Roger Federer was preparing to hit a forehand with great anticipation, but because of a false rebound he failed to hit and handed the 18th Masters1000 of his career to a someway regretted Nadal, who is now 15-0 on the clay this season and has won 42 sets (and 8 tiebreak) against Federer.
This last point sealing thr 6-4 7-6 victory, the 14th in the h2h and tenth on the surface preferred by the Mallorcan-born Spaniard, perfectly summarizes the history of the best rivalry in modern tennis, made of unspoken tensions, of unique alchimies and a subtle subplot of fears and energies, motivations and desires.
Twelve months ago, Roger Federer defeated Nadal in Madrid and lifted up the trophy of the Mutua Madrilena Open (just his second success over the Mallorcan on the clay), not knowing, and not even daring to imagine that some days after Nadal should have surrendered to Robin Soderling and Roger should have completed his career Slam, entering in the elite with Fred Perry, Roy Emerson, Don Budge, Rod Laver and Andre Agassi.
364 days after, Roger and Rafa, brightest examples of two opposite conceptions of tennis, went oncourt again to write another chapter of the story of The Match.
The first set was tight and highly contested but rarely dramatic. Federer served firstly and opened delivering two aces and took heart at once in return with a winning forehand hit in advance. The first break point, however, slipped away when Roger netted a backspin backhand in return to a venomous second delivery by Nadal.
The tactical scheme was clearly predictable. Nadal, struggling to realize easy points on serve, was forced to play a series of long rallies but didn't take risks from the baseline. The Spaniard hammered on Federer's backhand with balls, full of top-spin, bouncing high over Federer's shoulder. So the Swiss, anyway capable to hit winners from the ad-side, hadn't the same advantage that Davydenko or Del Potro could have thanks to double-handed backhhands.
And Rafa broke first in a lacklustre first set; the amount of errors broaden, and three mistakes gave Federer immediate chance to counter-break and a forehand jumping over the live led Federer to draw at 2-2. Like a champion, Federer regrouped himself, took heart but spooned a good chance into the crowd wasting four break points before Rafa could manage to hold in the elusive tenth game thanks to a hooked forehand pass.
This was the breakthrough of the match. The second set became finally a rollercoaster of emotions and spectacular winners. Federer, always on the verge to slip into complacency, knows he needs to recur to every weapon in his armoury and showed off a pair of drops and a backspin backhand that constitutes different question marks from the tactical point of view to Nadal.
In the first part of the second set Federer showed his best game on the clay, but as often happened to him when Nadal is on the other side of the net, the Swiss didn't manage to maintain this standard long enough to make the match turn on his advantage.
And when, as this time, on the other side there's one of the brightest versions of Nadal, the duty becomes harder and harder to accomplish. The Spaniard seemed extremely feet and succeeded in a pair of demolishing ball recoveries. His unparalleled ability to transform defensive situations into offensive opportunities, to save him while being forced on the ropes are lethal blunts to Federer self-confidence.
And Federer, today far from being at his best but undoubtedly on the rise respect to the defeat to Montanes, paid the stammering serve and some bleeding mis-hits. The Swiss in the second set chose to risk more but misfired a series of easy forehands because he arrived late on the ball, his serve lost effectiveness in the key moments and his return weren't so deep as usual.
Nadal grapple with him and emerged better. Shrewdly he forced Federer to hit well behind the baseline and when he managed to approach the net constantly answered with winning passing shots. He broke to 4-2 but the match was not over. Federer bounced back and broke Nadal to 4-4 profiting from a pair of uncharacteristic errors.
Predictably the set went to a tiebreaker and again Federer succeeded to dash better but Nadal came back to close as the winner. The Swiss led 4-2 but let Nadal draw netting a drop-shot and sending a forehand long.
Nadal fought and had two match points. Federer saved the first with a brutal inside-out forehand, but his best shot betrayed him in the last point of the match.
Nadal became the first to win 18 Masters 1000 in career and, at the same time, the first to win all the three event of this type on the clay. The more, with a delightful counter-dropshot played with an uncommon one-handed backhand, Nadal testified his gane is not only made of muscles and runs. His talent is as pure as Federer's, it's just of different nature.
The Swiss confirmed his sometime masochistic desire to be splendid. When he, 4-2 up in the second set tiebreaker, tried to mask a second drop-shot in a row his match substantially finished. He could have been two points away from the third set, while soon found himself forced to handshake Rafa. His limit, if we it's correct speaking about limits for a man capable of 16 Grand Slam titles, lays in his "snootiness", particularly dangerous on the clay, where he cannot close the points quickly, cannot base his game on the one-twos (serve and forehand) but has to deal with geometries. As in 2006 in Rome, when two remarkable wasted match points could have changed the story of their rivalry, Federer brought this tendency to its extreme consequences.
In the same situations, Nadal, and here it stays the greater difference between them, seals the victory, in a way or another. While Roger gave himself apparently just two choices: winning beautifully or lose. Against Nadal the second alternative is dramatically prevailing.