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In The End, Nadal Keeps Running And Running To Victory

10 HOURS, 3 DAYS, 1 RAFA

It was not quite another tennis masterpiece. The muchanticipated rematch between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer lacked the consistent quality and, above all, the crescendo finish of their five-act drama in fading light at Wimbledon last year. But this Australian Open final was certainly epic entertainment, too. It also lasted five sets and more than four hours. It also featured plenty of abrupt reversals of fortune and unexpected breaks of serve, and it also ended with Nadal triumphant and Federer devastated. Federer, the 27-year-old Swiss star, needed just one more victory to match Pete Sampras‘s all-time record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles. But he faded badly in the final set on Sunday night and was then unable to keep his composure after Nadal’s 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2 victory. In the post-match ceremony, Federer choked up after receiving the runner’s-up plate from one of his idols, Rod Laver, and was unable to get more than a few sentences into his speech to the crowd before he began to cry in earnest. “God it’s killing me,” he said, eventually backing away from the microphone. But this historic rivalry, one of the best in any sport, is also a friendly rivalry, despite all the power and spin these two wellmannered young men employ against each other when they are on opposite sides of a net. And so it was no surprise that Nadal, the first Spanish player to win the Australian championships, was soon putting his left arm around Federer and helping him pull himself back together long enough to finish the speech that he had begun. “I don’t want to have the last word; this guy deserves it,” Federer said. “So Rafa, congratulations. You played incredible. You deserve it man.”
It is difficult to argue with that last sentence. To even reach the final, the top-seeded Nadal had to win the longest match in Australian Open history in the semifinals: a five-set, 5-hour-14-minute classic against his compatriot Fernando Verdasco. He then had one day less than the second-seeded Federer to prepare for the 19th installment of their rivalry: undergoing intense physical therapy in an attempt to recover the freshness of mind and body required to repulse a man on a mission.
“I knew it was not going to affect him a lot,” Federer said of Nadal’s abbreviated preparation. “It did not have any role to play in it, so I was ready for that.” Nadal was not nearly so certain that he would be in fine shape. After getting to sleep at 5 am on Saturday morning following his Friday night marathon with Verdasco, he woke at 1 pm. He practiced lightly that afternoon and again on Sunday afternoon. “I was having a bit of trouble practicing,” he said. “I felt a little nauseated when I practiced yesterday and today. I was pretty concerned, not being sure whether I could be at my best. It’s tough feeling that way when it’s your first final in Australia and you’re not sure you’re going to be 100 percent. But in the end everything worked out well for me.”
It was hardly a straightforward process, however. Nadal would need 4 hours 23 minutes to finish off Federer. He would need to rally from 2-4 down in the first set and save all six break points he faced in the third set.
He would also need Federer to serve much less convincingly than he had in his straight-set semifinal romp over Andy Roddick.
The Swiss put only 52 percent of his first serves in play on Sunday, which was by far his lowest percentage of the tournament.
Perhaps the most remarkable statistic from this remarkable match was that Federer managed to win the second set with a first-serve percentage of 37 percent.
“Perhaps I should not have been out there in the fifth set at all,” said Federer, still red-eyed an hour after the match. “I should have won the first set and the third. The rest of the story, we all know it.”
Nadal, the swashbuckling 22-year-old from the Spanish island of Majorca, was considered a claycourt specialist early in his career. But he is now well on his way to becoming one of the game’s great multi-surface champions. He has won the last four French Opens on clay, last year’s Wimbledon title on grass and has now won his first Grand Slam title on a hardcourt: giving Spain the only major tennis trophy it lacked.
“It is a dream to win here,” Nadal said. “I’ve worked very hard the last, well, all my life to improve the tennis outside of clay.”
Nadal also has helped win tennis’s premier team competition, the Davis Cup, for Spain as well as last year’s Olympic gold medal in singles on a hardcourt in Beijing. The only major title he now lacks is the United States Open, where he was beaten in the semifinals last year.
But Nadal, for all the fire and brimstone in his flashy left-handed game, is also a self-effacing champion: one who has continued to affirm that Federer is the greatest player of all time even as he continues to build on his career edge against him.
Once he took the microphone himself on Sunday, with the trophy in his hands, his first words were for his opponent. “Well, first of all, sorry for today,” he said, turning to Federer. “I really know how you feel right now. It’s really tough. Remember you are a great champion. You are the best in history.” NYT News Service


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