PARIS, France, Jun 5 – Roger Federer faces Roland Garros’ mission impossible on Friday when he tries to become just the third man to beat 11-time champion Rafael Nadal on the Paris clay.
The great Spaniard has only been defeated twice on the red brick dust in the French capital in 93 matches since his 2005 debut.
Ten years ago Robin Soderling hit winner after winner as the unheralded Swede ended Nadal’s 31-match win streak at the tournament.
“I think to beat him on clay is challenging. But to beat him in five sets on clay is even more difficult,” said Soderling who crushed 63 winners in that last-16 landmark win.
“You have to play extremely well. To beat him on clay, the only chance for any player is to be really aggressive.
“Take some risks. Many, many players, even good players, top players… you can almost see that they don’t really believe 100 per cent that they can win.”
Nadal was far from his best that day in 2009.
He was to eventually pull out of Wimbledon with a knee injury, ending his hopes of defending the title he had so thrillingly won against Federer 12 months earlier.
– ‘Mix it up’ –
Nadal, however, was to get his revenge over Soderling in the Roland Garros final in 2010 as he captured his fifth title.
He was to win the next four as well, a run which ended in 2015 when Novak Djokovic stunned him in straight sets in the quarter-finals.
That was the last time 33-year-old Nadal lost in Paris although he was forced to withdraw before the third round in 2016 due to a wrist injury.
“I didn’t want to give him too much comfort and opportunities where he can dictate the play,” said Djokovic of his 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 win in 2015.
“I tried to mix up the pace, get into the net. Dropshots, high balls, fast balls, always something different.
“He made some unforced errors that are not characteristic for him maybe from the forehand side.
“But that’s what happens when you don’t feel comfortable on the court. I think because I play fast to his forehand and moved him around the court, he was a bit uncomfortable in his footing. That’s where I want him.”
Federer, playing his first French Open since 2015, has lost all five meetings he has had with Nadal in Paris.
The pair haven’t met at the tournament since the 2011 final which Nadal won in four sets.
Overall, Nadal leads their head-to-head 23-15 and is 13-2 on clay.
Their last meeting on clay was in the Rome final in 2013 when Federer managed just four games.
– ‘Might be 10 rain delays!’ –
Furthermore, it’s been 10 years since Federer beat Nadal on the surface, in the final in Madrid where the higher altitude keeps the ball moving faster through the air, playing perfectly into the Swiss star’s game plan.
If Federer is to have any hope of a shock victory on Friday, then he needs to significantly improve his break point statistics.
Currently he stands at 20 out of 55 for the tournament (36%) compared to Nadal’s 31/54 (57% conversion rate).
In his four-set quarter-final win over Stan Wawrinka on Tuesday, Federer converted just two of 18.
Despite the weight of history counting against the 20-time major winner, Federer insists Friday’s outcome is not a foregone conclusion.
“Like against any player, there is always a chance. Otherwise nobody will be in the stadium to watch because everybody already knows the result in advance,” said the 37-year-old who at least has the comfort of knowing he has won their last five meetings, albeit on hard courts.
“That’s exactly what everybody believes by facing Rafa. But you never know. He might have a problem. He might be sick.
“You might be playing great or for some reason he’s struggling. Maybe there’s incredible wind, rain, 10 rain delays.”
The Swiss had taken a two-year break from clay altogether in an attempt to focus on Wimbledon, but returned to the red dirt last month, reaching the quarter-finals in Madrid and Rome.
He has built on that form in the French capital, losing just one set — the same as Nadal — en route to the last four.
“I’m very happy to play Rafa, because if you want to achieve something on the clay, inevitably, at some stage, you will go through Rafa.”