tampabay.com

Never count out Federer in a final

By KEITH NIEBUHR
Published April 4, 2005


KEY BISCAYNE - He fluttered a backhand wildly into the stands, whiffed on one overhead smash and, looking much like the casual weekend hack, once bounced the ball off his foot while preparing to serve. With every miscue the frustration inside the normally serene Roger Federer mounted until things reached a boiling point and the world No.1 angrily slammed his racket into the ground late in the third set.

"I was missing one opportunity after the other," Federer said. "So I threw it hard and who knows, maybe it did me good and I kind of woke up."

A little more than an hour later, Federer again tossed his racket. But this time it was a celebratory throw that came after the Swiss star rose from the depths of a two-set hole to defeat Rafael Nadal, an 18-year-old Spanish upstart, 2-6, 6-7 (4-7), 7-6 (7-5), 6-3, 6-1 in front of 13,221 in the Nasdaq-100 Open. After the three-hour and 43-minute match, arguably the best final in the event's 21-year history, Federer pumped his fists, raised his arms and began sending keepsakes - among them his racket - into an adoring, energetic crowd.

"This is one of the tournaments I'll remember throughout my career," Federer said. "I was very worried. I really didn't expect to turn it around."

After an error-plagued 21/2 sets, Federer somehow found the consistency he had lacked to that point to take the third. He then needed only a combined 60 minutes to win the fourth and fifth as Nadal wilted under the growing pressure. What once seemed destined to be a troubling defeat became Federer's 22nd straight victory and 48th in 49 matches since last year's U.S. Open. He improved his win streak in tournament finals to 18 matches, building on his Open era record.

"I was struggling and I think it had a lot to do with his game," Federer said.

The left-handed Nadal defeated Federer here last year in the only previous match between the players, but many suspected that was a fluke. But in the first set, Nadal, ranked 31st in the world and a fast-rising talent, broke Federer in the opening game to set the tone. Throughout the first and second sets, Nadal controlled the tempo, not Federer, who often had trouble getting the ball over the net or inside the lines.

"He's a player who makes mistakes," Nadal said. "His strength is the way he can surprise you."

With powerful groundstrokes, Nadal ran Federer, who had severe foot blisters, from end to end, showed the ability to hit precision passes with Federer at the net and mixed in the occasional drop shot for good measure.

"It's tough being down two sets to love," Federer said. "I was really just hoping to stay with him, at least maybe get one break. But I got back, played a few really good games and I pushed him to the tiebreaker."

Federer rallied from 1-4 down in the third set but trailed 3-5 in the tiebreaker before winning four straight points. He earned the set when Nadal hit a backhand long, and the crowd responded by giving Federer a standing ovation. Another one followed when he completed the comeback, only the second time in his career he has rallied from a 0-2 sets deficit.

"To come through in the end is unbelievable," Federer said.