PARIS - Unflappable and unbeatable against anyone else, Roger Federer looked helpless at times Sunday, his bid for a fourth consecutive Grand Slam title disappearing in the clouds of clay kicked up by Rafael Nadal.
Over and over, for three hours and with the temperature at 90, Nadal scampered and skidded his way to reach seemingly unreachable balls. Going long stretches without a mistake, No. 2-ranked Nadal beat No. 1 Federer 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (4) to win his second straight French Open title.
"I won the first set easily, and usually in a situation like that I don't let things go by. But it's a final. It's against Nadal. It's on clay," Federer said. "That makes it very difficult - more difficult maybe than other cases."
His 27-match winning streak at majors ended. Nadal's 60-match winning streak on red clay lives.
So consider this: Nadal is now 6-1 against Federer over their careers. And this: Federer is 0-4 against the Spaniard in 2006, 44-0 against everyone else.
Nadal also is the first player to beat Federer in a Grand Slam final. The Swiss entered Sunday 7-0 in that category, the best such start to a career since the 1880s.
"I can't say I'm better than him. Since I was born, I've never seen a more complete player. He's the best," Nadal said. "Maybe he was nervous, too. Roger was playing today for being on the top of history. This pressure is a lot, no?"
Federer was trying to join Don Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (1962, 1969) as the only men to win Wimbledon, U.S. Open, Australian Open and French Open championships all in a row. He also had a chance to become the sixth man with a career Grand Slam.
But it was Nadal who deposited a forehand volley to end the match, then slid onto his back on the clay and spread his arms and legs, as if to make a snow angel. After they shook hands, Federer sank in his seat, residue of the red dirt smearing his white headwrap.
"I tried. I can't do more than try," Federer said. "But having this real unique opportunity that we haven't seen in such a long time in tennis - obviously, it's a pity."
It was the first French Open final pitting men seeded 1-2 since 1984, but the play never really lived up to the hype, particularly in the surprisingly lopsided first two sets. Still, it was an intriguing contrast in styles and personalities that created a competing fugue of "Ro-ger! Ro-ger!" and "Ra-fa! Ra-fa!" chants at changeovers.
Nadal's biceps-baring sleeveless shirt and below-the-knee white shorts. Federer's more traditional collared shirt and shorts.
Nadal's "Ugh-ahhh!" grunt on nearly every shot, sounding angry at the ball. Federer's barely perceptible exhale.
Nadal's baseline excellence. Federer's volleying.
Nadal's left-handed topspin. Federer's right-handed variety.
It's actually that last one that might be most responsible for the one-sided nature of the emerging rivalry, for Nadal's high-bouncing forehands make things tough on Federer's backhand, already his weakest shot.
On Sunday, Federer made 24 unforced errors with his backhand. He finished with 51 miscues in all, 23 more than the steadier Nadal.
"I suppose this was not Federer's best game, because if it were, he would have won, no doubt," said Nadal's coach and uncle, Toni.
Federer sure looked great at the start, racing to a 5-0 lead by breaking Nadal in each of his first two service games. Remarkably, though, Federer wouldn't break again until Nadal served for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set.
In the third set, Nadal used a 114 mph kick serve for an ace to erase the last of four break points in the fourth game. Then he broke to a 3-2 lead with the help of two telling points.
Nadal slid and stretched to send a hard shot back, able to muster only a weak lob. Aware of his foe's range, Federer looked for Nadal, then shanked an overhead long. Nadal broke when Federer roamed two steps outside the doubles alley to run around his troublesome backhand and hit a forehand that wound up in the net.
"I improved in my confidence," Nadal said. "I was thinking, 'Now is my chance.'"
The backs of Nadal's sneakers have yellow block letters that read "Vamos" on the left and "Rafa" on the right, and they were always moving Sunday. Nadal bounced in place, working himself into a lather, while waiting to be introduced to the crowd. He jumped on his toes right in Federer's face during the coin toss. He sprinted to the baseline for the warmup period. And that was nothing compared to what he did when the ball was in play.
"He makes it tough," Federer said, "and I guess, in the end, he deserves to win."
In the middle two sets, Nadal was downright superb, making only six unforced errors while keeping points going long enough that Federer made 29.
Nadal, who turned 20 during the tournament, is the youngest man to win a second straight French Open since Bjorn Borg was 19 in 1975.
How did he do it?
"A bit of luck, a bit of tennis, a bit of mental attitude. Federer made more mistakes than usual," Nadal said. "All these things together."
Federer, meanwhile, is left to ponder what he can do to add the only major missing from his resume. He spoke before the tournament about wanting to avoid the fate of Pete Sampras, who won a record 14 Grand Slam titles but whose best French Open run was to the 1996 semifinals. Sampras' age at the time? The same as Federer's now, 24.
"I was ready to put him at the top if he were to win this," seven-time major champion John McEnroe said during NBC's broadcast, "but he's got some work to do."
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