Sunday, June 10, 2007

Unbeaten, Untied and Unassailable

Roger vs. Rafa XII opened with an atmosphere reminiscent of a heavyweight boxing title fight. The Rumble at Roland Garros? The Thrillier on Chatrier?

For good reason, too, because both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were playing for history in a rivalry that is enhanced seemingly exponentially every time the two meet under such circumstances.

Nadal was playing for his third straight Roland Garros title, looking to remain unbeaten for his career there and to maintain his position as the only true threat to Federer's potential legacy as the best man to ever play the game.

Federer, though, was seeking even greater historical significance: his fourth straight slam championship (a "RogerSlam") to get within shouting distance of Pete Sampras' all-time major title mark, and to take his place at the head of the dinner table at the virtual banquet of tennis greats. It's a spot that Rod Laver is generally considered to hold at the moment, with Sampras sitting just to his right, next to the chair already marked with a name card the reads "Federer." But the Swiss Mister came to Paris staring directly into the eyes of history, and the chance to slip into the big chair with a win at Roland Garros. After having ended Nadal's 81-match winning streak on clay in Hamburg, Federer's chances appeared to have some legs, too.

It was a mirage that wasn't meant to be. Not at Roland Garros. Not in the heat that played directly into Rafa's hands, not to mention legs. The "Hamburg Effect," as it turned out, was minimal on Sunday as Nadal ran his career RG mark to 21-0 with a 6-3/4-6/6-3/6-4 victory.

Of course, we'll never know what might have happened had Federer won the 1st set that he had so many chances to grab (though he did take the 1st in the '06 final, but still lost in four sets anyway). Presented with ten break points on Nadal's serve in the set, Federer converted none as his forehand failed him and the Spaniard bore down on the match's biggest points. Nadal only carved out two break point chances on Federer's serve in the opening stanza, but he converted them both.

Federer won the 2nd set, but an early break by Nadal in the 3rd was too much to overcome. Then in the 4th set, after the world #1 failed to convert an early break chance, the long stretch of road back that faced Federer was finally too far for even him to traverse. In the end, he converted just one of seventeen break point chances, a stat so stunning that Federer is unlikely to ever come close to such inability to seize the moment again in his career.

History will have to wait.

Instead, it's Nadal who grabs his now customary Paris headline, and leaves the European clay court season realistically just one tired set in Hamburg away from holding an 89-match clay winning streak (even if the TRUE stat says he's won just seven in a row). Next year, he'll arrive at Roland Garros looking to become the first four-peat champ since Bjorn Borg from 1978-81, and then could set his sights on the Swedish legend's record six RG titles.

With Nadal only barely 21, even with his physically-demanding game potentially meaning a long career might not be in the cards for him, one has to wonder if Federer just missed his last best shot to complete his career resume. At nearly 26, he's definitely made the turn onto the "back nine" of his career. Even with his 54-2 record in the last eight slams, and as his role as the favorite in 2007's remaining slams could bring him career majors #11 and #12, just two from Sampras' record of 14, Roland Garros and whether Federer can ever conquer it (or, more specifically, conquer Nadal there) now becomes the long-term focus of his career. Federer needs a Roland Garros title to knock the red-headed Aussie out of the big chair, and he knows it. But the window IS starting to close, and even if he wins the next three slams the same question of whether he can win in Paris will hang over him a year from now. It's unavoidable... until he either succeeds, or fails there for the last time.

But, at the moment, maybe an even bigger story than Federer and/or Nadal individually is this rivalry itself. This fitful dance between the world's two best tennis players that is stretching over seasons, across continents and on the biggest stages that the sport has to offer. Tennis is never better than when a TRUE head-to-head rivalry is developed on the court, rather than by shared parents or featuring a streaking comet of success that burns bright for one season but is tremendously dimmed by the next.

Federer/Nadal is the real thing, with the Spaniard nipping at the heels of the Swiss superstar even as the latter is being considered for the title of the Greatest of All Time. Marvel at that, and hope for more... for as long as both are able.

