Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Building the Perfect Rafa

Rafael Nadal's tennis career will never again be diminished by any discussion of something that he supposedly CAN'T do.

In 2010, the Spaniard has made quick work of everyone who ever questioned him, making them all look a bit naive, and maybe even a tad foolish for doubting him. Years ago, when he first won Roland Garros on the clay, it was said that he couldn't possibly ever win on the grass at Wimbledon. When he won at the All-England Club, claiming "The Greatest Match Ever Played" against Grass King Roger Federer, hard court was said to be his weakness. Then he won in Melbourne. At that point, the U.S. Open was his "new" Achilles' heel. Just as was the case for Bjorn Borg, it was said, New York would prove to be the one slam city when victory would forever elude him. The season was too long. His body wouldn't hold up. His game just didn't translate to the fast hard courts of Flushing Meadows.

All the speculation proved to be dead wrong. Again. For the one thing that can't be measured by what is seemingly apparent in a single moment in time, as were all the reasonable-at-the-time pronouncements about Nadal's career, is the heart of an athlete who wants to climb every mountain. Each phase of Nadal's career had served as a stepping stone to the next. His defense and physicality on the clay made him a force to contend with on other surfaces, then his willingness to shorten his groundstrokes and develop his volley allowed his game to flourish on the grass, leading to him taking still more topspin off his shots and turning his serve into a powerful weapon in order to contend on the hard courts in New York. Step by step, Nadal has turned himself into a complete player... and the last two weeks -- plus a few extra days due to the rain -- gives him all the ammunition necessary to be included in each and every "greatest ever" debate from here on out.

Of course, it didn't appear that that was going to be the case right before the '10 Open began. Andy Murray had just won the U.S. Open Series and Federer appeared as healthy and honed as ever, while Nadal's lackluster North American summer results seemed to signal that he would produce yet another result that came up short on tennis' biggest stage. There was no reason to think that the Open wasn't going to continue to be the sole chink in the Spaniard's armor. He had to have one, and the odds were that this tournament was it.

Wrong. Once again.

Who'd have thought that all of Nadal's work would come together so perfectly this late in the summer? Who'd have thought that he'd serve better than he ever has in his life (bumping up his average speed about 10 mph throughout the event)? Who'd have believed he'd enter the final having been broken just once in ninety-one service games, or be within three sets of becoming the first man in the Open era to win in New York without dropping a single set?

Poor Novak Djokovic. Even after Mother Nature gave the Serb a Sunday reprieve, and an extra day to recover from his marathon five-set semifinal win over Federer (in which he saved two match points) and rest the ankle he turned during the match, he was still facing an uphill struggle against the world's #1 player in monstrously good form.

In the 1st game of the match, Djokovic's ankle was tested. It held up. But it didn't prevent Nadal from breaking the Serb with a forehand winner (on his sixth break point attempt of the game) to grab a 3-2 lead. Djokovic destroyed his racket on the Ashe Stadium court in response, knowing that in order to have a shot in the match he would need to grab an early advantage and then hope to fight like hell just to stay a half-step ahead. By falling behind, he robbed himself of any hope to get to the soft underbelly of the Spaniard's game, if it indeed even existed after Nadal had yet to be pushed to the limit in Flushing Meadows and walked onto the court on Monday afternoon with a great deal more in the proverbial tank than his opponent.

Nadal won the set at 6-4 in fifty minutes... and the knowledge that he was 106-1 in slam matches after taking the opening set was just one more imposing impediment standing in Djokovic's way on the day.

After breaking his racket, Djokovic's game picked up. Although he lost the 1st set, he got an early break of Nadal's serve in the 2nd. At one point, on the way to taking a 4-1 lead, he even won eleven straight points. Still, knotting the match wasn't going to be easy against a player without an ounce of quit in his bones. Nadal righted himself in time to break and tie the score at 4-4, but at 30/30 in the next game the rains returned to Queens and play was suspended. When the two returned to action hours later under the lights (at about 8pm), Djokovic managed to do what he hadn't in the 1st. He jumped ahead early, getting another break and claiming the first set Nadal had lost all tournament at 7-5.

But, although Djokovic's play was commendable after that point, it was Nadal who completed his mission of rounding himself into "the perfect tennis beast." The Serb held on for as long as he could, saving break point after break point in the 3rd set (nine of ten over just two service games), but the Spaniard took the stanza at 6-4. In the 4th, while Djokovic's game never flatlined, he was still forced to shake his head at the brilliance of some of Nadal's shots at the end of long, competitive rallies as he sprinted toward the finish line in his race for tennis immortality.

