to win back-to-back titles here, going back to 1974-75, when Bjorn Borg was a year younger. The following year, Borg started off on a five-title streak at Wimbledon. Which raises the question: Can Nadal similarly diversify his game and prove he is not a one-surface wonder?

Asked where he would be celebrating his victory, Nadal downplayed the question.

"I'm playing doubles on Tuesday at Queens, so not too much celebrating," he said. "I have singles and doubles at Queens. This year I want to play with concentration on grass. I want to practice a lot.

"Is difficult to go to grass, because when I slide I don't slide with confidence. But I've got three weeks with grass. I'm going to try. That's all I can say -- I'll try."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.