“If you want to do or achieve something on the clay, inevitably, at some stage, you will go through Rafa,” Roger Federer said after his French Open quarterfinal, “because he’s that strong, and he will be there.”
As recently as this spring, it wasn’t clear that Federer wanted to do something on the clay at all anymore. He pulled out of the clay season early with an injury in 2016. Then he sat out the clay entirely in 2017 and 2018, both fruitful years where he seemed to be picking his battles more judiciously to maximize his title odds in his late career. The slow surface is least friendly to his punchy, concise style of play; there’s a whole lot of running involved; and, at the crux, there is a Rafael Nadal. Federer managed to spin that last bit as a positive, and maybe, in his rare mind, it is—an appealing challenge to conquer. I am human and nothing human is alien to me, except the desire to seek out Rafael Nadal on clay. Some people like to run a sleep-deprived 130 miles through forbidding wilderness, and that I get, at least a little bit. This, not so much. Today at the French Open, Federer got his wish, in straight sets.
Despite lagging behind in the career head-to-head by a large margin, Federer had only happy short-term memories: a clean 5-0 record against his archrival through the last two seasons, often attributed to an abbreviated backhand swing and a larger racket face which let him strike Nadal’s topspin ball before it rose to unmanageable height. This recent dominance was perhaps reason for renewed belief in a situation where no one should, statistically speaking, believe in themselves. And the early returns were encouraging. Federer made the quarterfinals in his two warmup tournaments in Madrid and Rome, then, in Paris, coasted through the first four rounds before cutting off his dangerous countryman Stan Wawrinka. After a long self-imposed hiatus, Federer looked good on dirt—a reminder of the fact, occluded by being alive at the same time as Rafa, that Federer is an all-time great on the surface.
And on the other side of the matchup, Nadal had looked a little more permeable than usual, possibly still dogged by the knee injury that ended his hardcourt season. The default expectation is still that he wins every clay event he enters. After losing just one match on clay in each of the last two seasons, he’d actually lost (gulp) three heading into the French: one to the loose noodle Fabio Fognini, one to the posting king Stefanos Tsitsipas, and one to the usual suspect, Dominic Thiem, who’d been the only one to beat the Spaniard on the surface over the last two years. Sizing up the best-of-three results, there were signs of vulnerability.
But everything changes in best-of-five. The law of slightly larger numbers will prevail. It might be possible to ascend to the astral plane and thump Rafa off the baseline for two sets, but maintaining that state for another set is deleterious to the body and psyche. Nobody can keep it up for long. Rafa is 92-2 at the French Open, including a 6-0 record against Fed. Lump in the other stray instances of best-of-five on clay, and the Spaniard has won an unnatural 98 percent of all of them.
Unfortunately for Roger Federer, his French Open semifinal was a best-of-five match on clay against Rafael Nadal, and it went the way that those things do. Despite 40 mph gusts that sent the clay whirling like a Mad Max set—
—the quality of play was pretty stellar through two sets. These are two players not easily cowed by bad conditions, with maxed-out feel for the ball and the footwork to cope with wonky bounces and trajectories. Even inside a wind tunnel they produced a few rallies faintly reminiscent of their prime battles. The 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 score line sells it a bit short. Roger Federer was playing great tennis. Rafael Nadal was playing something tennis-adjacent, something that envelops and erases great tennis. Federer broke serve (twice). Nadal broke right back (twice). Federer laced a groundstroke while moving forward into the court. Nadal ripped a better one off his back foot. Federer rushed the net. Nadal had already traced out the trajectory of the passing shot. The Swiss’s every move found a ready, vicious answer.
By the third set, the sirens audible on court in Paris felt a little on the nose.
What are you supposed to do with this?
In prolonged rallies between these two, bet on Rafa every time. Even after all the years and all the injuries he still has the stamina and shot-making genius to gut out points like those, for two weeks straight, leaving with the title; this weekend, he’ll go for Number 12. When he flies 15 feet off the baseline to recover a ball and then reels off a winner some 10 shots later, don’t grasp at explanations. You just have to sit there and watch him break it down. It seems increasingly clear that Novak Djokovic is the only man alive who can hang with him at that level, producing baseline rallies with a perverse Escher geometry all their own. Federer can’t gut it out like that on slow surfaces, at least not anymore, and maybe he knew that going in. Maybe he just wanted to see how far he could go.
“I haven’t played on clay for three years, so maybe for the first time in 15 years I can go to the French and be like, ‘Let’s just see what happens,’” Federer told the Times ahead of the clay season. “And maybe that’s exactly what is going to make a beautiful result. And if it’s not, no problem.” A major semifinal is one of the highest feats in the sport. So it is possible that he would classify the last few weeks and even this afternoon spent in a dusty hell as a “beautiful result.” Roger Federer is a braver, stranger man than me.