More than the twelve Roland Garros championships and fifty-nine career titles which speak for themselves, Nadal’s greatness on clay is complete in another way. It has birthed a sport of its own.
In recent years, men’s tennis through the early summer has morphed into the transfixing bloodsport of identifying who will be sacrificed to Nadal next. Contenders emerge, they brawl, they take chunks out of Nadal, but ultimately, they fall. With the 2020 clay season now lost, it is worth asking who will take up this mantle on the other side of the tennis lockdown. There was a time, though, when that man was supposed to be Roger Federer.
The 2011 Madrid Masters, played nine years ago this week, is not an obvious place to go searching for Federer-Nadal nostalgia. The two have met forty times, and the suggestion that this match might struggle to make a Federer versus Nadal top ten would not be indelicate. At this time, their chokehold on the men’s game is so strong that every encounter serves up a ridiculous landmark.
In Madrid, the absurdity is that their semi-final billing is a demotion: the last eleven Federer-Nadal contests on clay have all been tournament finals. A three-set match under a closed roof at altitude should favour Federer. However, it would take remarkable optimism to view these as advantages. Nadal arrives here unbeaten on clay for thirty-six matches across nearly two years. His greatness is so readily assumed that this win-streak goes almost unnoticed.
Even with their career stories merely half-told, just putting the names Federer and Nadal next to each other has a magical effect. In May 2011, they are roughly equal partners in the annexation of Grand Slam tennis. This is best illustrated on the surfaces with which they are synonymous: Federer has six championships on the Wimbledon grass to Nadal’s two; Nadal has five titles on the Roland Garros clay to Federer’s one.
This is perhaps why, when the dust settles, the 2008 Wimbledon final against Federer will take pride of place as Nadal’s greatest match win. On the day, it seemed like a historical barrier had been broken. Over time, it is the psychological leap Nadal made in winning grass court tennis’ biggest title that has resonated. Federer, a boyhood clay court player, won Roland Garros the following year. But within the blinkered, petty framework to which rivalries are shackled, he never took Nadal’s title from him. The psychological and stylistic parallels to Nadal’s triumph on grass simply did not exist. By 2011, Federer is an exceptional clay court player. In the way of his greatness, inevitably, stands Nadal.
At this point in his career, the geometry of Federer’s clay game is founded on straight lines. He meets the ball early, takes chances, and knows the value of a good old-fashioned full swing at the right time. He also seems acutely aware of how the surface eats away at his explosiveness. As a result, he will never hit a series of strokes or make a flurry of movements that mean nothing. He has tried a slow, methodical clay game in years past, but the devil that is his blistering shot-making talent sits on his shoulder constantly, demanding that he stop this charade of patience. Keeping that devil at bay is one of his biggest challenges.
Conventional tennis wisdom dictates that points are won and lost between the lines. But Nadal, like no one before or since, weaponizes the space behind the baseline to create time for himself. He uses this time to turn judge, jury, and cold-blooded executioner. His extraordinary athleticism allows him to grab time by the other ear as well, dragging opponents out of position and forcing them to hit shorter. Each shorter return yields valuable fractions of seconds. On quicker surfaces, opponents can take away this time with their own invention or power.
On clay, these fractions of seconds start accumulating unerringly on Nadal’s side of the net. Eventually, even in a sport with no time limit, Nadal’s opponents run out of time. In most environments, Federer versus Nadal is a clash of tennis philosophies. On clay, the very idea that they nominally play the same sport feels like proof that the definition of tennis has been bent out of shape.
Federer’s serve is broken early in the first set in Madrid. He has seen this story before, and starts fighting back immediately. When he does, his shot-making is like oxygen on a fire: an unreal straight-arm backhand flick, a forehand winner down the line hit with manic urgency, even the odd drop shot, a shot he once called a “panic shot” Federer breaks twice from 2-4 down. It is mesmerizing to watch, as much for the quality of the aggressor as for the stature of the victim. His best shots are all being struck within stretching distance from the centre of the court. First set, Federer, 7-5.
As the second set opens, Federer is utterly spent. Leaden legged and jaded, he watches Nadal hit a hatful of winners past him. He gets nowhere near them. He does not even try. Nadal is 4-0 ahead in a flash. Down two set points, Federer tries to hit a backhand behind Nadal. It is a wild risk because there is no angle to strike that ball from an open stance. The ball is going wide before it even crosses the net. Second set, Nadal, 6-1. The match is in the balance on Federer’s serve at 1-2, deuce, when, at last, he has time to think. He has a full two seconds to contemplate over a poor return wrangled out of Nadal’s backhand.
