- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2009

MELBOURNE, Australia | Roger Federer had nowhere to hide.

Rod Laver was about to present the cup to Australian Open champion Rafael Nadal. Federer stood on the court, having just missed his first chance to equal Pete Sampras’ record 14 Grand Slam singles titles.

He was sobbing. He couldn’t speak.

“In the first moment you’re disappointed, you’re shocked, you’re sad, then all of a sudden it overwhelms you,” Federer finally said, referring to his 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2 loss to Nadal in a momentum-swinging, 4-hour, 22-minute title match Sunday.

“The problem is you can’t go in the locker room and just take it easy and take a cold shower. You’re stuck out there. It’s the worst feeling. … It’s rough.”

Nadal, the first Spanish man to win the Australian Open, beat Federer in Grand Slam finals on clay and grass last year. He added the missing link Sunday with his first major title on hard courts.

The 22-year-old Spaniard is 5-2 against Federer in championship matches at the majors - 3-0 in the last three - and 13-6 in career meetings. The most riveting was Nadal’s five-set, 4-hour, 48-minute win over Federer at Wimbledon last year, ending the Swiss star’s five-year reign on grass.

Now, 40 years after Rod Laver last won the Grand Slam - all four majors in one season - Nadal is the only man who can emulate him in 2009.

Federer had been the most likely of the recent contenders, missing by one in 2006 and 2007 - losing to Nadal at Roland Garros both years. Clay remains his obstacle. And the French Open was the only major missing in Sampras’ career.

“God, it’s killing me,” Federer said, crying, as he tried at first to accept the runner-up plate. He returned to congratulate Nadal within minutes, saying: “You deserved it. You played a fantastic final.”

After collecting the trophy from Laver, on the court named for the Australian great, Nadal put his arm around Federer.

“To receive this trophy from Rod Laver is a dream for me,” he said. “Rod, thanks very much. It was an amazing two weeks for me.”

Nadal seemed pained by Federer’s anguish.

“Roger, sorry for today. I really know how you feel right now,” Nadal said. “Remember, you’re a great champion, you’re one of the best in history. You’re going to improve on the 14 of Sampras.”

Nadal was in the final of a major on hard courts for the first time, having been knocked out in the semifinals of the Australian and U.S. Opens last year.

Even this time, he had to struggle to make the last weekend. He held off a fellow Spanish left-hander in Fernando Verdasco on Friday in 5 hours, 14 minutes - the longest match in the tournament’s history.

Federer went into the final on straight sets wins over No. 8 Juan Martin del Potro and No. 7 Andy Roddick after having to rally from two sets down to beat Tomas Berdych in the fourth round.

Nadal ranked this title high on his list of six majors.

“Very special, for me,” he said. “A dream win here, one Grand Slam on hard court. I worked very hard … all my life” to improve “outside of clay. Today was really lot of emotions on court. I was there with the best player I ever saw.”

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