Rafa's Resolve


Pete Sampras has a great ally in Rafael Nadal.

Sampras continues to hold tennis’ all-time Grand Slam mark with 14 as Nadal defeated Roger Federer in five sets to win the Australian Open.

As such, the Spaniard joins Pistol Pete and another American legend, Jimmy Connors, as the youngest players –22 — to have won three of the four majors  and keep Federer locked at 13 Grand Slams.

Having survived for 5 hours and 14 minutes in his grueling semifinal win over countryman Fernando Verdasco in one of the best hard court matches ever, Nadal — so all the ESPN2 commentators said — would be hurting physically.

Well, he was, at least in the third set, when he noticeably slowed and called twice for massages from the trainer. But Nadal’s advantage over Federer is not only physical, but more importantly mental. Federer has the elegance; Rafa has the resolve.

And it showed over another 4 hours and 20 minutes that lacked the overall drama and consistent shot making of their epic at Wimbledon last summer. Still, it was a match that deserved more attention/viewers than the middle of the night showing will yield for ESPN2 (if I remember correctly, the Aussie Open championships used to air at 9:30 p.m. (ET).

In the latter stages of the third set, Nadal brushed aside six break points. In the tiebreak, Federer double faulted on set point to give his opponent the lead.

After breaking Rafa to claim the fourth, the former world’s No. 1 looked tight, tight, tight. Analysts Patrick McEnroe and Darren Cahill presaged the outcome, noting that Rafa plays his way/game throughout, while Roger tends to spray the ball when it’s close. When the going got tough, Fed became frail with unforced errors.

Before that, Federer, who now trails his nemesis 13-6 head-to-head overall and 6-2 in Slam finals, could not muster nearly enough returns against Nadal’s predilection to serve to the backhand. To either the ad or deuce court, Rafa hit to Fed’s backhand just under 90% of the time. And there were plenty of lollipops in the mix. Moreover, Roger only rarely ran around them to his forehand a handful of times.

A stubborn Swiss? Yes. But Rafa’s way inside Roger’s head at this juncture.

The other area where Federer came up light was on his own serve. He only managed 11 aces for match. His first serve percentage barely eclipsed 50% (52%) and he seldom was able to take his adversary out wide, a tactic that typically results in many easy points.

The aces and service winners — along with a big-time forehand — are what pushed Sampras to the top of the sport. Although the years simplify the memories, mine is that Sampras always came up with the big serves when he got in trouble.

It’s what Federer is going to have to do if he wants to turn what is becoming a one-sided rivalry around.

At Roland Garros, Rafa will look for his fifth consecutive clay court major; he’ll be the heavy favorite. At Wimbledon, Fed can look to get on track, but he’ll need to serve better.

As it turned into Monday in Melbourne, Nadal solidified his grip atop the tennis world. In Mamaroneck, where the rooting is for Roger, the only consolation is that normal sleeping patterns will return.