MADRID – Playing in front of the Queen of Spain, the King of Clay kick-started his long dormant rivalry with Roger Federer in the final of the Madrid Masters and emerged triumphant, winning his third straight clay court title of the season with a well deserved 6-4, 7-6 victory.
It was not a great match but it was a good one, certainly more entertaining for the wildly partisan crowd that the final here at the Caja Majica 12 months ago when a semi-fit Nadal lost to Federer.
That was the last time they had played but, if both continue in this vein, we shall be seeing them going head-to-head more often in the coming weeks, maybe on clay in Paris; on grass at Wimbledon or the hard courts of the US Open Series.
At their best, they are just that much better than the decimated pack pursuing them. Of their immediate challengers Novak Djokovic did not play here because of a respiratory problem; US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro has just had wrist surgery and may struggle to be fit for Flushing Meadows and Nikolay Davydenko is also suffering from wrist problems.
The two Andys, Murray and Roddick, may push them on grass and hard courts but even Roddick has not been well although the virus that forced him to withdraw here should have cleared up by Roland Garros.
It was clear from the start that the pair who know each other's game as well as their own, would settle into a familiar pattern -- Federer seizing every opportunity to attack and Nadal going to the Swiss backhand whenever he could.
Federer had the first break point in the second game but lost his serve in the third -- the first of three consecutive breaks that put Nadal in the driver's seat.
There was a danger of a white wash when Rafa took the set and broke in the first game of the third but Federer's ability to pluck winners out of the darkening evening sky got him back in the match. He broke back with a glorious backhand cross court winner and then had to do it all over again when he lost serve for 2-4. This time it was a pushed drop shot off the forehand that put Nadal in trouble and, by the time the Spaniard had gone 0-40 down in that eighth game, he had flung himself onto the clay in a desperate effort to return a forehand. He got it back but Federer simply played the ball into an empty court.
But as much ground as Nadal was covering, it was evident that Federer was almost matching him for acres covered. The Swiss was racing along his baseline and leaving long scars on the clay as he slid into forehands. Some of the rallies defied belief with the angles getting ever more acute but, hard as he tried, the world's No. 1 could not quite get a firm grip on the match.
Given how often he had been behind, it was something of a triumph for Federer to take the second set into the tie break. He got a quick lead and cemented it with a terrific running forehand winner and then a drop shot to reach 4-2. Then the margins that decide matches between players of this caliber came into play. Federer tried another drop shot and it hit the top of the tape and fell back into his court. Instead of 5-2, it was 4-3 -- a huge difference at this level.
A bad backhand put Nadal on level terms and, then, having saved one match point at 6-4, Federer tried for a big forehand winner to save the second; got a bad bounce and and missed the ball completely.
"I decided to take a chance and it didn't pay off this time," said Federer philosophically afterward. "I've had more beautiful match points, that's for sure. The surface was better than last year and the bad bounces ironed out between us. I really believed in my chances and I'm pretty happy with the way I played. I'll come out of the tournament with some sort of confidence."
Federer thought he had faced something of a disadvantage in suddenly having to play a left hander "after playing 25 right handers" but he wasn't offering that as an excuse. He tends not to do excuses.
"He comes up with some incredible stuff," he admitted. "At the end of the day, he's Rafa Nadal."
And the man himself? "A dream come true. Amazing, no?"
Oh, yes and there will be more to come.