3...RAFAEL NADAL, 2005-07
3...Gustavo Kuerten, 1997/00-01
1...Juan Carlos Ferrero, 2003
1...Gaston Gaudio, 2004
1...Carlos Moya, 1998

10..ROGER FEDERER [3-0-4-3]
3...RAFAEL NADAL [0-3-0-0]
3...Gustavo Kuerten [0-3-0-0]
2...Lleyton Hewitt [0-0-1-1]
2...Marat Safin [1-0-0-1]
1...Juan Carlos Ferrero [0-1-0-0]
1...Gaston Gaudio [0-1-0-0]
1...Thomas Johansson [1-0-0-0]
1...Carlos Moya [0-1-0-0]
1...Andy Roddick [0-0-0-1]

8...ROGER FEDERER, 2005-07
7...Jack Crawford, 1932-34

14...Pete Sampras
12...Roy Emerson
11...Bjorn Borg
11...Rod Laver
10...Bill Tilden

The Boys and Girls Junior Singles champions were crowned on Day 15, as Pastry Alize Cornet overcame a set deficit to end the Cinderella run of Mariana Duque Marino 4-6/6-1/6-0. Meanwhile, Belarus' Vladimir Ignatic defeated Aussie Greg Jones 6-3/6-4 to prevent Australia from claiming both of the first two slam Boys titles in '07 (Brydan Klein won in Melbourne).

In an interesting bit of meaningless trivia, Cornet became the fifth Roland Garros Girls champion in the last six years to have a first name that begins with "A" (Alize, Agnieszka, Agnes, Anna-Lena and Angelique).

MEN'S SINGLES: Rafael Nadal (ESP)
WOMEN'S SINGLES: Justine Henin (BEL)
MEN'S DOUBLES: Mark Knowles(BAH) & Daniel Nestor(CAN)
WOMEN"s DOUBLES: Alicia Molik(AUS) & Mara Santangelo(ITA)
MIXED DOUBLES: Nathalie Dechy(FRA) & Andy Ram(ISR)
BOYS SINGLES: Vladimir Ignatic (BLR)
BOYS DOUBLES: Thomas Fabbiano(ITA) & Andrei Karatchenia(BLR)
GIRLS DOUBLES: Ksenia Milevskaya(BLR) & Urszula Radwanska(POL)

TOP QUALIFIERS: Timea Bacsinszky & Ioana-Raluca Olaru
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Justine Henin
TOP MID-ROUND (3r-QF): Justine Henin
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): Justine Henin
FIRST SEED OUT: #31 Severine Bremond (1r- M.Krajicek)
LAST QUALIFIERS STANDING: Dominika Cibulkova, Alla Kudryavtseva & Ioana-Raluca Olaru (all 3rd Rd.)
IT GIRL: Ana Ivanovic
DOUBLES STAR: Katarina Srebotnik
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: Mariana Duque Marino

==new event==
2007 TOP: Schiavone/Muller

Loit d. Schiavone; Knapp d. Kudryavtseva
Knapp d. Loit

...yes, a clay court event in what's supposed to be the brief grass season. So, the WTA makes moves to cut back its schedule, but manages to ADD an event that practically begs players to not adequately prepare for the next grand slam. Makes sense. Anyway, it's because of this event that the annual "Clay Court Awards" will be delayed a week.

2006 FINAL: Zvonareva d. Jackson
2007 TOP: Sharapova/Jankovic

Sharapova d. A.Radwanska
Hantuchova d. Bartoli
Krajicek d. Vakulenko
Jankovic d. Jackson

Sharapova d. Hantuchova
Jankovic d. Krajicek

Jankovic d. Sharapova

...this is the season's 24th week. After this tournament, Jankovic will have played in 20 of them. Sharapova lost to Jackson at this event a year ago.

Sharapova d. Likhovtseva
Hantuchova d. Poutchkova
Krajicek d. Mirza
Jankovic d. A.Bondarenko

Sharapova d. Hantuchova
Jankovic d. Krajicek

Sharapova d. Jankovic

All for now.


Blogger Eric said...

i think that the curse was placed on k.srebotnik when you mentioned the possibility of 2 GS titles...

Mon Jun 11, 10:34:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

It's always something, isn't it? :)

At least Henin avoided the hex of BOTH Pierre and me picking her.

Wed Jun 13, 02:49:00 AM EDT  

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