PARIS — Early in the second set of the French Open final, not quite halfway into what would wind up as Roger Federer's worst loss in 173 career Grand Slam matches, he watched intently as Rafael Nadal pushed a forehand wide to end a lengthy exchange.
Federer saw the ball land out, punched the air and yelled. Neither the exact words nor the precise sentiment — delight? relief? — could be discerned. That he would be so moved was noteworthy in itself.
A man who has won 12 major championships, who has been ranked No. 1 a record 227 weeks in a row, who has placed himself squarely in any discussion about the greatest players in tennis history, found significance in winning one measly point.
Because Nadal so thoroughly, so untheatrically, outplayed Federer in every possible facet Sunday, beating him 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 to win a fourth consecutive title at Roland Garros.
During the trophy ceremony after the most lopsided men's final at the French Open since 1977, and at any Grand Slam since 1984, Nadal felt compelled to say: ”Roger, I'm sorry.“
”He dominated from the first point until the end,“ said Federer, who hadn't lost a 6-0 set since 1999, and hadn't won fewer than five games in a match since 2002. ”It's the strongest Rafa that I've ever seen.“
For the fourth year running, Federer came to Paris needing a French Open championship to complete a career Grand Slam, something only five men have accomplished.
In 2005, Federer reached the semifinals, then lost to Nadal.
In 2006, 2007 and 2008, he reached the final but came up short against his nemesis.
Over the past four French Opens, Federer is 0-4 against Nadal, 23-0 against anyone else. He's a combined 12-0 in finals at Wimbledon (beating Nadal the last two years), the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, but 0-3 in finals at the French Open.
”He no longer plays short balls, the way he did in the past. You can no longer attack him on his forehand, the way I could in the past,“ said Federer, now 6-11 overall against Nadal, 1-9 on clay. ”He is getting much more aggressive.“
That said, Federer insisted afterward he can win the clay-court major championship.
”I still go out of this tournament with a positive mind-set,“ he said. ”Not with a mind-set: "Oh my God, I had no chance today.'“
Had Federer figured out a way to win, it would have been considered an upset. The top-ranked player wins a match, and it's an upset?
Do not forget how invincible Nadal is on clay, and at this tournament. He's the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win the French Open without dropping a set, the first since Borg from 1978-1981 to win the tournament four years in a row.
Sunday's victory also makes Nadal:
■ 28-0 for his career at the French Open;
■ 115-2 on clay since April 2005;
■ 22-1 in clay-court finals.
”I am humble,“ Nadal said, ”but the numbers are the numbers.“
His match statistics against Federer were stunning, the sort that make you want to go back and reread them.
Nadal held break points in 10 of Federer's 11 serv-ice games, converting eight times. He won the point 24 of the 42 times Federer went to the net. He won 16 of the 24 points that lasted 10 or more strokes, according to an unofficial tally compiled by The Associated Press.
Federer finished with 35 unforced errors, Nadal with seven.
”When I was playing,“ Nadal said, ”I didn't believe the match is like this.“
Unlike the 2007 Wimbledon final — filled with artistry and grit from both players until Federer won in five sets — only Nadal played with élan Sunday.
Nadal recognized it was not Federer's finest day.
”If I am playing my best tennis ever, I'm never going to win 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 against Roger Federer, no? For sure, it's impossible,“ the second-ranked Nadal said. ”He didn't play very well. Everybody knows that.“
For one fleeting moment, Federer appeared to have a chance to make things interesting. After breaking Nadal for the only time, and later holding serve without facing a break point for the only time, Federer pulled even in the second set at 3-3. The match was an hour old, and finally the tiniest hint of drama broke through the gray clouds.
In the next game, Nadal — gasp! — frittered away two forehands, allowing Federer to get within one point of a 4-3 lead. Nadal, however, brought it back to deuce, ending an 18-stroke point with a drop shot that Federer reached but slapped into the net.