I can't remember the last match Raja came out hitting the ball so hard. Even his serve is booming. Perhaps the first set of the Dubai final against Rafa in 2006? Funny, even as I type this I feel as though I typed the same thing somewhere more recently than that. Perhaps it was last year's Wimbledon final as well.
Anyway, how did Rafa manage to drop his opening service from 40-0? Nervy start from him, great start from Raja and the first set is likely over.
Wow. This is high-level action.
I remain surprised by how many players don't recognize Raja's tendency to serve flat out wide in the ad court on big points.
Tiebreaks are crapshoots. All about mental pressure. Nadal made too many mental errors in that breaker and still almost won it.
He'll need a superhuman effort to pull out this victory now.
The second set proceeds comfortably on serve until the the 8th game when Rafa earned two break points at 15-40. Raja served three flat aces, all to Rafa's forehand side (there goes two more flat aces out wide on big points).
But serving to stay in the set at 4-5, Raja cracks and Rafa makaes him pay.
Superhuman effort? Rafa strikes a backhand passing shot winner sitting down in a game that ends with the critical break that steals the second set.
Just beneath the surface, Raja is reeling. The third set becomes a necessity for Raja to take. His five-set record isn't great and with Rafa all up in his kitchen, it would take a superhuman mental effort for him to win the decider. With Rafa serving first in the third, Raja is reeling just beneath the surface.
For now, Rafa is better off the ground (literally) and Raja's big serve, which he only wields when necessary (it's necessary) is about the only shot keeping him in the set. He might do well to play in the forecourt more, as I suggested in my preview, but Rafa's passing shots are so hard and accurate, Raja, more often than not, looks a bit frightened up there.
Panic is a bitch. Makes your feet heavy. All of a sudden (or maybe not) Rafa is scurrying about the court better than Raja.
In the seventh game, Raja steps it up and begins bashing the ball as he did to open the match. But Rafa is in his rhythm now, absorbing the pace and creating quite a bit of his own, even from way outside the doubles alley.
Serving to stay in the set at 4-5, Raja races out to a 40-0 lead, but a fight back from Rafa levels the game at deuce. Raja knifes a high backhand volley off a Rafa lob on the adcourt sideline, turns his back and barks. A must-win set for Raja. Two eye-popping stretch volleys later (even one of Rafa's uncles, the Beast of Mallorca they call him, stood and applauded, even as he gestured disappointment that Rafa didn't choose crosscourt on his forehand pass) the set was dead even.
At 5-6 on Raja's serve, Rafa stepped it up with brilliant slices and passing shots, but also netted a crucial forehand at 15-30. Two-set-point opportunity gone a-begging. Raja blasts two more big serves and the second tiebreak ensues.
Raja takes a 3-0 lead with a forehand winner that smokes the titanium on the outside of the line and an approach shot that Rafa can't handle. Rafa earns back the minibreak with a crosscourt forehand return winner of a second serve, but hands it right back with a forehand just beyond the baseline. 3-2, Federer. There goes that flat ace out wide in the ad court again. Players change ends at 4-2, Federer. Another huge flat serve outside in the deuce court puts Raja two points from a two set to one lead. 5-2, Federer. Raja's mishit forehand that loops short, short, short in the deuce court draws Rafa in and he overcooks a backhand down the line. 6-2, Federer. Rafa's saves one set point when Raja's backhand finds the net. 6-3, Federer. Raja changes it up this time, but misses up the middle in the adcourt. No matter. Rafa's flying forehand gives Raja the third set and he pumps his fist like he's choking a small rodent, a la Tim Henman.
What did I say about a superhuman effort earlier? Apparently, Rafa can't take this to five sets if he doesn't win the fourth set by at least one break of serve. His play in both tiebreaks was mentally shaky. Here, I'll return to what he's had to endure this week so far. It can take more of a mental toll than a physical one and that revealed itself in both of the crapshoots in this match. I guess you could say Raja is more mentally tough so far in this match. You'll get no argument from me. But he's also the mentally fresher of the two and that's a huge advantage on this day with so much on the line for both players.
Raja starts the fourth set on serve and leads 30-0 before Rafa wins five points in a row (two shanked shots from Raja certainly helped) to break serve throwing Raja's serve-first advantage right out the stadium. How often does it happen that a player, even at this level, wins an intense tiebreak and drops serve immediately in the next set? I wish I had the stats. Rafa consolidates easily.
"Can we switch it off," Raja pleads as a Hawk-Eye overrule gives Rafa another break point. The chair ump politely declines. For a man who doesn't like Hawk-Eye, he certainly uses it when needed. But when it goes against him in perhaps the biggest match of his life, he has the audacity (read: desperation) to ask that it be turned off? Interesting.
Rafa gets the insurance break to take a 3-0 lead. Now, Raja is fuming. And he can't hide it. He has another conversation with Carlos Ramos on the changeover. "I can't believe that ball was in," he mutters. Hawk-Eye says it was. Raja saunters back onto the court, head spinning like a dryer on high heat.
