Rafael Nadal recalls: ‘I suffered, but I beat Roger Federer at Roland Garros’

Finishing the previous season on the ATP throne, Rafael Nadal faced a massive challenge in 2011 in the name of Novak Djokovic. Making one of the best starts in tennis history, Novak was the player to beat all the way through the US Open, beating the Spaniard in many notable finals and becoming world no. 1 for the first time after Wimbledon. Rafa claimed the title in Monte Carlo and Barcelona (Novak did not play there) and lost the finals against the Serb in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Rome, hoping for a better run at Roland Garros. Winning five titles in the last six years in Paris, Nadal could not produce his best tennis on the beloved Major, surviving a scare against John Isner in the first round. After that, the Spaniard used a favorable draw to enter the quarters and toppled the two-time finalist Robin Soderling and Andy Murray to advance into another title match at his beloved Major. Like in 2006, 2007 and 2008, Rafa fought for the trophy against Roger Federer, as the Swiss delivered Novak Djokovic’s first season’s loss in the semis.

On June 5, Nadal forged a hard-fought 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1 triumph in three hours and 40 minutes for his sixth Roland Garros title, matching the record of Bjorn Borg. It was the 45th victory for Rafa from 46 encounters in Paris, giving everything to secure the tenth Major crown. In the previous three Roland Garros finals, Roger converted five out of 31 break chances against Rafa. He was eager to push a great rival to the limits in this one following that thrilling victory over Novak in the semis, setting eyes on the second Roland Garros crown. Rafa won 13 points more than Roger, delivering more efficient tennis on both serve and return to forge the triumph after saving ten out of 15 break opportunities. The Spaniard stole Federer’s serve on eight occasions and raced towards the finish line when the Swiss finally lost the ground in the fourth set. As always against Nadal on clay, Federer was eager to keep the points on his racquet and move Rafa from the comfort zone while defending his backhand at the same time.

It worked well for him for the first three hours, but Nadal was there to conquer the most critical points and seal the deal in the fourth set when he broke Roger’s defense. Federer had more winners but could not avoid many errors, as in most matches against Rafa that he lost. Nothing could separate them in the quickest rallies, which was very important for Nadal. Roger actually won more longest exchanges, only to lose the match in the mid-range ones where Nadal had a clear edge. Federer broke in game two on his fourth break chance after Nadal’s huge forehand error and held at 15 with a smash winner to open a 3-0 lead. The Swiss served well in the early stages and made another good hold in game seven to move 5-2 up, looking good to conquer the opener. Rafa saved a set point on serve in the next game when Roger missed an easy backhand drop shot and pulled the break back a few minutes later to reduce the deficit to 5-4.

Rafael Nadal had to work hard against Roger Federer at Roland Garros 2011.

Federer lost his composure and suffered another break at 5-5 before Nadal landed a forehand winner in game 12 to steal the opener 7-5 after 62 minutes, rattling off the last five games! A forehand winner earned a break for Nadal at the start of the second set, and he held at love after a service winner to cement the lead and build momentum. Facing another challenge in game five, Federer hit two aces to fend off two break points before repelling another for an important hold. That became even more important after Nadal’s loose service game at 4-3, hitting a poor backhand to drop serve and bringing Federer back into contention. However, the Swiss could not use this momentum and sprayed another backhand error in game nine to get broken and fall 5-4 down. Nadal failed to stay calm and made a forehand mistake on set point before the action got suspended due to the rain. When they returned to the court, Rafa wasted another set point, and Roger broke back to level the score at 5-5 and extend his chances.

The winner had to be decided in the tie break where Nadal opened a 6-3 gap and blasted a forehand winner to gain a huge two sets to love advantage after two hours and 15 minutes of grueling tennis. After five easy holds in set number three, Roger missed an easy forehand to experience a break, pulling it back right away at love thanks to a drop shot winner. Federer had the momentum in those moments, securing another break at 15 in game 11 with a forehand winner to serve for the set. Another forehand winner delivered the set for the Swiss, reducing the deficit after three hours and five minutes of entertaining tennis.

Shaken but not beaten, Rafa made a big step in the opening game of the fourth set, saving three break chances for a crucial hold and moving in front when Roger netted a forehand at 2-1, increasing his chances of finishing the match before the decider. Federer had nothing more left in the tank after playing on the level terms with Nadal for some 200 minutes, losing serve again in game six and approaching the exit door as Rafa served for the title. In a manner of a true champion, the Spaniard fired two winners to create three match points, converting the first after Federer’s huge forehand error to lift his sixth title in Paris and join Bjorn Borg on the immortal list.

“I suffered a lot at Roland Garros and still ended up winning against Roger Federer, who beat Novak Djokovic in the semi-final,” Rafael Nadal said.

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