Why Neil Harman is my fave sports writer

2 02 2009
Reproduced From 
February 2, 2009

Defeat leaves Roger Federer a broken man

by Neil Harman, Tennis Correspondent, in Melbourne

Three years ago, on the identical spot, Roger Federer wept in Rod Laver’s embrace, having won his seventh grand-slam tournament. Yesterday, as Federer broke down in uncontrollable sobs at the prize-giving, the record-equalling fourteenth title as far away as ever, Laver was standing a yard from him, not knowing what to do.

Actually, no one knew whether they should look at Federer or look away. It required Rafael Nadal to walk on to the court and throw his sturdy left arm around the Swiss to prevent any more shuffling of feet and wringing of hands. It was the Australian Open’s version of the Duchess of Kent and Jana Novotna at Wimbledon in 1993, but without the mawkishness.

Federer was unable to speak because Nadal, in winning his first Open at Melbourne Park – his first hard-court grand slam title, the one it was reckoned might forever elude him – had dashed another presumptuous theory. Having prevailed in five hours and 14 minutes on Friday night and into Saturday morning to defeat Fernando Verdasco, his compatriot, Nadal gave Federer a 24-hour head start to recover from his semi-final and had the stamina, the brutish game, the willpower and the absolute faith to wear the great Swiss down 7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2 in another sapping four hours and 23 minutes.

Has there been a player like this piece of Majorcan granite? Of 15 matches in which he has been forced to play the full five sets, he has won 12. Federer’s record is 13-12, which indicates a frailty in his make-up that might yet prevent him from securing the record held by Pete Sampras, the American. For as long as Nadal is around, that is. And he knows it.

Think of three recent examples: the Italian Open final of 2006, when Federer had two match points against Nadal and tossed in two astonishingly poor forehands; the matchless Wimbledon final last year when the Swiss came back from two sets down to take it into a decider and missed a forehand on match point as twilight fell; and the last, and surely the most destructive, which came yesterday as Federer collapsed, his mind frazzled and his right arm failing him as Nadal dug in and refused to countenance defeat.

Federer put a lot of it down to serving poorly and in the middle of the second set, a long way away from the finality of defeat, he missed 11 consecutive first serves. In the third set, which Nadal won by playing a near-faultless tie-break, Federer had break points – two lots of three in consecutive games. Everything was a terrible chore.

But that is what makes Nadal such a champion. Put it into his head that he cannot win – and the schedule here, with one semi-final taking place a full day before the other, is something tennis at this level ought not to tolerate – and he accepts the challenge head on. When the world No1 lost the fourth set, which he really should have won, having allowed five break points to slip through his fingers for a 3-2 lead, one assumed the momentum was with Federer. But that was never the case. At the match’s end, and although it took three match points to see Nadal home, Federer was visibly coming apart at the seams.

When he beat Juan Martin Del Potro, the sixth-best player in the world, for the loss of three games in the quarter-finals, Federer said that as the contest drew to a close, he was simply happy to put the Argentinian “out of his misery”. Five days later, and he knew how that felt. Not at all nice.

The crowd, as it always seems to be anywhere other than Spain, was firmly in the Swiss’s corner. “Everyone’s favourite player,” as he was introduced at the post-final ceremony, just before he could not hold back the tears. “Not everyone,” a lone voice responded and it must have felt to Nadal that lone voices were all he could call on.

But to look at his support team yesterday – uncle Toni, his coach, Sebastien, his father, and Rafael, his physical trainer – in the front row, was to be privy to something intriguing. Even when their boy was down, when to the rest of us he had to be playing on fumes rather than adrenalin, they could not stop smiling. We know that this is the Spanish disposition, but it was as if they knew something those outside the circle required four hours, 23 minutes to ascertain. That Nadal would be holding new silverware.

They know what makes him tick, why he is such a special individual, why he owns a 13-6 lead over Federer. Coming into this final, Nadal had won 18 sets and lost two; Federer the same. Nadal had won 123 games and lost 68; Federer’s figures were 123-67. They may have been that close statistically, but yesterday came down to one man getting inside the other’s head and turning it into mush. Hence the breakdown later.

Discussing it, Federer could barely raise his eyes from beneath the rim of the cap pulled low. “In a fifth set, anything can happen,” he said. “That’s the problem. Not usually the better player always wins. It is just a matter of momentum sometimes. Maybe I should have never been there in the first place. I played a terrible fifth set. I kind of handed it over to him.”

If one may presume to quibble with Federer, he did not so much hand it over to Nadal as it was ripped it from him – there is a difference. In the first four sets, there were ten occasions in which Nadal was 15-0 down on his own serve and won the game. As Ivan Lendl, the remarkable Czech who won eight grand-slam singles titles (Nadal now has six and surely no one will be able to stop him winning a fifth French Open in June), once said: “There are two important points in tennis, the first one and the last one.”

The last one and the final word went to the champion. He said sorry to Roger and wished him good luck for the rest of the year. He will need it.

(Reproduced From 

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