Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Superiority of the Long-Distance Rafa

When his body is accomodating, Rafael Nadal is tennis' equivalent of a record-shattering long-distance runner. If a player seeks to go the long way around him to achieve a win, their chances are slim. If they try to do it on clay, they're even less. At Roland Garros? The chances keep getting smaller.

So why did some think that the Spaniard might be challenged today in the Roland Garros final against Robin Soderling?

Well, surprisingly, there WAS reason to believe. Or at least the mirage proved tempting. After all, the hard-hitting Swede HAD defeated Nadal in Paris a year ago, making him the only man in Nadal's previous thirty-eight career RG matches who'd ever managed to defeat him. Soderling defeated defending champion Roger Federer in the quarterfinals earlier this week, too, ending his record of twenty-three straight appearances in slam semifinals. Even John McEnroe, while picking Nadal to win, had thought the match would go five sets.

Like I said, though, Nadal's "vulnerability" was just a figment of everyone's imagination.

Of course, Soderling DID have a few chances to possibly make a match of this men's final, but his inability to grab any advantage when it presented itself only served to make his chances tinier and tinier until they entirely disappeared from existence. In the 1st set, he had a break point on Nadal's serve in the fourth game, then two more in game #7. In the 2nd set, he had four in game #2 alone (the third of which the Spaniard turned away by playing miraculous defense, wrestling control of the point away from the Swede, then winning the point with a volley winner). Nadal held in that game, then turned his position deep in the backcourt, seemingly out of the point, into an honest-to-goodness winner when he stretched as far as he could and still managed to hit a backhand crosscourt winner to get to triple break point on Soderling's serve. He broke him at love for 3-2, and never lost another game in the set.

Trailing two sets to none, Soderling, already down a break at 1-0, got one final chance to get something resembling a foothold in the match. He had yet another break point in game #2, but failed to convert. He wouldn't get another. Nadal won 6-4/6-2/6-4, and when a Soderling backhand landed helplessly in the net, the Spaniard slid into the baseline on his back, then did a double-fisted clench in celebration of his seventh career slam title.

After shaking hands at the net, Nadal fell to his back on the terre battue once again, officially ending a year of discontent that not only had included the RG loss to Soderling, but also not being able to defend his Wimbledon title, seeing his ranking dropping outside the Top 2, his parents split up and his career's future be questioned due to his lingering knee issues.

Nadal's straight sets win today means he's won Roland Garros twice without dropping a set in the last three years. Only Bjorn Borg has achieved the feat more than once, doing so three times (twice in Paris). His fifth Roland Garros crown leaves Rafa behind only Borg (who turned 54 today) for Open Era championships at the French. Oh, and he's back at #1 in the rankings, too.

What happened in Paris and the EuroClay season that preceded it served to remind us that when Nadal is himself, of sound mindset and body, he's fairly well impossible to defeat on the red stuff at this point in his career. If he isn't already the "best claycourter ever," then he might be less than two years (and one more RG title than Borg) from making it "official."

But what comes next?

After the match, Nadal told McEnroe that he'd "see (him) at the U.S. Open," hardly hiding his goal for the upcoming summer season. Already a hard court slam winner in Melbourne, Nadal's hard-driving style has usually left him somewhat broken and worn by the time things wrap up in New York. After a less-heavy clay schedule in '10, though, might he finally play out the North American hardcourt circuit at full power for the first time this year? If so, this summer could be historic.

The last person to complete a sweep of the championships at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same year was Rod Laver during his second Grand Slam season of 1969. Borg never did it. Neither has Federer. Could Rafa? If his knees stay intact through early September, why not?

Stay tuned. After all, we are talking about the best "long-distance runner" in the game.


> Soderling was 0-for-8 on break points (Nadal was 4-of-12), and committed 45 unforced errors (to Nadal's 16).

>> Nadal has now won twenty-four consecutive matches on clay. He already holds the all-time record with an 81-match streak from 2005-07. Second place is Guillermo Vilas' 53 in 1977. Nadal could be bearing down on moving into second place behind himself by this time in 2011.

>>> The Nadal/Federer combo has started a new streak, with Rafa's title meaning they've won back-to-back slams. The pair shared eleven consecutive (Federer-8, Nadal-3) from 2005-07. They've claimed the crown at nineteen of the last twenty-one slams dating back to Roland Garros '05, and twenty-one of twenty-four since Wimbledon '04.

>>>>Want a ridiculous stat? Well, when Nadal wins the 1st set of a match on clay, he is now 185-4. In grand slams, he's 95-1. From 2006-10, he's a combined 117-1.