Meanwhile, Rafa holds and 15 and leads 4-0.
I guess Andy Roddick is in the final, because Raja continues a dialogue with no one in particular, asking after a Rafa shot misses just over the baseline, "How was that one? Was that in?"
An unraveling that has silenced the entire stadium. The fans can barely applaud any of the points won or lost. Raja fights off a deuce after a double fault, and yet another flat serve ace out wide gets him on the scoreboard in the fourth set. Fans, still stunned, applaud tepidly.
On the changeover, Rafa has his right knee attended by the ATP trainer. Perhaps the physical toll of all those back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back days of play have finally caught up to him. An official injury timeout is taken. Momentum shattered. Worry creeps across the faces of mother and father like the late-afternoon shadows on the court. Heavy tape is applied to Rafa's knee. A flare up of the tendonitis from late 2005-early 2006?
Hey, quantum, who's lucky now?
Raja, who has used the timeout to calm himself down, tests Rafa's mobility with a dropshot. Rafa passes that test, but he's visibly limping when walking, glancing up at his family. He can't push off that knee on serve. His first offering is slow. His intensity gone. He continues to limp. His father motions with his right hand across the underneath of his chin. Is he suggesting Rafa throw in the towel? Can't be. These warriors from Mallorca don't quit. Rafa will have to pull a Serena now and play first strike, high-risk tennis just to get into a fifth set. From there, it's anybody's ballgame.
Oh, the drama.
Raja smells blood. Rafa is moving gingerly, despite John McEnroes assertions to the contrary. Whatever you might have seen, Rafa serves out the set anyway.
For the first time in all of Raja's Wimbledon title runs, he'll have to win a fifth set. History.
Luckily (there's a version of that word again) for him, he opens the deciding set on serve. In all the great matches of this event that I've had the pleasure of watching, no player who served second in the deciding set was able to win the match. And in all those matches, the losing player dropped serve to end the match. Advantage, Federer.
Patellar tendonitis it is. All those consecutive days of play, in and out of the cold, damp weather, all that stopping and starting, sometiems at 15-20 minute intervals, all that overuse (and if you challenge me for making excuses, that's your prerogative; I'm just stating facts here) have caused an old injury to flare up. If you can't properly rest your body, no matter how fit you are, toxins build up. Advantage, Federer.
Super-duper-human effort now required for Mallorca.
Rafa earns two break points in the third game. He misses a backhand return on the first. On the second, he cracks an inside out forehand with a groan that Raja races to send back right to where Rafa is standing, and Rafa yanks a forehand down the line just wide. Why didn't he go inside out again as Raja raced back to the open court? The exact same point (to the T) that Rafa missed when up in the second set tiebreak in last year's final. He lost that set and eventually the match. Raja holds for a 2-1 lead. Will history repeat itself?
Raja seems dialed in again, hitting the ball crisply, chasing down everything and making Rafa hit another shot. But he can't get a whiff on Rafa's serve, who hasn't been broken since the opening game of the match (years ago it seems), hasn't even faced a break point.
At 2-2, Raja faces another two consecutive breakpoints at 15-40. Again, Rafa misses a backhand return on the first. This time, Raja wisely hits a 127 mph service winner up the T instead of outwide. Rafa's backhand lets him down in a rally once more as he misses just long to give Raja a game point. He escapes once more. 3-2, Federer.
Rafa faces triple breakpoint. (I bet he's thinking about those missed returns right about now.) A service winner saves the first. After a rally where both strike line after line, Roger's vicious angled backhand slice sets up an easy forehand and his short forehand winner puts him two games away.
A renewed Raja serves three more aces, bringing his total to 24, and close out the game at love. 5-2, Federer. A game away.
How quickly things change.
Rafa fights off a match point after holding at least one game point (my attention lapsed), but faces another when a sluggish forehand finds the tape.
It's all over. Raja does a Borg (again) dropping to his knees. His tears flow. He has made history yet again. He changes his costume in preparation of the trophy ceremony.
On his chair, Rafa hangs his head in bitter defeat, his stringy hair obscuring the pain on his face.
This final featured a stellar display of tennis by both players, to be sure. The best Wimbledon final since 2004. But even better in all around quality than the last five-setter in 2001 when Goran Ivanesivic achieved his lifelong dream with a dramatic win over Patrick Rafter, who was denied his own.
But if Andy Roddick was "gifted" the 2003 US Open because of suspect scheduling, as so many people have argued, then Raja was handed this piece of history on a gold platter. You just can't have it both ways.
He better thank his lucky stars. And to his credit, that's exactly what he does. "I'm very lucky," says Raja, echoing his acceptance speech from three years ago.
Rafa wasn't supposed to make this final. But he defied all the odds and made a fool out of the prognosticators. And despite all the obstacles erected in his path, look what he was able to do when he got here. Superman, indeed.
Though both players showed heart and fight to go along with their incredible shotmaking, this match says more about Rafa than Raja. I'm sure many of you will take issue with me. Let her rip.
But that's my story and I'm sticking to it.