- Whit Sheppard
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PARIS -- Search for the essence of a monumental sporting triumph and you're likely to find an equivalent small frame of time during which the seeds of that victory were planted and firmly took root.
Sunday's men's final at Roland Garros between top-seeded Roger Federer and No. 2 Rafael Nadal lasted a shade more than three hours, but the match, tied at a set each at the time, was effectively decided in a 15-minute stretch spanning the fourth and fifth games of the third set.
What occurred in that span was pivotal to Nadal's eventual four-set win, as Federer never had an equal chance to regain the momentum that was so instrumental in Nadal maintaining his perfect record (14-0) here and capturing his second consecutive French Open title.
Instead, it was the 20-year-old Majorcan who grabbed the momentum and never let go, turning a 1-2, 0-40 deficit on his serve into a commanding 4-2 lead in the space of three games.
This is how he did it:
Federer had Nadal in a 0-40 hole in that fourth game with a magnificent running forehand winner down the line. Nadal, as is his custom, took his time to towel himself off before walking slowly to the baseline to serve. He didn't look frazzled or frustrated. He carefully examined the three balls on his racket before choosing the two he wished to use. He then pushed away the third ball behind him, and a scampering ballboy picked it up and scurried to the back of the court.
Nadal promptly smacked a forehand winner to get to 15-40. He repeated the towel and ball ritual, then bounced the ball several times with his left palm before starting his service delivery. At the end of a baseline rally, Nadal moved in a bit closer and hit an cleverly angled backhand drop-shot winner to get to 30-40.
The ritual again, an exhalation and the serve. Federer, perhaps feeling additional pressure, aware that the best chance he would ever have on this hot, sticky day was rapidly disappearing, misfired a forehand to get Nadal back to deuce.
"Is very important moment, no?" Nadal said. "I have a little bit good luck with one forehand of Roger's, [and] go out like this."
Nadal, buoyed by his reprieve, banged a service winner to get to game-point but Federer answered with a big forehand to bring about a second deuce. A subsequent forehand winner from the Swiss gave him the last of his four break-points in the game, any of which, if converted, would have given him a comfortable 3-1 cushion heading into the next game, his third service game of the set.
Nadal, whose first-serve (77 percent for the match) is an underestimated asset in his arsenal, chose an opportune moment to serve his first ace of the match, kicking it out wide to Federer's backhand in the ad-court. Back to deuce for the third time in the game. He followed with another ace to get to ad-in for the second time and then closed out the game with a 123-mph service winner.
Two-all and a massive chance squandered by Federer, the best one he'd see all afternoon with the exception of a last-ditch opportunity to extend the match to a fifth set, leading Nadal 2-1 in the fourth-set tiebreaker.
"If I break in the third set at love-40, the match is different," Federer said. "You have to seize the opportunities when they appear in order to control the game, and I gave him the control of the game."
All told: four opportunities for the seven-time Grand Slam winner to break to 3-1 in that crucial game, none of which he was able to convert; and four crucial saves for Nadal, along with his capitalizing on the second chance to hold his serve, stemming Federer's momentum and keeping the match on-serve in the third set.
"After this moment, I play my best tennis, no?" Nadal said. "Is my opinion but [after] I play more aggressive and he feel little bit more nervous."
In the following game, Federer, still feeling the effects of failing to rise to the occasion in the previous game, dug a quick hole for himself with two of his 51 unforced errors to fall down 0-30 on his own serve. A volley winner brought him to 15-30, but he uncharacteristically missed an easy overhead to give Nadal two break points at 15-40.
Nadal, rarely one to miss an opportunity, belted an inside-out forehand winner to go a break up at 3-2 on his serve. He held to 4-2 and never looked back en route to his 60th consecutive clay-court victory and second French Open title in as many attempts.
After the match, a somber Federer sounded aware of the magnitude of his failure to capitalize in that key 15-minute stretch.
"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."
Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering the French Open and Wimbledon for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
37mEric D. Williams