It is a cartoonishly high ball that floats ten, maybe twelve feet in the air. As it descends, Federer is standing a half-step to the forehand side of where the ball will land. This is a standard-issue inside-out forehand into the corner. Shoulder turn, hip turn, contact, Advantage Federer. His arm straightens, but his racquet-head stays still. Nadal sees the racquet-head and starts sprinting.
The effects of playing the way Roger Federer plays Nadal on clay are debilitating. Getting ahead is well and good, but the real challenge is to keep up this ungodly, mindless pace for extended lengths of time. It takes so much physical and mental exertion to get ahead of Nadal that, when fatigue strikes, it hits Federer in both dimensions together. It makes sense, then, that Federer has seen streaks of random success against Nadal on clay: a 7-0 tiebreak in Rome, a 6-1 set in a Roland Garros final, a 6-0 set in Hamburg. He has two wins on clay against Nadal too, among the most underrated wins of this era. No one speaks of them, though, because Nadal’s greatness is so overpowering.
In one horrible, continuous, extended moment, Federer’s plan is revealed. As Nadal’s return drops from the sky, Federer will not unfurl his arm and send his racquet back and through the ball. He will not make that choice, not even with three-fourths of an open court to deposit the ball into. He will instead turn his elbow and wrist and hack at the space behind the ball from a static position. The ball will deflate on impact, drop like a chunk of cement, and hopefully collapse before Nadal reaches it. A drop shot.
Except this one is most definitely a panic shot. Serving behind in the deciding set, with this much margin for error on the safe option, this is a shocking decision. Nadal, of course, has the legs to get there. More importantly, he has the hands once he does get there. He darts a powerful diagonal across court. Federer chases the ball past the tramlines but cannot reach it. He trips over his right foot in giving up the chase. It is a false step, no damage done. The real false step is in Federer’s mind, which drove him, against all good sense, to play a drop shot. Nadal soon breaks for 3-1.
In a cruel twist of fate, Federer is offered redemption for the mistake with Nadal two points from the match. After an eighteen stroke rally, Nadal sends a stalling shot to Federer’s forehand. Federer has less time to see this one coming, so what follows is less thought and more instinct. He gives it the same stiff arm, the same elbow and wrist, the same contact. Nadal actually steps back as Federer goes to strike it, anticipating a full force forehand. Drop shot. The disguise is so complete that the 12,500-strong crowd erupts.
In that moment, there is the faintest flicker of what Federer as the pre-eminent clay court player of this generation might look like. It is destined, however, to be a hollow redemption. Seconds later, Federer nets a backhand, confirming his eleventh loss in thirteen matches to the man he cannot overcome, on the surface that loves him the least. Afterwards, empathy for Federer’s internal dialogue arrives from an unexpected source. “I think,” says Nadal, “we are sometimes thinking more about what to do to bother the other player rather than playing our best.”
On the Sunday afternoon four weekends after Madrid, Federer runs into Nadal again. He hits fifty-one winners in the 2011 Roland Garros final but loses in four sets. This Roland Garros final has now come to be widely acknowledged as the moment Federer abandoned his pursuit of Nadal on clay. But having flamed out in three sets on the more forgiving clay of Madrid, he was never really going to outlast Nadal over five in Paris. Every passing year that washes over the summer of 2011 makes clearer that the script for Federer’s final serious tilt on clay was written in Madrid.
This insight tinges the final images of the Madrid match with a dark melancholy. To watch Federer try his hardest and lose is one thing. But to watch it in the knowledge that he will never again be this desperate to conquer the obsession that so nearly consumed him? That is something else entirely. Madrid also signals that it would have to be greatness of another kind for Federer.
To be sure, this has since matured into a wonderful, wholesome kind of greatness: in records, in longevity, in artistry, in adoration. Above all, it is an omniscient greatness, earned as much by elevating the sport in the popular imagination as by advancing it within the painted lines of a tennis court. As Federer leaves the court in Madrid, the crowd rise to cheer him. He waves to acknowledge them with wistful eyes. He looks disappointed but proud, crestfallen but grateful. At the time, it felt like just another see-you-next-time goodbye.
In hindsight, it feels emblematic of Roger Federer’s journey on clay. Of making peace with an imperfect greatness.