I have mixed feelings seeing the clay-court season go. On the one hand, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have, over the last three years, raised the importance of this time of year to an all-time high. As much as I liked watching Gustavo Kuerten, Alex Corretja, and Marcelo Rios sweep through the spring, none of them had the gravitas of a Federer or Nadal. They weren’t playing for all-time records and greatest-ever credentials.
On the plus side, after weeks of red dirt, we'll see some green grass soon. Last night I happened upon a rerun of the 2007 Queens final between Andy Roddick and Nicolas Mahut. The match could have been on fast-forward: The play was quicker and crisper, and the points just as entertaining as the most elaborate clay-court rally.
Before we make the trip across the Channel, I’ll wrap up the last two weeks with final grades from the French Open.
What can you say? This was the most dominant single-Slam performance I’ve seen. I was too young to remember Borg’s 1978 and ’80 steamrolls through Paris, and while Roger Federer has had his blistering runs (2005 Wimbledon, 2007 Australian Open, to name two), they by definition couldn’t include a 1, 3, and 0 beating of Roger Federer.
We’ll likely look back at this French Open as the peak of Nadal’s dominance on clay. That’s not because he’s going to go downhill anytime soon, no matter what people say about his taxing style of play. It’s because, like Borg in ’78, you can’t soar higher. We can see this as the full maturation of Nadal’s clay game. Unlike the 19-year-old Rafa, this version didn’t rely on eye-popping gets, preposterous shots from all corners of the court, or flying fist-pumps between points. Instead, he put his serve into his opponents’ backhands, hit his forehand high, deep, and heavy, and cracked his backhand better than he ever has. It all added up to an unbreachable tennis fortress.
One moment on Sunday caught my eye and made me think that, no matter what Federer did, Nadal was never going to allow himself to lose. At 3-3 in the second, Federer had managed to stop Nadal’s momentum and was playing what would be his best tennis of the day. Nadal served and drove an easy inside-out forehand into the net. He muttered angrily at himself, the first negative emotion he’d shown. On the next point, as McEnroe noted, he went back to the same shot and hit it for a winner. The muttering hadn’t been negative; it had been a reminder to himself that the match wasn’t over and he’d still need to play well. Nadal immediately became more aggressive and began to take more balls inside the baseline. He didn’t lose another game. This is the kind of confidence I’d expect him to have against Verdasco or Almagro. By the time of the final, he had the same ironclad belief in himself even with Federer on the other side of the net.
Now the question is: Is he better than Borg on clay? John McEnroe says so, but I think he’s getting caught up in the moment. To me, Nadal has to match the Swede’s six French titles to make that claim. I have very little doubt that he will.
As the match accelerated to its close, I began to wonder how Nadal would celebrate. The M.O. for both he and Federer in these situations is a sudden, happy collapse to the court. I’ve heard some commentators say that Federer has now won enough that he should begin to “act like he’s been there” and at least stay upright. I disagree: A Slam win is a Slam win, and I’ve always liked the honest, intensely raw emotion that he and Nadal show whenever they accomplish the game’s ultimate feat. With that in mind, I was prepared to forgive Nadal another tumble to the court, even if the match was a foregone conclusion. But I was pleasantly surprised when he went in the other direction, simply raising his arms in quiet triumph and jogging to the net. As he said later, he didn’t want to revel in his friend’s misery. It was the appropriate finishing touch to a flawless performance.
Last year Federer paid tribute to Nadal in his victory speech at Wimbledon by saying they both should have won the final; this time Nadal kept his opponent’s emotions in mind by reining in his. Whether their matches are see-saw battles or blowouts, these two have created a special rivalry and relationship that transcends results and weekly rankings. At times it seems like Federer and Nadal are the only two people tennis fans ever talk about. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all. A+
We’ve always recognized her smooth strokes and star quality. This year we began to learn that she had ambition to match. Now, after watching her win her first major, we know she’s a smart manager of strategy and emotion during crucial moments, something that most of us had wondered about after her quasi-meltdown in the final in Paris last year.
Down in the third set to Jelena Jankovic in the semis, she realized that her best chance against her defensive-minded opponent was to use her offensive advantage, namely her big slap forehand. She threw caution to the wind and ended the points quickly and in her favor. She even had the nerve to knock off a return winner on match point—very Boris Becker of her.
AiIn the final, Ivanovic showed even more competitive maturity. At 3-2, she held serve after multiple deuces. She followed each winner with a deep knee bend and frantic fist pump. I’ve never seen the concept “play one point at a time” acted out so intensely. At first I thought it was too much, that she would get too worked up and begin to overhit, but she didn't. Celebrating each point, each shot, each step toward the title kept Ivanovic from getting ahead of herself, which is what she said happened during her loss to Sharapova in the Australian final.
The next game also went to multiple deuces. If Ivanovic had won it, she would have served for the championship at 5-2. She didn’t win it, but that didn’t phase her. Ivanovic came out and played her two calmest games of the afternoon to clinch the title. Champions have a unique ability to ignore adversity and keep the ultimate goal in their sights. Now Ivanovic does, too.
The Serb also took over the No. 1 ranking, and she has as good a chance as any woman to finish the season there. There was a lot of talk at the French about how the sport is increasingly dominated by Europeans. The most obvious case in point is Ivanovic. Not only is she from Eastern Europe, she could become the first long-term No. 1 woman player from that area with no connection to the United States. Navratilova and Seles became U.S. citizens, and Sharapova is a de facto American—even Jankovic is an honorary Floridian. Ivanovic’s accomplishment, like her countryman Novak Djokovic’s in Australia, is a Continental one through and through. Together they speak of a new athletic and cultural confidence—we can be No. 1, we can dominate an international sport—for that part of the world. A+
One thing that I won’t miss about the clay season is the endless advice for Federer about how to beat Nadal. If you put it all together, the guy was apparently supposed to do something like this: "If it’s cloudy out, hit a sharp angle wide to Nadal’s backhand, then rush the net on a perfect slice approach while simultaneously bringing Nadal to the net with a forehand drop shot; in between, rally very patiently and finish each point with an out-of-character fist-pump." No wonder he looked confused out there.
