PARIS (Reuters) - Before this French Open semi-final match-up it had been all about the dizzying numbers and statistics, but once great foes Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal stepped on to the Roland Garros center court, all that mattered was both men’s preternatural ability to strike a small yellow ball.
On Friday, it was Nadal’s swinging, looping, whip-crack style which prevailed over Federer’s finesse and near-perfect timing as he reached his 12th Roland Garros final 6-3 6-4 6-2.
The Spaniard had never lost to Federer in their five previous French Open meetings, but hadn’t beaten the Swiss in their last five matches overall, a run stretching back five years.
Something had to give.
But for all the anticipation, in the event it was Federer’s winning streak that gave way — with no little brutality.
Simply put, the swirling, gusty winds inside Court Philippe Chatrier far better suited the Spaniard’s style which has more safety built in, his heavily topspun shots clearing the net by some distance, and it resulted in his most one-sided Grand Slam triumph over Federer since beating him 6-1 6-3 6-0 here in 2008.
“I don’t find any sparring partners... playing like Federer. There are no two people like Federer on this planet. Luckily, actually,” Nadal said. “It’s incredible, congratulations to Roger... incredible to play at that level aged 37.
“He’s probably the best player in history, it’s a great pleasure to play with him.
“Him and me know each other. We played many times against each other. But these are matches where we can always find this small plus, this additional shot.
“And when I play against Roger, I always expect the best from him.”
The wind barely dropped all match with both players buffeted throughout, and rubbing grit from their eyes from time to time.
It hardly made for exceptional tennis, but both men pulled off breathtaking shots worthy of their status as two of the sport’s greats.
“It is true that today was a little bit too much,” Nadal said. “So difficult to control the situation and understand the things that were going on court. But I think my personal feeling is I played a great match with those conditions.”
While the conditions were tough for both men, as Federer wistfully reflected, the gusts probably knocked the wind out of his game more than Nadal’s.
“It was incredibly windy,” Federer said. “So you’re trying to see how much can you do or can you not do? Are you playing flatter or with more spin? Are you keeping the ball in play? Are you going for stuff? I think that was basically the story of the first set, more or less.
“Holding serve against the wind with Rafa’s quality on the return is just really hard, you know? He barely misses any. And then when he’s in the rally, he plays with great spin on the forehand, great sort of control on the backhand side.
“So it’s just really hard to find holes, especially in the wind, if you’re trying to hit through the ball, which is really difficult, actually.”
He continued: “It was just crazy. No excuses, but it was crazy.
“I don’t think I played poorly in the wind today. It’s just it’s tough on clay. You know, you’ve got to try to take on the half volleys, too, all that stuff. It just adds to the equation. He’s the best clay court player, so I can accept that. It’s not a problem.”
Nadal has now won 24 of the pair’s 39 meetings, and his triumph gives him a shot of moving closer to Federer’s men’s record of 20 Grand Slam titles. The Spaniard sits on 17.
To do so, however, he may need to beat world number one Novak Djokovic who himself is on 15 Grand Slam titles. The Serb meets Austrian fourth seed Dominic Thiem later on Friday.
Editing by Keith Weir and Christian Radnedge