Nadal's fire and emotion propel him to fourth French Open title

Rafael Nadal improved his career mark at the French Open to 28-0 with four titles. Jacques DeMarthon/AFP/Getty Images

PARIS -- Too good.

That's player shorthand for the times when you're helpless against the other guy's onslaught, no matter how well you play.

Rafael Nadal was all that in the 2008 French Open men's final, but the championship match was also something else.

Too easy.

Most experts picked Nadal to win his fourth straight title on the court where he is undefeated, even if he was, absurdly, seeded second in the event. Few would have guessed the top seed would win only four games and turn in the least competitive effort of their three consecutive finals.

Sunday's shellacking was Groundhog Day for Roger Federer, an unwelcome déjà vu, and his peeks at the sunshine seem to be diminishing. Nadal hogs this ground hungrily, relentlessly, proudly. He has been running in place in the No. 2 spot for nearly three years now, but this tournament provides his one sure opportunity to charge to the front, and he accepts it with relish -- even when his opponent doesn't put up much resistance.

"If I am playing my best tennis ever, [I'm] never going to win 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 against Roger Federer, no?" said Nadal, now 41-0 in five-set matches on clay. "For sure, it's impossible. He didn't play very well. Everybody knows that because [of] the result."

As Nadal underscored, he is still closer to No. 3 than No. 1 in terms of ATP rankings points, but he expressed deep satisfaction with the improvements he has made to his arsenal -- slicing, changing direction, mixing a few flat balls in with his signature topspin.

He might have made it look simple, but Nadal puts too much pressure on himself for anyone to call this two-week tournament a joyride. "If I don't win this one, it's going to be difficult for me to win others throughout the year," he said. "So it's difficult for me, but I'm happy. As for the other [Grand Slams], I have a feeling that if I win this tournament, whatever happens during the rest of the season, it's going to be great season all the same."

The lopsided nature of this victory does raise questions about what Federer's mind-set and form will be going into the next Grand Slam, even if that one has been his fiefdom for the past five years.

"If [Nadal] survives the first couple rounds this year, I pick him to win Wimbledon," Bjorn Borg said as he made his way through a shell-shocked crowd in the players' lounge after the match.

Federer said he will continue to work with new coach Jose Higueras at least through Wimbledon. He might need the moral support after absorbing his worst thrashing in 173 career Grand Slam matches. His previous nadir was a straight-sets defeat to Andre Agassi in the fourth round of the 2001 U.S. Open in which Federer won just seven games. The third-set bagel was Federer's first in any match since 1999.

He tried valiantly to find something positive in the rubble. "I could lose every time in the semifinals and tell myself I don't want to face [Nadal] in the finals, but I've been strong and I've been tough, and I made my way there," Federer said. "That gives me great, great feeling, you know, a good satisfaction."

Outside the television compound on the grounds of Roland Garros, two tennis fans vented about the match. They had more credibility than most. Three-time French Open winner Mats Wilander of Sweden and two-time finalist Alex Corretja of Spain, both commentators now, embraced and started to chat.

Corretja: We knew that could happen.

Wilander: But we hoped that when you've won 12 Grand Slams, you would give him a little bit of body language, so that maybe Rafa thinks that Roger thinks he has a chance.

Corretja: Yes, yes, yes.

Wilander: What's happening to all of them against Rafa? The only battle you can battle with him is in the mind. His tennis is too good. Show me a little fire.

Corretja: He gave up. Just ridiculous.

Wilander: I mean, show me some emotion. I don't want to waste my day watching a guy who's that good a player …

Corretja: Me too. I feel like he's probably the greatest, and now I feel like, I can't give you this.

Wilander: Exactly how I feel. I mean, you have to get emotionally involved. Otherwise, you're doing the wrong thing, you have the wrong job. I mean I understand the tactics, the tactics were OK. He was trying to hit the forehand early. He executed horribly.

Corretja: Still, for me -- it's 15-0 in the first game. He misses the first two forehands like this (holds hand close to ground). So flat, no thinking already, on the second point.

Wilander: How many let cords did he have? It's not bad luck.

Corretja: My [broadcast] partner said it was bad luck. I said no, it was bad playing.

Under intense pressure from Nadal, who stayed inside the lines more than usual, and undone by a cascade of errors, Federer was in trouble from the start. He dug himself a hole and faced break points in every one of his service games in the first set, including the one he won.

Nadal reeled off six straight games to wrap up the first set and go up 2-0 in the second. Federer then roused himself, began hitting his groundstrokes with greater alacrity and came to the net much more frequently. He broke Nadal and held his own serve, and a huge cheer erupted from a crowd that wasn't in the mood to see a champion humbled.

The spectators did not get their wish. Federer's first convincing service hold enabled him to stay on serve at 3-all, but also proved to be the last game he won. He forced a break point in the next game, but Nadal fended it off with a drop shot that a sliding Federer tried to intercept but put the volley in the net. Nadal went on to hold.

Nadal clamped down after that, and Federer bled out in the third set, his shoulders slumped in resignation as he lost power, accuracy and any sense of touch. With all suspense drained from the proceedings, Nadal eschewed his normal roll in the dirt after match point and simply lifted his arms skyward.

"Today it was tough for Roger, I think, and I have to be respectful with one very good guy," Nadal said.

Moments later, Federer accepted the silver tray that is awarded to the runner-up and took the microphone. His first words, in French, were revealing. "Oui, c'est moi," [Yes, it's me], he said, as if he needed to reassure people that he hadn't been impersonated by an evil, incompetent twin.

Federer might feel as if he has tried everything. All we can say is that it must feel too strange to feel that cosmic force coming at him from the other side of the net when he is far more used to having it the other way around.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.