OK, I’ve given my share of advice to Federer over the years, but there does seem to be a tendency for tennis fans to say, in exasperation, “Why doesn’t he just do such and such…” as if the whole thing should be easy for him or a matter of making one tactical adjustment. Maybe, after Sunday, those days will be over. It's hard to imagine anyone now thinking that it’s just a matter of time before Federer “solves” Nadal on clay and runs off a string of wins over his less-versatile rival.
That’s not to say that Federer played a good or smart match on Sunday. No matter how well Nadal plays, he should get more than four games against him. Federer started poorly and haphazardly, but even when he began to find the range in the second set, he remained tentative and chose the wrong tactic more often than not. Down 3-4 in the second set but on serve and still very much in the match, Federer served and volleyed twice in that game and lost both points. I’m all for his attacking Nadal, but not for serving and volleying against him on clay; he’s too adept at putting his return at his opponent’s feet. Federer was also emotionally tentative, his anger channeled in odd directions. Yelling at the surface after a bad bounce? Come on, Rog, that’s the kind of thing I do.
That said, even the right play would have been too difficult to pull off for three sets. Federer had success at times taking a Nadal return that landed on the service line, hitting a penetrating forehand, and following it to the net. But this pattern is problematic in the long run. It can only be done off a first serve; the return, while it may be short, still has that nasty Nadal topspin, which makes it bounce higher than Federer likes; if the approach isn’t perfect, you’ve essentially lost the point; if it is perfect, Nadal is most likely still going to make you hit a testy stretch volley or deft drop volley to finish.
After the match, the worst final-round debacle of his career, Federer smiled and politely answered McEnroe’s questions on U.S. TV. I couldn’t help but feel for him. He’d tried his best, he was just a guy who’d lost a tennis match the way we all do, and he still had the good manners to thank McEnroe and shake his hand with obvious sincerity. I began to think that perhaps the long view on Federer was in order this time. First, he can’t be an idiot against Nadal and a genius, as many call him (“great tennis player” is enough for me), the rest of the year. He clearly doesn’t play his best against the Spaniard—he missed forehands in the final that he doesn’t miss against anyone else—but in that he’s hardly alone. Federer is one of two people to beat the guy in his last 116 matches on clay.
He may eventually win the French, though I doubt it will involve beating you-know-who. For now, his inability to do so is just the latest example of a uniquely humbling aspect of tennis—the way different surfaces, particularly clay, change the balance of power and force even the best players to do things they’re not comfortable doing. It’s a built-in reality check that has brought the likes of Sampras, Edberg, Becker, and now Federer crashing to earth; everyone must take their punishment. But as McEnroe movingly put it to Federer on Sunday, “The fact that you keep digging out here every year is a credit to our sport.” Federer’s yearly frustration doesn’t reveal a flaw in his game or psyche—he’s been to three more French finals than Sampras ever reached. What it does reveal is that the original law of sports, the one we learn first, the one tennis reinforces over and over, remains painfully true even for the greatest players: You can’t win them all. A
Still don’t love her bruising game or her harsh demeanor, but it is was nice to see a fresh face on the women’s side, especially won that looked so happy when it was smiling in victory. A
Another French star is born, for the moment. Here’s hoping the bug-eyed Elastic Man and self-nicknamed La Monf (shouldn’t that be “Le”) sticks around this time. He won with rangy flair and backwards tactics, and he left us with dozens of indelible photos. He can do all those things on grass, too. A-
Nice tie, nice hugs, nice to see you around. A-
He wasn’t going to beat Nadal in the semis, but I thought he looked resigned to his fate early this time, only rousing himself when it was virtually over. I missed the bloodthirsty intensity of Hamburg. He’ll have better days. B
I give the Tennis Channel an A for its wide-ranging coverage and no BS approach. NBC can only get an F for inflicting little more than Sharapova and a deadly Nadal-Verdasco match on mainstream audiences over the middle weekend.
The commentary didn’t bother me, though all three crews continue to talk too much. Why must American commentators fill every second of air with talk, even into the points themselves? The Brits don’t do this, and it makes what they do say seem that much more significant. Still, we were in good, witty hands with McEnroe and Carillo in the final. They let the action do a little more of the talking, and Carillo came up with a great line about Federer’s clay-court woes: “He’s punished for his versatility.” B
The second Serb is not as hungry as her countrywoman Ivanovic, and it showed when their match was on the line in the semis. Ivanovic had to find a way to win, and she did. B
My first reaction was: This guy is top-drawer. I had a few more qualms after watching him lose to Djokovic. The forehand is long, wristy, often all-or-nothing, and may always be prone to breaking down at the wrong time. Still, he’s a natural, fun to watch, and someone no one is going to want to face. B
We may not see much of this guy in the near future—his game is a little funky—but his go-big style and deeply joyous celebration after his win over Nalbandian were enough for now. B
Love the spunk, the leaping strokes, and the red hat. It’s tiring just watching her, but she makes you feel like you’re part of every shot. B
The anti-Ivanovic doesn’t believe in himself enough to put it all on the line for the big events. Like Ljubicic, he thinks he's a working stiff of tennis, not destined for greatness. My advice: Never, ahem, bet on him to win. C-