MADRID - Roger Federer left a lasting impression on the Madrid Open's controversial blue claycourt when the Swiss maestro ground out a thrilling 3-6 7-5 7-5 victory over Czech Tomas Berdych to match Rafa Nadal's record of 20 Masters titles on Sunday.
|Roger Federer of Switzerland returns the ball to Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic during their men's final match at the Madrid Open tennis tournament May 13, 2012. Photo by Susana Vera, Reuters.
Spaniard Nadal, who crashed out in the third round and will lose his number two ranking to his great rival, was one of the most vocal opponents of the new surface, which he said was dangerously slippery.
Federer, however, proved better able to adapt to the testing conditions and secured his fourth title of the season, and the 74th of his illustrious career, after edging a gripping final at the futuristic Magic Box arena.
"It feels amazing," Federer told spectators sweltering in the Madrid heat inside the Manolo Santana show court as his wife and twin daughters looked on.
"Look, it's been a tough tournament and tough to move but you just go on with it and try to make the best out of it," added the 30-year-old.
"There was some good tennis and there was some bad tennis as well, you see that in all the tournaments, but I thought the level of play under the circumstances was very good."
Federer came into the event following a six-week rest and is looking in ominous form as the world's top players prepare for the French Open starting in Paris later this month.
The 2009 Roland Garros champion had already won titles this year in Rotterdam, Dubai and Indian Wells and has only lost three times since falling to Djokovic in the U.S. Open semi finals last September.
"It's obviously surprising to me to come back and win a title right away," Federer told a news conference, adding that he would take a decision on whether to play in Rome this week in a couple of days.
"I was worried about getting through the first one," said the Swiss, who had to come from a set down to beat fast-rising Canadian Milos Raonic in the second round.
"But it doesn't take much to get my confidence back especially at this point having played so well for the last nine months."
Czech sixth seed Berdych, who ended Federer's dream of Olympic gold in Athens in 2004 and knocked him out of Wimbledon in the quarter-finals two years ago, made the stronger start.
Some accurate serving and powerfully-struck ground strokes, as well as a break of his opponent's serve in the second game, were enough to settle an otherwise desperately tight first set.
The crowd, including American actor Will Smith, tried their best to lift the hugely-popular Federer, champion in 2006 and 2009, and he responded with two breaks in the second set that helped him level the match.
A couple of double faults from Berdych, who was bidding for a second career Masters triumph, put Federer 5-3 ahead in the decider but the 16-times grand slam champion faltered when serving for the match.
With Berdych needing to hold to stay in contention at 6-5 down and tension mounting, Federer conjured another break, converting his fourth match point when the world number seven netted a forehand.
The statistics show how evenly matched the pair were, with Federer hitting 44 winners to Berdych's 42 and the Czech making 27 unforced errors to Federer's 30. The Swiss won 103 points to his opponent's 101.
"On one side right now I'm upset that I lost the final but in a couple of hours I am going to see it in the positive way that I made a great week and beat a lot of good guys," Berdych told a news conference.
"It was just about a few points and I think Roger's experience won through today.
"One thing I am sad that I was not able to beat him but the other one is that losing to him is something special.
"He just showed what a great champion he is that playing in the conditions that were here he was able to win the title."
Nadal and world number one Novak Djokovic have both threatened not to return next year unless the traditional red dirt used at most other clay events is reinstated.
Organisers argue that the blue courts make it easier for television viewers to follow the yellow balls but the players' complaints may prompt the ATP, the governing body of men's tennis, to switch back to red clay next year.
(Editing by Ed Osmond and Pritha Sarkar)