PALMA DE MALLORCA, Spain (Reuters) - Clay court king Rafael Nadal got the better of world number one and grass court master Roger Federer to win “the battle of the surfaces” in front of his home crowd in Palma on Wednesday.
Nadal, who had won seven of the previous 10 meetings against the Swiss, used his renowned tenacity to edge a 7-5 4-6 7-6 (12-10) victory in an absorbing exhibition match played out on a specially constructed hybrid court that was one half grass and one half clay.
The 20-year-old Spaniard, on a 72-match unbeaten streak on clay after notching up titles at Monte Carlo and Barcelona last month, adjusted better to the mixed surface in a match that was probably the most bizarre tennis challenge since Billie Jean King beat Bobby Rigg in the Battle of the Sexes back in 1973.
The split court gave a clear advantage to the player on the clay side, with the higher bounce giving them more time to line up their shots and move their opponent around the court.
The two players were at their most vulnerable when serving from the grass end of the court as the ball tending to sit up for their opponents and give them time to attack the serve.
Changeovers were extended to two minutes instead of the usual 90 seconds to give players a chance to change their footwear for each surface.
Federer struggled to adapt to the mixed surface and made an uncharacteristic number of unforced errors early in the match.
Nadal took full advantage to break his serve when the Swiss was serving from the grass and go on to take the opening set 7-5.
The Swiss upset the established routine by breaking Nadal’s serve in the opening game of the second set when the Spaniard was on the clay and found his rhythm to take the second set 6-4.
The two players exchanged breaks early in a high-quality third set and it was level pegging right through to the deciding tie-break.
Federer, who is on a 48-match unbeaten streak on grass, looked to be heading for victory after going a mini-break up, but the tenacious Nadal fought back hard to gain the upper hand, eventually winning through 12-10.
The organizers had experienced problems with the grass side of the court after the original turf had failed to cope with the indoor location and then fell victim to a plague of worms.
As a result they decided to lay a brand new surface the night before the clash, transporting in 400 square meters of putting green grass from a local golf club supplier.
In general, the mixed surface stood up well, although the grass side gave some odd bounces in the latter stages.
Apart from the innovations to cope with the novel surface, the match showed little other sign of being an exhibition with both players clearly determined to claim the honor as the first winner of the “battle of the surfaces” which will be played out at the same venue for the next two years.
Writing by Simon Baskett in Madrid