TR Retro: Collateral Damage: Rafael Nadal d. Roger Federer in 2009 Aussie Open final

Rafa put a dent in Federer’s GOAT label.


MELBOURNE – The so-called soon to be greatest player ever was out-fought by his most significant rival again, putting a long pause in the discussion of Roger Federer’s place in the history.

In a truly remarkable and gutsy performance, Rafael Nadal shook down Federer 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2 in the final of the Australian Open on Sunday, grabbing his sixth Grand Slam title and becoming the first man since Andre Agassi in 1999 to win majors on three different surfaces.

“It’s a dream win here, one Grand Slam on hard court,” said Nadal, the first Spaniard to win the Australian Open. “I worked very hard all my life to improve the tennis outside of clay. I’m very happy for the title. Today was really lot of emotions on court.”

For the fifth straight time, the 22-year-old Spaniard proved that he has become a mentally stronger and physically more resilient player than Federer, beating down the normally cool-handed Swiss when the hours grew long and moments became tenser.

“There’s huge collateral damage from this match,” said the Tennis Channel’s Justin Gimelstob. “Now he’s beaten him on grass, clay and hard and there’s no barrier that hasn’t been broken. Hardcourts is the most fair surface and there are harsh realities to be dealt with.”

For all the talk of Federer’s automatic ascension to the accolade of the greatest of all time, it has been the much-improved Nadal who has been the more ambitious and resourceful player over the past 13 months.

“Roger can’t be called the greatest ever yet,” said US Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe.

Since June, Nadal has won three of the last four majors as well as the Olympic gold medal. He torched Federer in the 2008 French Open final for his fourth straight Roland Garros crown, stopped Federer’s five title Wimbledon streak in a five set classic for his first major on clay and then on Sunday, won his first major on the surface that has troubled himself the most, hard courts, by contesting a near perfect fifth set, committing only two unforced errors to 14 from his worn down foe.

Other legends, such as John McEnroe and Stefan Edberg, have won marathon semifinals and went on to win Grand Slam finals, but Nadal’s feat, a 5 hour and 14 minute marathon victory over the red hot Fernando Verdasco in the semis, followed up by a 4 hour and 23 minute win over Federer, who went into the last day with a 8-0 record in hard court major finals, owns a special place in the record books.

“It was the greatest physical achievement in the history of tennis, said Gimelstob.” People talk about Wimbledon because of the drama, but you take the level of players and that the surface is so equitable, it was the greatest tennis shotmaking ever. There has never been anything close to that, how they challenged each other to come up with great stuff, until the beginning of the fifth set when there was huge depreciation Federer’s side. It was sick.”

Given that he had worn down at the hard court Slams before and was had trouble knocking off offensive players at the Australian Open and US Opens in years prior (think Gonzalez, Tsonga, Murray), the left-handed Nadal still needed to show that he could successfully combine a defensive and offense posture and find a winning formula on hardcourts. While his base is much the same — kick and slice serves into his foes’ backhands, hammer away with his huge forehand and use his legs to run down even the most impossible balls — his improvements are obvious. His slapping two handed backhand has become more powerful, he’s more sure handed at the net, he changes the direction of his groundstrokes more intelligently, and his one handed slice has improved, as has his use of drop shots.

While on the outside, it appeared that Nadal might not pull up fresh and healthy for the final, on Saturday, his camp and those members of the Spanish press who follow him closely had little doubt that he would arrive on court doing same boxer’s split steps that he has done throughout his career.

To him , Nadal is a Toro, with a capital T.

He gored through Federer in the first set, poking holes in his backhand with slice serves and hooking forehands.

The Swiss showed his champion’s heart in the second set, steeping more gamely into his backhand and mixing up the pace and angles of his groundstrokes.

In the third set, there was a little reason for doubt, when a after the seventh game and at up 4-3, Nadal called for the trainer to have his right leg massaged as he was no longer getting a good enough push off that leg, the one which allows him to crush two -handed backhand from an open stance. But it loosened up again and he found the vast fathomless inner reserve where his hellfire’s burn deep.

He dug in his pitchfork and once again struck.

He fought off six break points in his next two service games, three with ball-bursting groundstrokes.

In the tiebreaker, a nervous Federer played sloppy, while Nadal shot off some multi-colored fireworks. At 5-3, in rousing end-to-end rally, he stretched out for a rocket Federer crosscourt forehand and kissed a low backhand volley crosscourt for the winner. A stunned Fed then double faulted to lose the set

“Rafa believes in a different level than Federer does,” said four-time Grand Slam champion Jim Courier. “I think Federer only believes in that level against other players.”

The Swiss would not go away quietly and once again showed his champions heart and lungs, winning the fourth set by punishing himself to fly more quickly to the ball, to make better use of his forehand and not to shy way from the net, even though Nadal was crushing hard to handle passing shots.

It was assumed by his large amount of supporters at Laver Arena that Federer would once again rise to occasion, or at least bring the battle to the highest mountaintop and perish taking one last heroic swing at the edge of the cliff.

But he did not and in the first time off clay, he completely folded, playing a soft, directionless set where he was broken to 3-1 on three consecutive unforced errors and was broken again to lose the match on an oddly missed forehand.

Nadal soaked in the applause while later, when accepting the runner-up trophy, Federer cried a good three minutes and then cried again going into the locker room.

“God, it’s killing me,” he said to the crowd.

It sure must be. Federer has sunk deep into the spongy clay at Roland Garros after being smashed by Nadal, but he had never been so thoroughly beaten in a final set in major off dirt.

“Roger basically folded in the fifth,” McEnroe said. “He succumbed to the pressure. Chasing the record 14 is tough and obviously the guy in his head. It’s going to be difficult for Roger to come back from this.”

McEnroe believes that Federer plays Nadal all wrong, that he could make simple tactical adjustments that would allow him to grab victories rather than play on the Spaniard’s terms. Federer does not do enough in his return games, rarely attempting to step around and hit forehands and allowing Nadal to go into his backhand 90 percent of the time with his serves, even when those serves aren’t always of the high qualities.

“He needs a coach,” McEnroe said. “He’s never had to adjust to something because he’s been so talented he could go out there and figure it out. All of sudden he’s playing guy he can’t do it against. He’s so stubborn.”

Federer still sits one Grand Slam title from tying Pete Sampras’ all time Grand Slam mark of 14 majors, and as motivated and as talented as he is, it’s hard to think that he won’t break the record.

“I love this game.,” Federer said. “It means the world to me, so it hurts when you lose.”

But even if he does do it this year, Sampras will retain one major edge over him — that he owned winning records against his greatest rivals. Federer, who is now 6-13 against Nadal, cannot claim that very important distinction.

“It’s a huge tipping point in the greatest-ever debate,” said Gimelstob. ” I think Roger will surpass Pete, but if Nadal plays 6-10 more years, there’s endless opportunities for him to rewrite the record books. I don’t care how far Federer goes over Sampras, Nadal is still a threat. It all depends on his body. He’s getting better and he’s a physical beast. There’s no one comparable.”



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