The Serb gets immeasurable credit for never giving up or giving in, but in the end he was forced to succumb to the notion that he now may have fully replaced Andy Roddick as the unluckiest man in tennis. The promising American won his first slam title at the Open in 2003, becoming the first man to take a slam after Federer had won his first at Wimbledon two months earlier. As it turned out, Roddick was also the last man to win one before the Federer Era was officially ushed in the following January when he won his second slam in Melbourne. Federer would win eleven of sixteen slams after the '03 Open, and Roddick is STILL seeking his second. Djokovic, who's been #3 in the rankings for most of the last three years, managed to sneak in an Australian Open title in 2008, but has still managed to find himself in an even worse predicament than Roddick -- in his prime at a time when Federer was still in the latter stages of his own, as well as when Nadal was making his ascent (the pair has now won 21 of the last 23 slam titles, and 23 of 26). Now, even as Federer plays out the tail end of his slam-contending career, Nadal seems to hitting HIS peak. The Serb might never be able to crack the code for slam #2... and he won't even be able to blame himself, just his unlucky date of birth.

After he won for the second time at Wimbledon in July, Nadal seemed to be more focused on trying to win in New York than celebrating career slam #8. The Open was the biggest goal on his immediate radar. At around 10pm New York time on Monday night, he achieved that goal, collapsing on his back and rolling over onto his stomach just behind the baseline at the end of his 6-4/5-7/6-4/6-2 triumph. Moments later, on his knees and with his fists to the sky, Nadal basked in the knowledge that he had indeed built "the perfect Rafa."

The wins means that Nadal has become the seventh man to complete the career slam. There'll be no late-career quest for the final piece to HIS legacy's puzzle. From here on out, it'll be about adding layers to his legend. This win alone puts him in a few other select groups: he's the first in thirty-six years to win three straight slams in a single season (Jimmy Connors, when he won the December-held Australian Open in '74), the first since Rod Laver in '69 to win Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in succession, and he joins only Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf in professional tennis as winners of all four slams AND Olympic singles Gold.

At 24, only Bjorn Borg (a few months younger than Rafa, actually) stands as Nadal's equal when it comes to winning nine slam crowns at such a young age. And the Spaniard, unlike the Swede, isn't likely to retire long before he can wring all the possible major victories out of his playing days as he humanly can. With #9 in his column, he's now more than half-way to Federer's record of sixteen, and is ahead of the Swiss Mister's pace at the same age. As long as Nadal stays reasonably healthy, Federer might be feeling his breath on his neck in a few years. Methinks Roger had better get a couple more slams while he still can if he doesn't want to make Pete Sampras' relatively short reign as the all-time slam king seem long in comparison to his own.

So, after winning on clay. Then grass. Then hard court. Then in New York. What's next?

It could be that Nadal will never be better than he is at this moment. His view from the mountaintop today could very well represent what will be THE zenith of his career. But if we've learned anything this year it's that, much as it always was with Federer during the height of his dominance (he won six of eight slams starting at the age that Rafa finds himself now), it's simply not very wise to say that Nadal CAN'T do something.

Is a "Rafa Slam" next up in Melbourne, with a fourth straight slam win? No one's done that since Laver in '69. What about a TRUE calendar-year Grand Slam? Ditto, Laver forty-one years ago. Sure, such heights aren't likely. Not for anyone. Even Federer has never been able to scale those particular skyscrapers of possibility.

But after believing that Nadal COULDN'T do something in the past, then seeing him do just that. Multiple times, in fact. Maybe the sky IS the limit.

...the doubles team of Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova continued their dramatic ways in the resumption of the Women's Doubles final. Just three points from defeat, at 5-4 down in the 3rd set when play began, the pair saved a quickly-attained match point for Liezel Huber and Nadia Petrova, then went on to win the match in a tie-break, 2-6/6-4/7-6. It's the second time this tournament that King/Shvedova came back from match point down to win, and now they've won back-to-back slam titles after grabbing their first major title at Wimbledon in July.

1. Serena Williams, USA
2. Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
3. Venus Williams, USA
4. Vera Zvonareva, RUS
5. Kim Clijsters, BEL
6. Jelena Jankovic, SRB
7. Samantha Stosur, AUS
8. Francesca Schiavone, ITA
9. Agnieszka Radwanska, POL
10. Elena Dementieva, RUS
[2010 points race - Top 8 qualify for Doha]
1. Caroline Wozniacki (5615)
2. Serena Williams (5355)
3. Kim Clijsters (5295)
4. Vera Zvonareva (5173)
5. Venus Williams (4985)
6. Samantha Stosur (4567)
7. Jelena Jankovic (4033)
8. Francesca Schiavone (3952)
9. Justine Henin (3415)
10. Elena Dementieva (3327)

......after her 4th Round Open result, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova is in the Top 20 (at #20) for the first time.

