Roger Federer fell one win short of winning in Rome for the third time on Sunday, as he was beaten and outclassed by Rafael Nadal 6-1, 6-3. As a Federer fan it wasn't pretty to watch but Nadal was on his game and Roger wasn't, and when that happens, the match will be lopsided on clay.
The first two games were fine from Federer, but after that everything fell apart. Nadal started to utilize his tried-and-true patterns of play and Roger saw error after error fly off his racket as he tried to go for too much. To be fair to Fed, Nadal did play very well especially off the return and he did what he had to do to win - namely keep peppering the Federer backhand, forcing him onto the back foot and not letting him attack as he would so love to do. Nadal, a generally defensive baseliner, is able to be more aggressive than he is against, say, Djokovic, because he is getting short balls from one wing much of the time.
At the end of the day, it's a bad loss but the loss itself wasn't unexpected at all given their history on clay. Nadal on that surface is just the worst possible opponent for Federer and the challenges posed to the Swiss from Rafa are grander than the challenges he faces from any other opponent.
From my point of view, I don't know why Roger wasn't coming to net behind the first serve every point. Nadal was standing 10 feet behind the baseline to return and he just looped the ball back into play, usually deep, and from there he had the advantage. Fed needed to be like Stefan Edberg during the match. Edberg would come into net behind every serve. And I mean every serve. It didn't matter whether he got passed 10 straight times, he would always come in. This is what Roger needed to do to at least try and neutralize the edge Nadal has in the baseline rallies (especially today, when he was missing everything). Make him hit passing shots over and over and over and over.
It did seem to me that the conditions were very slow as it was dry and the match was played during the day. Nadal's shots kicked even higher off the court and that meant Roger could not attack whatsoever off the backhand side.
Everything Federer's game is designed to do he cannot, or at least with the same proficiency, against Rafa. Roger loves to hug the baseline and take the ball early, Nadal's heavy spin pushes him back. Federer likes to set up points with his backhand, Nadal doesn't allow him to as the majority of backhands are hit at shoulder height and off balance. Federer wants to win free points off his serve, Nadal gets many returns back and neutralizes the server's advantage immediately. Nadal's style is literally Federer's kryptonite with the exception of indoor hardcourt, which rules out the elements.
I have never seen a match-up like Federer/Nadal where one player is pushed so far out of his comfort zone and one player is able to play so easily right in it. Federer wants to play aggressive, and when he can't because of Rafa's forehand, he rushes and misses. While it is true that winning the points in 5 shots or less is a good play against Rafa, it's easier said than done with the way the Spaniard defends. Nadal also rarely gives him the opportunity to attack right away as the first ball he hits is aimed at Federer's backhand, pushing him back where he doesn't want to be.
Overall, it was still a great week in my view. Federer made his first final of the year, he served well all week, nearing 70% throughout the 5 matches played. He got the match practice needed for Roland Garros, and I expect he will do well there, at least making the quarterfinals. Much will depend on the draw.
I'm honestly not upset at all by the loss. Nadal fans will gloat as Rafa has a 20-10 head-to-head now. The media will write many articles about Federer's decline and they will speak of retirement. As always whenever Federer loses, things get blown far out of proportion.
Today wasn't his day. He ran into a great Rafa and he cannot do much against the King of Clay when he is firing on all cylinders. It's doubtful the French Open will bring him success but I believe the only person he can't beat in that tournament is Nadal. Not saying he can't lose to Berdych or Tsonga or Djokovic, but he can beat them. He can't beat Rafa. Certainly not in best of 5. He couldn't when he was 25-28, and he is definitely not.
Looking forward to Roland Garros, don't feel too bad Fed fans.