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Madrid Masters 2010: Ah well.
Anyway, I didn't intend to watch the match at all, but I found myself waking up at 2 AM and checking my phone to see Wei Chuen's updates on the match. Found out that Nadal took the first set; also found out that Nadal was smacking winners all over the place. He then said it was 1-all second set and they both kept breaking each other. I tried to go back to sleep. I couldn't.
Got up to watch the second set. Was hoping Roger would force a third, but a bad bounce at match point in the second set tie-break cost him the match.
Can't say I'm not disappointed, but simultaneously, can't say I'm overly crushed, too. I can easily think of 2 or 3 losses that depressed me more than this one - Australian Open 09, US Open 09 (though that was tempered by the fact that I liked Del Pot), his stupid losses to Murray towards the end of the 2008 season. Roger's had a really shit spring season; this time last week I was wondering if he could even make the final of Madrid. His clay court season didn't actually start until, arguably, Madrid - his early exit in Rome and his WTF loss to Montanes in Estoril certainly didn't help much in the match play department.
And yet, there he was, facing Rafael Nadal in a final. Nadal is a monster on clay, and he went into the match without losing a single match on clay. Before the match started I knew that Roger wasn't going to win because of his severe lack of match practice; I knew that he wasn't ready to take on Nadal yet. Despite his magnificent victory over the same opponent on the same stage last year, this year, he didn't have the advantage of making it to the semi-final of Rome and playing a few matches in Monte-Carlo.
And yet, he kept it close throughout. At least, that was the case in the second set. When he was broken to give Nadal a 3-2 lead I wanted him to just lose it there and then so that I could be put out of my misery and go back to bed; but when he fought his way back into the match and played so well to give himself three break points and eventually converting the third, I was reminded again of why I love watching this man. I love watching him win - there's no doubt about that. He makes winning look easy, like an entitlement, and he does it so effortlessly and gracefully and beautifully. But there's something equally compelling in watching him in tough situations, watching him dig deep and pull himself out of losing situations, watching him try beyond his capabilities in that moment to give himself chances.
Watching him is almost poetic. Watching him struggle to win would be enough to move me to tears if I weren't so damn invested in the only acceptable outcome - a Federer victory. And so I still hate it when he has to play Nadal - not just on clay, but at all. And it's just unfortunate for him that most of their meetings have been on clay, Nadal's best surface, and that there are a grand total of zero Masters tournaments on grass, Roger's best surface (and hard court).
I think Roger definitely hung in there in spirit. He wanted to win, and he tried his best to win. I think he played well, all things considered - stupid lung infection post-Australian Open which disrupted his training schedule, pathetic losses to lesser players at the start of the clay court season, and an all-around rustiness caused by lack of match practice. Over the course of the tournament I could see his game coming together, see him regaining his form; but it wasn't enough to give him the win against an opponent who makes his bed on clay and has utterly dominated the season.
I was actually quite surprised by Roger's seeming lack of game plan. I thought he would play like he did last year - throwing in drop shots, his amazing backhand slice, attacking at the net, attacking Nadal's forehand, to disrupt Nadal's rhythm and keep him guessing. Instead, Roger seemed content to hang around the baseline and let Nadal dictate the points. He seemed eager to embrace the Nadal challenge to his backhand head-on regardless of whether he could actually hang in there. His backhand held up somewhat; I've seen it broken down a lot worse, most notably by Murray at the end of the 2008 season. He played some amzing cross-court shots from his backhand, but also couldn't control his backhand return of serve on crucial points. But above all else, I wish he'd mixed it up even more. Too little drop shots, and his approach shots were sadly laughable. He simply cannot beat Nadal from the baseline, but that's actually okay because he has more variety of shots at his disposal than Nadal has and a complete game whereas Nadal's all about power baseline tennis. Going by his sheer talent alone, he shouldn't be constantly losing to Nadal, and I really think he shouldn't have lost this match.
But all things in perspective. It was a miracle he made it to the final, and he looks on his way to peaking at the right moment, for the French Open. In fact, I'd gladly take this defeat if it means he'd defend his title in Roland Garros. If he was partly testing out the waters and seeing where his game is really at with this match, then I'm happy that he still kept it close despite all the factors working against him. I always, ALWAYS hate to see him lose, but if it means paving the way to better things, especially after a craptastic season, then I'm fine with that.