Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Can Anyone Beat Nadal?

Indeed, can anyone beat Nadal in clay?

His record 8 French Open titles may provide the answer. He did it these past 9 years; the first 4-peat came from 2005-2008 and the 2nd 4-peat from 2010 to the just concluded 2013 edition. The exception was in 2009 when he was beaten by Swedish Robin Soderling in the semis. In that year, Federer defeated Soderling in the finals to clinch his first and only French Open championship, thus completing his rare Grand Slam (Wimbledon, US Open and Australian Open being the other 3 grand slam events). Ironically, in that first 4-peat, Nadal's beaten finals opponent had been mostly Federer.

So what makes Nadal so impregnable in clay, the surface that was actually the curse of many past great champions? Pete Sampras, for all his greatness in his era with 14 Grand Slam titles has never won a French title, putting into doubt his being (then) the greatest ever. This tag was eventually erased when Federer surpassed his 14 slams and himself completed the grand slam. John McEnroe, another tennis great in the late 70's up to mid 80's likewise did not win any French, having won 4 US open and 3 Wimbledon titles. Last year, when Rafa was poised to equal the 7 French Open titles held by another past champion, that man, tennis legend, Bjorn Borg was invited to watch the historic changing of the guard. This year, Borg was not around to witness his French titles winning streak broken. Instead, the fastest man on earth, Jamaican Usain Bolt was accorded the honor of presenting the award to the champion. By what significance why Bolt was chosen over the traditional great champions normally doing the honors, I didn't know. I haven't read any explanation in the papers either.

I honestly did not think Nadal would soon recover in that grand fashion from a 7 month knee injury leave after an embarrassing early exit ( was it on the Ist round or 2nd round?) in last year's Wimbledon. But soon after he returned for active duty, winning mostly his matches in many minor tournaments as tune up for the greater stage of Roland Garros, all eyes again focused on his return. I watched him in  the Madrid Open, a clay court and a major tune up tournament. He was indeed back in form. When the French Open came, he had to survive 1st set losses in his first and second rounds. After that, he advanced easily, until the semis match against No.1 Novak Djokovich. It was the greatest ever French Open match according to McEnroe, now a tennis commentator. It was the semifinal match everybody concluded as the championship match, with due respect to finalist David Ferrer.

So we go back to our million dollar question. Can anybody beat Nadal in Roland Garros?

I believe that if there is one man who could do it, it should be Djokovich. He has the power, the speed, the stamina, the mental toughness, the shots, and a champion's heart that can match Rafa Nadal. They have met many times before and they know each other's game well. I guess in many occasions, it was breaks of the game that decided the winner. Their 6-hour Australian Open finals last year won by Djoko was not just exciting but exhilarating and exhausting even for us who just watched in TV. Their semis match here this time was also a repeat of their finals last year.

Back to that semis match. When Novak survived the 4th set to extend the match into the final 5th set, clearly the momentum was on his side. He was on the offense, practically dictating the game. But all the bombs he threw, Nadal diligently threw them all back, often converting his defense into offense and winners. This is why Nadal is hard to beat in clay. The slow surface of Roland Garros perfectly matches his style. He covers the court so well, be at the net on drop shots, or to the baselines, corners to corners, retrieving the balls even if it looks unretrievable. To him, it ain't over till its over. That unbelievable behind the back winner he fired desperately showed it. Unfortunately for Djokovich, those easy overhead smashes which he sorely missed were costly errors that could have perhaps spelled the difference.

Hail to the King of Clay, Rafa Nadal. His 12 Grand Slam titles is 3rd on the all time list- just 2 short of Sampras' 14 and 6 short of Federer's all time record of 18. With Wimbledon just 2 weeks away, we will be in again for more exciting and enjoyable tennis.


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