PARIS - Early in the second set of the French Open final, not quite halfway into what would be 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 - English? French? Swiss German? - 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 the winning of one measly point.
Because Nadal so thoroughly, so untheatrically, outplayed Federer in every possible facet yesterday, beating him, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0, to win a fourth consecutive title at Roland Garros.
During the trophy ceremony following 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. He was more dominant than the previous years."
Federer, much to his chagrin, is in perfect position to make that comparison. For the fourth year running, he came to Roland Garros needing a French Open to complete a career Grand Slam:
In 2005, Federer reached the semifinals, then lost to Nadal; in 2006, '07 and '08, Fededer went a step further, reaching the final, then came up short against his nemesis every time.
Over the past four French Opens, Federer is 0-4 against Nadal, 23-0 against everyone else. He is a combined 12-0 in finals at Wimbledon (beating Nadal the last 2 years), the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, and 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, and it's becoming much more difficult."
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.' ''
Nadal is the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win the French Open without dropping a set, the first since Borg from 1978-81 to win the tournament 4 years in a row. He is also 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.When I was playing, I didn't believe the match is like this."
"To lose the way I did today - it's obviously hard and it's a rough loss, but it's OK," Federer said, a blue baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. "I'll move forward from here, and I'll try again." *