Federer must find a way to keep Nadal off balance

PARIS -- If there were any doubts nagging blisters and an oppressive clay-court season leading up to the French Open would blunt Rafael Nadal's quest for a fourth straight title, he dispelled those quickly.

Nadal has yet to concede a set, while improving his unblemished Roland Garros mark to 27-0. The No. 2 Spaniard is also bidding to join Bjorn Borg as the only players to four-peat on the hallowed grounds of Roland Garros.

For the third consecutive season, Nadal will attempt to quash Roger Federer's dreams of joining the five other players who have won all four Grand Slams. Federer has looked vulnerable this year, beginning with his ballyhooed case on mononucleosis at the Australian Open and has had a few more hiccups at this major than his opponent. But if he can figure out a way to circumvent Nadal's attack, the Swiss maestro's name will be etched atop the pantheon of tennis greatness.

So who wins the final? Bonnie D. Ford and Greg Garber dust off their clay-court shoes and go mano a mano.

Admittedly, it does not look good for Roger Federer.

He has lost eight of nine clay-court matches to Rafael Nadal and is a particularly painful 0-for-3 here at Roland Garros. Nadal, of course, has never lost on the red clay.

Details, details.

There are few folks outside of Federer's box -- girlfriend Miroslava "Mirka" Vavrinec and coach Jose Higueras will support him to the end -- who really believe he can beat Nadal in Sunday's 2008 final. There are some who wonder if Federer himself believes it can happen.

"That's the big question," explained Rene Stauffer, a tennis journalist for Zurich's Tages-Anzeiger and Sonntags-Zeitung. "The Swiss tabloids, they say Federer has a Nadal Complex. I hope they are not right."

If you detected a small whiff of bias in Stauffer, your senses are in good working order. He is also the author of the 2007 book, "The Roger Federer Story: Quest for Perfection."

"There is less pressure than ever on Roger here," Stauffer said. "Maybe that's a good thing."

There are precious few scenarios that would deliver a Federer victory and prevent Nadal from winning his fourth straight title:

• The clay on Court Philippe Chatrier could part like the Red Sea and swallow Nadal whole.

• The blisters that took him out in Rome could suddenly bubble to the surface.

• The drop shot, a new weapon in Federer's arsenal, could really make a difference.

Federer, who has always carried a certain aesthetic about the style and beauty of the game, used to have great disdain for the diminutive drop shot.

"I always thought the drop shot was a panic shot," Federer said on Friday after defeating Gael Monfils in the second semifinal. "It's just something that didn't come very natural for me."

But, with defensive players like Nadal and Monfils playing him four, five feet behind the baseline -- sometimes even as much as 10 feet, Federer has seen the light. In his match against hard-hitting James Blake, Latvian Ernests Gulbis unleashed a dozen drop shots -- and Blake couldn't deal with it. When a player has big groundstrokes, the shot is even more effective; it's sort of like a fastball pitcher with a killer changeup.

This is a way for Federer to keep Nadal honest, off balance and maybe pick up a few free points.

Federer tried his best to sound hopeful.

"I wanted to be in this position, like I told you a long time ago," he said. "That is, Rafa again across the net. I think it's the ultimate test on clay. It looks good for Sunday, for me, anyway."

Federer in five

-- Greg Garber


Making the case for Rafael Nadal to win Sunday's final against Roger Federer feels much as it did to argue that Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls would be favored to win the NBA Finals with 3-0 lead, or that Lance Armstrong was in a good position to win the Tour de France on the eve of the final time trial.

Nadal hasn't just captured three French Open titles in a row -- he's put his foot on the collective throat of the field and choked off its air supply. It has gotten to the point where pushing Nadal to a tiebreak is considered an accomplishment. Novak Djokovic is the only player who has managed to do it this year. Nadal lost a set to Federer in the 2006 final, and just one more since, also to Federer, also in the final last year. In the 2008 edition of the tournament, Nadal has lost an average six games per match. That efficiency also means we haven't heard even a whisper about the aches and pains that sometimes seemed like more of a threat to his success than most of his opponents.

"The way Rafael is playing, I think he's probably playing his best tennis so far, if you compare to the other three years here in Paris,'' no less an authority than six-time French Open champion Bjorn Borg said Saturday. "He's more confident. I think he looks stronger, hitting the ball better, moving well. But just feeling that, you know, if you have a lot of confidence and you go out on the court, you really feel twice as big as the other guy on the other side of the net.''

Nadal is a pretty imposing figure already, as we all know, but it is almost unfathomable to think of the extra blast of helium he must get every time he sets foot on this patch of earth where he's never lost.

And what's terra firma for Nadal is quicksand for Federer -- not so much technically as mentally. Nadal is the roadblock preventing Federer from filling in the last line on his distinguished resume. Borg said unequivocally that winning the French would elevate Federer to the stature of Best Player Ever, a topic hotly debated in the sport ever since Federer's ascension. Many would agree.

By contrast, if Federer were to dethrone Nadal Sunday, the Spaniard knows it would likely be a short exile. He has years and years more to dominate here and to work on the skills that will help him win a Slam on another surface, while at age 26, Federer's chances in Paris are diminishing year by year. That's a burden that would be difficult anytime, but perhaps more so this season as Federer's confidence has wobbled.

It would be great to see a competitive final where Federer is feisty and opportunistic and doesn't leave the heaps of break points on the table like he did last year. There's been much talk about his increased patience, better footwork and improved diversity of shots on clay. That all might make a difference if Nadal had plateaued, but he hasn't -- he's better, too. He's stronger, more mobile and an even more impressive master of spins and angles. If he bolts out to his usual quick start, the only thing that could dent his armor is a lapse in his own intensity.

Nadal in three.

-- Bonnie D. Ford