1. Davia Gavrilova, RUS
2. Timea Babos, HUN
3. Irina Khromacheva, RUS
4. Elina Svitolina, UKR
5. Monica Puig, PUR
6. Kristyna Pliskova, CZE
7. Karolina Pliskova, CZE
8. Sachie Ishizu, JPN
9. Nastja Kolar, SLO
10. Gabriela Dabrowski, CAN

...U.S. Open Girls runner-up Yulia Putintseva is #16, one behind semifinalist Ons Jabeur. Beatrice Capra is #20.

1. Liezel Huber, USA
2. Gisela Dulko, ARG
3. Flavia Pennetta, ITA
4. Vania King, USA
5t. Serena Williams, USA
5t. Venus Williams, USA
7. Cara Black, ZIM
8. Kveta Peschke, CZE
9. Katarina Srebotnik, SLO
10. Nadia Petrova, RUS
[2010 points race - Top 4 team qualify for Doha]
1. Dulko/Pennetta (7186)
2. Peschke/Srebotnik (5921)
3. Williams/Williams (5500)
4. Raymond/Stubbs (4704)
5. King/Shvedova (4457)
6. Llagostera-Vives/Martinez-Sanchez (3675)
7. Chan/Zheng (3620)
8. Black/Huber (3060)
9. Kirilenko/A.Radwanska (2840)
10. Huber/Petrova (2661)

...predictably, USA Today's Christine Brennan did another kiss-butt piece yesterday about how "great" it is for the WTA for Clijsters to win. I suppose that would be true... if anyone had really been paying attention.

...and, finally, talk about a game of hot potato. Yesterday, with the long rain delay, CBS passed off the Men's final to ESPN2, which began to broadcast at around 8pm. With the second game of the Monday Night Football doubleheader scheduled to begin on ESPN2 at 10:15, viewers would have been forced to move to a third network -- ESPN Classic -- to watch the conclusion of the match had it gone past that time. Thankfully, Nadal and Djokovic obliged and got things over quickly... then you could just feel the rushed-along nature of the post-match trophy presentation. If Bill MacAtee had put his earplug up to the microphone, I'm sure we would have heard a director yelling, "Shut up and let Rafa grab the trophy before we run out of time!!!" Sure enough, as soon as Nadal lifted the trophy above his head, the network feed from Flushing Meadows was cut off and ESPN2 went to the game in Kansas City at 10:15.

Whew! Talk about by the skin of their teeth.

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

Fred Perry (1-1-3-3), 1933-36
Don Budge (1-1-2-2), 1937-38
Roy Emerson (6-2-2-2), 1961-67
Rod Laver (3-2-4-2), 1960-69
Andre Agassi (4-1-1-2), 1992-03
Roger Federer (4-1-6-5), 2003-10
RAFAEL NADAL (1-5-2-1), 2005-10

1969 Rod Laver, AUS (won all 4)
1974 Jimmy Connors, USA (single season)
1993-94 Pete Sampras, USA
2005-06 Roger Federer, SUI
2006-07 Roger Federer, SUI
2010 RAFAEL NADAL, SUI (single season)
[won Roland Garros-Wimbledon-US Open]
1969 Rod Laver

Andre Agassi, USA (also won SEC)
Steffi Graf, GER (also won SEC)
NOTE #1: Serena Williams & Roger Federer have won all 4 slams and Olympic Doubles Gold (as well as SEC)
NOTE #2: Justine Henin needs only Wimbledon title for all 4 slams (& has won Singles Gold and SEC)

#2 Kim Clijsters/BEL def. #7 Vera Zvonareva/RUS 6-2/6-1

#1 Rafael Nadal/ESP def. #3 Novak Djokovic/SRB 6-4/5-7/6-4/6-2

#6 King/Shvedova (USA/KAZ) def. #2 Huber/Petrova (USA/RUS) 2-6/6-4/7-6

#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) def. #16 Bopanna/Qureshi (IND/PAK) 7-6/7-6

#1 Huber/B.Bryan (USA/USA) def. Peschke/Qureshi (CZE/PAK) 6-4/6-4

#1 Daria Gavrilova/RUS def. Yulia Putitintseva/RUS 6-2/6-2

(WC) Jack Sock/USA def. #10 Denis Kudla/USA 3-6/6-2/6-2

#3 Babos/Stephens (HUN/USA) def. Mestach/Njiric (BEL/CRO) walkover

#3 Beretta/Quiroz (PER/ECU) def. #4 Golding/Vesely (GBR/CZE) 6-1/7-5

All for now. The 3Q Awards arrive later this week.


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Thu Jul 07, 01:33:00 AM EDT  
Blogger sanbo said...

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Thu Jul 07, 01:36:00 AM EDT  

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