[to top of second column]
Midway through the tournament, Nadal talked down his chances, admonishing himself for not hitting the ball with enough "conviction" and questioning whether he was playing well enough to take home the title. After all, he fell behind unseeded John Isner of the United States 2-1 in sets in the first round, pushed to five sets for the only time in his seven trips to the French Open.
"Last week, when Rafael was playing so badly," Uncle Toni recounted Sunday evening, "to lift some of the pressure, I told him: 'Stay calm. Winning or losing won't change your life.'"
Not that Sunday's match needed any assistance in the drama department, but a little extra came in the form of a rain delay -- the very first of the entire 15-day tournament -- while Nadal was serving to take a two-set lead.
He had a set point at 5-4, 40-30, but wasted it with a forehand that clipped the net and flew long. That made it deuce, and that's when drops began falling. As spectators pulled on hats and popped open umbrellas, Nadal and Federer waited a few seconds before walking off the court.
Federer slipped into a private trainer's room and hopped up on a table. Nadal switched shirts and fidgeted with his racket strings in a hallway, then had a brief chat with his mentor.
"Rafael was very nervous in the locker room," Uncle Toni said. "I (told) him: 'It's difficult for you. But it's very difficult for him, too.'"
After a 10-minute break, the match resumed, and Nadal immediately earned a second set point. But Federer saved that one, too, opening an eight-point run for him. And then it was Nadal's turn to take eight points in a row, including a 4-0 lead in the tiebreaker, which he eventually closed with a forehand winner.
Federer wasn't finished, breaking Nadal at love to get within 4-3 in the third set. When Federer struck a forehand winner down the line to break again and go ahead 6-5, he earned a standing ovation and chants of "Ro-ger! Ro-ger!" from thousands of fans at Court Philippe Chatrier.
"When Roger plays like this," Nadal said, "the opponent has nothing to do, sometimes."
With the crowd roaring each time he won a point, Federer served out the set, capping it with another forehand winner. The outcome seemed in doubt. Federer had won 117 points, Nadal 116.
"All of a sudden, at 0-0 in the fourth set," Federer said, "you think, 'OK, we have a match again.'"
Nadal served to begin the fourth set, and Federer quickly gained three break points at love-40. This, then, would be the final twist. Nadal erased two break points with groundstroke winners, and the third with an ace at 120 mph. A service winner at 114 mph followed. Then Federer shanked a backhand off his frame and into the stands.
"Very important for me, no?" Nadal would say later. "That was a big turning point of the match, in my opinion."
That made it 1-0, and Federer held to 1-1. But that was it. Nadal didn't lose another game as the sun finally broke through the gray clouds, bathing the court in light. An appropriate conclusion for Nadal, the kid from the island of Mallorca who loves to spend free time fishing or at the beach.
On the back of each of the sky-blue sneakers that kept carrying him to balls that should have been out of reach, Nadal had the number "5" in a circle -- signifying his French Open title count until Sunday.
Time to order a new pair.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
< Sports index
Back to top
News | Sports | Business | Rural Review | Teaching & Learning | Home and Family | Tourism | Obituaries
Law & Courts |
Spiritual Life |
Health & Fitness |
Calendar | Letters to the Editor