The Net Post: Roger Federer unsurprised by Rafael Nadal’s comeback

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Roger Federer insisted he did not watch a single stroke of Rafael Nadal’s staggering exploits in Monte Carlo the week before last when the Spanish leviathan won the title for a sixth time in succession, losing 14 games in the process. Did the results surprise him? “I was more surprised that everybody thought Rafa wasn’t playing so well any more,” the world No 1 said. “The critics in this sport are at a pretty high level. I went through the same thing before.”

The higher you rise, the greater the praise, and the more intense the scrutiny becomes if the wheels should start to lack traction. The Wimbledon champion knows how the game is played. By “high level” the 16-time grand slam champion did not mean that he bowed to the quality of the questions raised against Nadal, but more that he found a lot of what had been written about his friendly foe rather disquieting.

“He (Nadal) should have clearly won Doha in the first week of the year when he was playing incredible tennis, he was toying with (Nikolay) Davydenko in the final before Davydenko got a little lucky, saved a match point and ended up playing an incredible third set,” Federer said. “He was playing really well in the Australian Open before he had to pull out (against Andy Murray) and everybody started to get negative. There has been too much of that about him in my opinion. Surely you would have to assume that once the clay-court season came around, he was going to be back to his A-game.”

It was A+ in Monte Carlo and now that he is rested by choosing not to repel all invaders in Barcelona for a sixth time – Fernando Verdasco, beaten 6-0, 6-1 by Nadal in the Monaco final, collected that title, defeating Robin Soderling yesterday – Nadal ought to be refreshed for the formidable challenges ahead.

Federer looked pretty bloomin’ blossoming as he did his usual frenetic media rounds at the Foro Italico. It has got to the point where women with babies in pushchairs ask Tony Godsick, his manager, to pose for pictures with their offspring, hoping no doubt that the acumen with which he has delivered Federer’s off-the-field splendour will rub off on them.

Of the nine current Masters in which he has competed (Federer did not play in Shanghai last year when it became a Masters 1000 for the first time), Rome is only one of three, along with Paris and Monte Carlo, that he has not won. He did have two match points on his racket in the extraordinary five-set final here in 2006, which would have satisfied an awful lot of people not named Federer. He did not baulk at the point made to him that this is Nadal’s title to lose.

“His record would suggest that for sure,” Federer said. “He has been on an absolute tear on clay, he has only ever lost one match at the French Open and though I would love to say that I’m the big favourite here and in Paris, it would not seem quite right. Rafa has proved again in Monaco just how tough he is but I think there are guys out here who can challenge him.”

Federer was intriguing, too, on the travails of Murray and Novak Djokovic, the young pretenders who have hit the odd stumbling block recently. Djokovic has returned, lock, stock and barrel to Marian Vajda, his long-time coach, having believed that Todd Martin, the American, may have been able to offer him solace and a new understanding of his game. Sometimes, if it ain’t really broke, there is no need to seek out a different fixer. Murray’s travails are well known.

“I was always pretty impressed at how incredibly solid they were in the Masters events, always in the semis or quarters,” Federer said, “because I know how hard that is to do. I never took those kind of achievements for granted, even when they were expected of me. They are obviously feeling it more now, when they aren’t winning the Masters and have not won a grand slam in the last year. The aura can fade and now, with Nadal winning Monaco, the situation has changed again. It will be interesting to see how it turns out and if they can bounce back.”

Djokovic called it a “crisis that everyone has to go through” and yet the Serbian is No 2 in the world, he is a grand slam champion and he is not 23 until next month. “I have got my thoughts back together, I’m working on some things, but it’s been mentally exhausting for me.”

The greater concern among the protagonists in the men’s game is the continued inactivity of Argentina’s Juan Martin Del Potro, the US Open champion, who has not played since Melbourne because of an injury to his right wrist. There is still pain there, the Net Post is told, and he is considered only a ‘maybe’ for the Mutua Madrilena Masters in Madrid the week after next.

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