>>>>> As Nadal moves back to #1 in the rankings on Monday it intriguingly stalls out Roger Federer at just one week away from tying Pete Sampras' all-time mark of 286 total weeks at #1. With Nadal having missed Wimbledon in '09, which Federer won, there would seem to be little chance for Federer to reclaim the position anytime soon. Hmmm, what if he never gets it's back? Seriously, what are the odds that he'll end his career a few years from now and STILL be a single week from that record?

...Elina Svitolina defeated Ons Jabeur to win the Girls title. She's the first Ukrainian to take a junior slam since Kateryna Bondarenko won the Wimbledon Girls in 2004. Argentine Agustin Velotti defeated American Andrea Collarini in the Boys Final. ITF action, "Player of the Week" goes to Elena Baltacha, who won the $50K grass challenger in Nottingham. The #1-seed in the tournmaent, Baltacha defeated Carly Gullickson in the final, 6-2/6-2. Gullickson had already knocked off #2 seed Sandra Zahlavova and #3 seed Katie O'Brien to get there. As noted earlier this week, Carly's sister Chelsey just won the NCAA women's singles championship as a sophomore at Georgia. Birmingham qualifying, Mirjana Lucic (a semifinalist at Wimbledon back in '99) defeated veteran Eleni Daniilidou of Greece. Also of note, Laura Robson got a qualifying win today, while fellow Brit teen Heather Watson is in the singles draw.

...and, finally...

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND (Int'l $220K/grass)
09 Final: Rybarikova d. Li
10 Top Seeds: Li/Sharapova

Li d. Baltacha
Rezai d. Craybas
Wickmayer d. Chakvetadze
Sharapova d. Rybarikova
Rezai d. Li
Sharapova d. Wickmayer
Sharapova d. Rezai

...I said the other day that a tune-up title would be a great stepping stone for Sharapova at SW19, so why not predict it, too?

#17 Francesca Schiavone/ITA def. #7 Samantha Stosur/AUS 6-4/7-6(2)

#2 Rafael Nadal def. #5 Robin Soderling/SWE 6-4/6-2/6-4

#1 Williams/Williams (USA/USA) def. #12 Peschke/Srebotnik (CZE/SLO) 6-2/6-3

#2 Nestor/Zimonjic (CAN/SRB) def. #3 Dlouhy/Paes (CZE/IND) 7-5/6-2

#6 Srebotnik/Zimonjic (SLO/SRB) def. Shvedova/Knowle (KAZ/AUT) 4-6/7-6/11-9

Elina Svitolina/UKR def. Ons Jabeur/TUN 6-2/7-5

Agustin Velotti/ARG def. Andrea Collarini/USA 6-4/7-5

#5 Babos/Stephens (HUN/USA) def. Arruabarrena-Vecino/Torro-Flor (ESP/ESP) 6-2/6-3

#7 Beretta/Quiroz (PER/ECU) def. Arguello/Velotti (ARG/ARG) 6-3/6-2

16...Roger Federer
2...Lleyton Hewitt
1...Juan Martin del Potro
1...Novak Djokovic
1...Juan Carlos Ferrero
1...Gaston Gaudio
1...Andy Roddick

22...Roger Federer (16-6)
9...RAFAEL NADAL (7-2)
5...Andy Roddick (1-4)
4...Lleyton Hewitt (2-2)
3...Juan Carlos Ferrero (1-2)
2...Novak Djokovic (1-1)
2...Andy Murray (0-2)

[singles + doubles + mixed]
16...Roger Federer
15...Bob Bryan
13...Leander Paes
11...Mahesh Bhupathi
11...Mike Bryan
7...Max Mirnyi

1971 Ken Rosewall (Australian Open)
1973 Ilie Nastase (Roland Garros)
1976 Bjorn Borg (Wimbledon)
1978 Bjorn Borg (Roland Garros)
1980 Bjorn Borg (Roland Garros)
2007 Roger Federer (Australian Open)
2008 Rafael Nadal (Roland Garros)
2010 Rafael Nadal (Roland Garros)

[Open Era]
6...Bjorn Borg, SWE (1974-75, 1978-81)
5...RAFAEL NADAL, ESP (2005-08, 2010)
3...Gustavo Kuerten, BRA (1997, 2000-01)
3...Ivan Lendl, CZE (1984, 1986-87)
3...Mats Wilander, SWE (1982, 1985, 1988)
8...Max Decugis (1903-04, 1907-09, 1912-14)
6...Bjorn Borg
5...Henri Cochet (1922, 1926, 1928, 1930, 1932)
5...A.Vacherot (1894-96, 1901-02)

