Collins: Nadal still not Borg's equal on clay
Nadal still not Borg's equal on clay
Spaniard, however, may eventually surpass Swede as best-ever on dirt
By Bud Collins
PARIS – I sat dazzled today by the amazing display that Rafael Nadal put on before a packed stadium at Roland Garros to win his fourth consecutive French Open title. The Spaniard, ranked No. 2 in the world and seeded second here, was brilliant beyond words and so dominant that world No. 1 Roger Federer could only win four games in a lopsided straight-set defeat, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 that took under two hours to complete.
For Nadal it was a history-making Sunday as he became the second man to win four consecutive French Open titles. Bjorn Borg, who was on hand to watch today’s final, won four in a row in 1978-81. Nadal raged through this Paris fortnight, a young superstar on a mission, not dropping a set and losing only 41 games in seven rounds while extending the perfection of his career match record at Roland Garros to an astounding 28-0.
Borg is unsurpassed at this major, having won the ultimate test on dirt six times (he won consecutive titles in 1974-75 to precede his run of four straight to close out the ‘70s and begin the ‘80s).
And it is Borg who remains at the head of the class of clay-court artists – even in light of all that we are seeing from Nadal. My belief on that could eventually change since Nadal, who just turned 22, would seem on track -- unless something goes terribly wrong with his career -- to overtake Borg as the all-time clay-court master. Nadal winning seven or more French Opens does not seem out of reach by any means – but until he does, Borg stays as my King of Clay.
Certainly Borg’s accomplishments on the red dirt of Roland Garros stand alone, but there have been some other illustrious clay-court players worth including in the discussion of the best-ever players on the surface. One of those is Nadal’s Spanish compatriot Manuel Santana, who won the French Open twice (1961 and 1964). And there was the great Italian clay-court artist Nicola Pietrangeli, who won consecutive titles in 1959 and 1960. And Guillermo Vilas, who won here in 1977, was -- like Nadal -- a great southpaw on clay although Nadal is quicker on the court than Vilas though I suspect the Argentine was probably stronger than the Spaniard.
But none of the three aforementioned clay-court superstars was better than Nadal. No it’s just Borg that Nadal must surpass on dirt. Borg, the all-time cream of the clay-court crop, who rose to the highest of heights on the surface has for so long seemed to have his supremacy on the surface beyond the reach of anyone. But that began to change the first time Nadal stepped foot on a court at Roland Garros. And no one understands better than the Spaniard – as humble as he has been in interviews geared around his mastery on clay – that to eventually be anointed King Rafa of the Clay he must reduce what Borg achieved on the surface to second best.
What is most impressive about Nadal is that he is a far better player than he was last year. He’s serving better and if it’s possible, he’s moving better as he covers the court. The thing which helps Nadal look so good on clay against Federer is he is always there – meaning he is always in place to have a shot at hitting the ball, which takes away one of Federer’s strengths, which is keeping the ball away from his opponents. And like most players, Federer just cannot handle the immense spin that Nadal puts on his shots.
If you look at the stats from this latest Paris collision of the two best players in the world – this was the third straight year they have met in the French Open final --
Federer was only able to win five of 24 points when his second serve went in, and 26-of-53 points on his first-serve. He made 35 unforced errors to seven for Nadal and only won 18-of-42 points at the net. Federer faced at least one break point in all but one of his 11 service games.
In case fans are wondering, the last time Federer lost a set at love was in 1999 at the Queen’s Club tournament on grass -- he fell to Zimbabwean Byron Black 6-3, 6-0 in the first round.
The only worse final I recall at Roland Garros was in 1977 when Vilas defeated Brian Gottfried 6-0, 6-3, 6-0, but it’s hard not to notice that Gottfried wasn’t the top player in the world as Federer has been for so long.
Nadal is just marvelous and I don’t see how Federer can be called the greatest player of all time if he can’t beat Nadal on a clay court. Nadal improved his overall winning record over Federer to 11-6. In their 10 clay-court meetings, Federer has won only once in the Hamburg final last year. And instead of looking better in this third consecutive Paris title-match against Nadal -- the last two of which both went to four sets -- Federer looked as if he was lost with no answers.
While it’s hard to deny that today was all about Nadal and deservedly so, a few words about Federer must be written. I keep looking back to the third-round match at the Australian Open in January when Janko Tipsarevic tested all of Federer’s patience before the world No. 1 barely came through but then went on to lose to eventual champion Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. I’ve felt that since that Tipsarevic match Federer is just not the same player and it’s possible that maybe he never will be.
It is probably premature to write but it could be that we’re seeing the end of Federer’s reign at the top. I’m thinking that Pete Sampras might be feeling a little safer with his all-time record of 14 majors won after today since Federer is still two majors behind equaling that record. I know a few months ago that Sampras said he thought that Federer would go way ahead of him, but I’m not so sure that is all that certain now.
One question that is always brought up when discussing Nadal is whether he can win at any of the other majors. I believe he can and his best shot is at Wimbledon. He can win Wimbledon and should’ve won Wimbledon last year. He has a tough time at the U.S. Open because over the course of the year he takes a lot out of himself when he plays so by the time Flushing Meadows comes around in late August he’s worn out. But if Nadal sets his mind to winning the U.S. Open he can tinker with his schedule and work it out to where he can be fresh and ready to contest for the title in New York. As for the Australian Open, maybe it takes place too early in the year for Nadal to be at his best since he just hasn’t shown much Down Under, although I think his game should translate well to the Aussie hardcourt surface.
Nadal can back up his French Open win with a title at Wimbledon in just a few weeks time. And I also believe that one day in the future, maybe sooner than most think, Nadal will take from Federer the No. 1 ranking. Bottom line: If you’re Nadal, the best is yet to come!
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