Rome Masters, Men’s Final
Rafael Nadal  def. Roger Federer  6-1, 6-3
The surest way to find the words to describe a complicated experience, such as the feeling you get while watching two of the greatest tennis players since the fall of the Roman Republic fight a distressingly one-sided battle, is to go someplace where you have absolutely no ability to write anything down. The shower; the forest; the fields; the 880 freeway. Trust me, if you do this, the words, they will come. And then you will have the singular pleasure of trying to figure out how the hell to remember them.
I had just such an experience today, when I took to the trails in the sun-bleached California hills in search of syllables to describe the Men’s Final at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia. Midway through my hike, as I was ascending out of an especially sunny, silent valley and lost in important thoughts about whether my next pair of sneakers ought to have blue accents instead of purple, I rounded a sharp bend and found myself confronted with a sizeable rattle snake.
Truly, it was a big snake. At least as big as Roger Federer’s arm. OK, his left arm. But still. It was clear the creature had been basking peacefully on the parched trail, and it was equally as clear that my arrival caused displeasure. To say he looked at me askance would be an understatement. To say he fixed me with a Tom-Berdych-worthy eye-killing is more like it. The snake reared his head, and reinforcing his position in the exact center of the trail, he shook his rattle. I froze. And that is when the words came. Naturally.
Since I had nothing to write with (see above), I decided I had better focus on not being attacked by a deadly beast who seemed to have me confused with a shiny silver athletic trophy. There was no way around the snake, the only way to go forward was to go back. And so back I went, very slowly. One meter, two meters, three meters, four meters... As I inched backward on the dirt, it occurred to me that pretty soon I would be as far from the snake as Rafael Nadal stands from the baseline when he feels threatened. Maybe it was all the rattling in my ears, but at the time this thought struck me as deeply profound. I was going to win this battle through defense!
Granted, I did not so much kill the snake, or even hit tennis balls past him, as I did wait for him to slither off into the dry brush. From a strictly technical standpoint, there was no real winning or losing involved. But still, it's the thought that counts. I avoided being bitten by a snake by taking defensive action, which also happens to be what Rafael Nadal did against Ernests Gulbis in his hard-won three-set victory on Thursday, and exactly what Roger Federer did not do against a lethal Nadal on Sunday.
Of course, this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Rafael Nadal has a natural propensity for defense, and Roger Federer an attractive inclination for relentless attack. (It goes without saying that Nadal is no Gulbis, and that waiting for him to slither off into the dry brush is going to be a winning strategy.) There is also little reason to suppose that playing a more patient game would have earned Roger Federer the match, but it might have helped him land a few more balls in the court. (The Swiss won only 36 out of 95 points, while making 32 unforced errors.)
There were few who thought Federer likely to come away with the title, but many, including the enthusiastic crowd at the Campo Centrale —as well as those of us determined to take his change in hairdo as symbolic of his change in fortune— hoped he would put up a good fight. And indeed Federer started off well-enough, taking the first game with an ace down the T; a winning serve-volley point; a forehand winner; and a winner at the net. (Nadal won the only second serve point in the game with an inside-out forehand winner.) Commentators Robbie Koenig and Jason Goodall enthusiastically pronounced the game to be “glorious,” and “full of good things.” Like a pair of Roman augurs misreading the flight-patterns of predator birds, the dynamic duo completely mistook the auspices.
Instead, Nadal pretty much dominated pretty much everything that happened after that, to put it into technical terms. The match looked a lot like the other times Rafa has routed Federer on clay. As Koenig observed a little later on, much more accurately this time, “the pattern is so simple:” Nadal goes to Federer’s forehand to open the backhand, then back to the forehand, this time to open the backhand for the kill shot. If the strategy doesn’t work the first time, he repeats it.
But this final was not disappointing because patterns were repeated, or because Federer’s hawkish game fell short. It was that something in Roger Federer’s survival instinct seemed to fail him today. He froze. Yes, he lacked a B-plan, but more than that, when confronted with Nadal at his instinctual best, Federer looked thoroughly, well, rattled.
It was all over very quickly —just 69 minutes from first point to last— and I doubt the result is too portentous for Roger. It was Federer’s first final of 2013, which is progress, and he lost badly, but he lost it to Rafael Nadal, on clay. By contrast, the week in Rome signifies quite a lot for the Mallorcan. First of all, Rafa is now numerically reinstated the Big Four. (David Ferrer can finally exhale.) Since his return from his injury lay-off, Rafa has made eight finals in as many tournaments, three of them Masters, and become champion of six. Largely for this reason, the media has been forced to drum up the annual Race to London five months earlier than usual. Rafa still trails Federer, Murray, and Djokovic in the official rankings, but he’s 690 ranking-points ahead of the competition in the 2013 tally, putting him on the College of Augurs’ shortlist for year-end No. 1.
And most important, going into Roland Garros, Rafa’s tennis is tremendous. The first set of Friday’s semifinal victory over Tomas Berdych was as gracefully dominant a set of tennis as I’ve seen from Nadal this year, and the second set wasn’t too shabby either. (The final might have been equally as lovely to look at, had not his opponent been so prone to hit his forehand into the net.) Everything is humming along beautifully for Nadal right now, from his footwork to his forehand, to his ability to drive through the hitch in his backhand, to whatever internal passions fuel his psychological drive.
This latest trophy in Rome, his seventh in nine tries, is Rafa’s 41st clay court title, which is more than the rest of the top ten players combined. Next week he will vie for his eighth French Open title, which makes one Coupe des Mousquetaires for every year of the Roman-Gallic Wars, in case you were wondering. To further plunder a nonsensical historical reference, Nadal looks as prepared as even the most imperious dictator to set forth from Rome and conquer.
Rafa has always seemed to feel more comfortable in the role of rebel freedom-fighter than mighty princeps. He prefers to battle dangerous opponents (also the dahn-ger-hous ones) than to experience himself as the lethal entity. So perhaps it's best not to tell him this last bit: When I encountered the rattler on the trail today — with his deadly fangs and basilisk stare — the first word that came to mind was “Rafa.”