Last two years is the only time, Federer has had any success at the French Open, out of the eight times he has competed there. Best performance before that was a quarterfinal berth in 2001.
Having reached the finals in the last two years, he lost both times in four sets to Nadal.
In 2005, Federer did not drop a set on his way up, but could win just one against Nadal, despite the fact that he dispatched hard core clay court specialists like Carlos Moya, Fernando Gonzalez and Nicolas Almagro en-route.
Last year, he dropped just one set the entire tournament, but again could win just one in the finals, although he was able take Nadal to a tie-break in the fourth.
These two were his best chances to break through. Nadal was just a teenager, lacking Grand Slam final experience, and without some of his best array of shots specially the serve.
You could tell Federer was visibly frustrated and distraught for not having completed the job with comments like “Nadal is just a one-dimensional player” and “I am getting closer to winning against him” etc. Maybe it was a good sign. You want the fire to burn even stronger when your efforts are repelled. Is it there this year? No evidence yet.
Maybe he has realized that Nadal has closed the door forever this year. Nadal is physically, fully grown and matured, leading to better co-ordination on the court. He has two years of utter dominance as experience to launch his latest onslaught on. Nadal has clearly improved his overall game by adding new and effective tools to his arsenal.
The incredible winning streak on clay and the 7-3 head to head advantage over Federer is not only adding to his growing confidence on the one hand, it is also piercing Federer’s armour on the other. Winning two consecutive opening clay court season tournaments without dropping a set is ample testament to his improved hardware and booming confidence.
All this is much more likely to translate more effectively to other surfaces this year, than in the last two years.
So far Federer had been on the offensive, but this new scenario coupled with more talented and worthy field of adversaries this year and two losses, pushes him on his heels. At Monte Carlo, he was playing for ‘not to lose’ than ‘to win’. The defensive mode and the tentative shot selection there, is ample evidence of the shift in his mental make up.
If Nadal comes out unscathed through this clay season, Federer will be on the back foot for the rest of the year. And if Wimbledon is not an emphatic win, the shift is then irreversible.
Both of them are playing at Rome and Hamburg leading to the French Open. Federer skipped Barcelona or Casablanca and it seems to be a smart move. Nadal should have done the same. By playing at Barcelona, he seems to have too little time to recuperate for the big ones and may possibly have tweaked about peaking at Roland Garros. Here is Nadal’ schedule.
Monte Carlo – April 16-22.
Barcelona – April 23-29.
Rome – May 7-13.
Hamburg – May 14-20.
Roland Garros – May 28-June10.
You are playing back to back events twice with just one week off. And you have just one week after that for the big one. With such hectic activity, something’s gotta give, specially if he wins all of them before Roland Garros. That Barcelona break for Federer may be a difference maker.
Federer knows, in his heart, that he is at a crossroad in his career. He has to ignite the competitive fire and mend his psyche to physically deliver on the court. It is time for him to regain some momentum by winning some hard fought matches on clay to believe again.
But whatever we have as evidence so far, to go by, this clay season, Nadal has opened up a huge gap both in terms of numbers and the intangibles. Last two years, it was expected that Federer would complete the Grand Slam. If he wins Roland Garros this year, it will be more of a shock.
It is obvious the train has left, the window has closed, the door is shut and Federer sensed it for the first time at Monte Carlo finals. What he felt, was oozing out of his body unmistakably.