16...Roger Federer *
14...Pete Sampras
12...Roy Emerson
11...Bjorn Borg
11...Rod Laver
10...Bill Tilden
8...Andre Agassi
8...Jimmy Connors
8...Ivan Lendl
8...Fred Perry
8...Ken Rosewall
7...Henri Cochet
7...Rene Lacoste
7...Bill Larned
7...John McEnroe
7...John Newcombe
7...William Renshaw
7...Richard Sears
7...Mats Wilander
* - active

*ATP WEEKS AT #1 - as of June 7*
286...Pete Sampras
285...Roger Federer *
270...Ivan Lendl
268...Jimmy Connors
170...John McEnroe
109...Bjorn Borg
101...Andre Agassi
80...Lleyton Hewitt *
72...Stefan Edberg
58...Jim Courier
43...Gustavo Kuerten
40...Ilie Nastase
20...Mats Wilander
13...Andy Roddick *
12...Boris Becker
9...Marat Safin
8...Juan Carlos Ferrero
8...John Newcombe
6...Yevgeny Kafelnikov
6...Thomas Muster
6...Marcelo Rios
2...Carlos Moya
1...Patrick Rafter
* - active

TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Venus Williams/USA
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): Samantha Stosur/AUS
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): Francesca Schiavone/ITA
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Kurumi Nara/JPN d. Monica Niculescu/ROU 4-6/7-6/10-8
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd: #6 Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS d. Andrea Petkovic/GER 4-6/7-5/6-4
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 3rd Rd: #19 Nadia Petrova/RUS d. #15 Aravane Rezai/FRA 6-7/6-4/10-8
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F): Final - #17 Francesca Schiavone/ITA d. #7 Samantha Stosur 6-4/7-6
FIRST WIN: Dominika Cibulkova/SVK (1st Rd. - def. Ekaterina Ivanova/RUS)
FIRST SEED OUT: #10 Victoria Azarenka/BLR (1st Rd. - lost to Dulko/ARG)
UPSET QUEENS: The Australians
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Chanelle Scheepers/RSA (4th Rd.)
IT GIRL: Ons Jabeur/TUN (jr.)
CRASH & BURN: #9 Dinara Safina/RUS, 2008-09 Runner-Up (1st Rd. - lost to Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #7 Samantha Stosur/AUS (QF - down MP to Serena Williams/USA)
LAST PASTRY STANDING: Marion Bartoli/FRA & Aravane Rezai/FRA (3rd Rd.)
DOUBLES STAR Katarina Srebotnik/SLO

All for now. The Clay Court Awards are next.


Blogger jo shum said...

rafa is truly amazing this year at RG, not dropping a set, so resilient and so hard to break. and by not having broken no matter how many deuces, the opponents often left disheartening and frustrated. how he could ever run those balls from ridiculous angles, we would never understand unless we have legs of his. the defense was impeccable. i don't even think he was very aggressive, but just being perfect in executing his game that seems to elevate his game enough to stay one level above others. soderling played well, but not fantastic, but he could not find another gear. and that's what amazing about champions, they can find a way to win, they can comeback in impossible situations, they can move up a gear, they can seize the moments. it's so nice to see rafa came back from last year's slump, the courage and patience he has, one year is a long time for athelete, so he truly deserves it above all.

and so the saying holds true again, 'once a champion....'

Tue Jun 08, 02:50:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Karen said...

Todd, while I am upset that you are using the WTA forum to highlight the men's match (a fact at which I am frowning LOL), I have to say that Federer regaining No. 1 is as possible as the sun rising in my neck of the woods tomorrow morning. The difference between Nadal and Federer can be summed up in one word: consistency. Federer is consistent, Rafa is not. For the 8 or 9 years that he has been on Tour, and no matter what preventative measures he has taken, he has always arrived at the USO battered and bruised. In addition, while he has an advantage on clay in that he moves so well on this surface the same thing does not apply at places like the USO and Cincinnatti. He will make it on hard courts but they have to be slow and bouncy for the top spin. Look at where he has won his hard court tournaments and check the speed of the court. If he wins either Cincy or the USO I will apologise but I doubt if it will happen this year.

Tue Jun 08, 06:22:00 PM EDT  
Blogger 淑怡 said...


Tue Jun 08, 09:36:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Yeah, I know, Karen. But he HAS made the SF at the Open even when he wasn't playing all that well... so, who knows? Plus, a title there is now his big goal, so he might be able to adept his game to better fit there. After he won Wimbledon when everybody thought he was just a clay courter, I learned to never say never.

Grrr... no Wozniacki in Paris, no coffee. :D

Wed Jun 09, 02:57:00 AM EDT  
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Thu Jul 07, 01:21:00 AM EDT  
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Thu Jul 07, 01:22:00 AM EDT  

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