Where it went wrong for Roger Federer

PARIS -- In a sometimes frantic final that stretched to 44 games, the first game of the fourth set may well have been the deal breaker for Roger Federer.

With Federer ebbing and flowing -- good and bad -- for games at a time, he had just found his best rhythm of the match. Rafael Nadal, up two sets and 4-2, had fallen off the torrid pace he had been keeping, and Federer rallied to win five of six games, breaking Nadal twice.

"You're not thinking of winning the match, but you're thinking of coming back and turning around the match," Federer said. "All of a sudden, at 0-0 in the fourth set you think, 'OK we have a match again.'"

If you've watched Nadal's matches, you know he often loses the first point of his service games; it's almost as if he's trying to dig a hole for himself as a way of extracting total concentration. With the match very much in play, though, Nadal contrived to lose the first three points. A sweet stab volley by Federer and a tentative forehand into the net left Rafa staring at love-40.

A break by Federer here? Considering the emotion he was feeling and the momentum Federer was building, it might have changed the match.

"He has to go a long way to beat you again, and momentum is on my side," Federer said. "All of a sudden, we know what can happen in tennis. All of a sudden it almost looked like he was going to miss the beginning of the fourth set and I could maybe run away with that."

But Rafa, glaring all the time, won the next two points and the third, too, with a smoking 120-mph serve down the middle. Three break points saved -- Nadal saved 10-of -5 for the match. A big serve led to game point.

Nadal sent a huge forehand to Federer's increasingly unreliable backhand, which led to a frustrated and futile mishit.

"[If there was a] fifth set," Federer said, wistfully. "I would have felt very, very strong like I did back in Miami when I beat him from being down two sets to love. So I knew I had it in me. It was unfortunate I couldn't make it more competitive in the fourth set."

Five straight points. A gritty hold. And Nadal went on to win five of the next six games.

That's why he's a six-time champion at Roland Garros and the reason he'll likely add to that total.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.