Staring into the Sun
There's good reason to not stare directly into the sun, just as there's good reason to break out in a cold sweat at the notion of facing Rafael Nadal on the terre battue of Roland Garros.
"The more a man can forget, the greater the number of metamorphoses which his life can undergo; the more he can remember, the more divine his life becomes." - Søren Kierkegaard
Both Nadal and Roger Federer arrived in Paris in roles that they haven't been accustomed to in quite some time. For the first time since they became a two-headed slam-winning monster over the last seven years -- they were assured before the singles final of this RG of claiming 24 of 28 slam titles going back to Wimbledon '04 -- they weren't the talk of the men's draw starting on Day 1. At Roland Garros, that honor went to Novak Djokovic, the Serb who came to town undefeated since December, 7-0 against Nadal and Federer this season and within arm's reach of becoming the 25th man ranked #1 on the ATP computer. But Djokovic didn't make it to the final, having seen his 43-match winning streak brought to a stunning halt by Federer in the semifinals, a win that ensured that Nadal would hold onto his #1 ranking for a bit longer.
Well, unless Federer beat him in the final.
After having stunningly been nearly judged an "afterthought" as the #3 seed two weeks ago, Federer entered his fourth career RG final match-up with Nadal harboring the belief that he might be able to pull off the accomplishment. Despite having not played in a slam final in over a year, and not having faced Nadal in Paris since being throttled in the '08 final (a 6-1/6-3/6-0 loss for which Rafa apologized after the match), Federer had reason to believe, too. He'd only lost one set in the tournament, and the faster balls being used at the the '11 event seemed to have played to his strengths. Add to that the notion that Nadal had looked human this clay court season more often than usual -- mostly against Djokovic, against whom he'd gone 0-3, but also while winning his first career five-set match at RG in the 1st Round against John Isner, and at times in the matches that followed. After publicly being resigned weeks ago that his hold on the #1 ranking would soon be relinquished in favor of Djokovic, Nadal said during the tournament that he wasn't playing well enough to tie Bjorn Borg's record and claim his sixth career Roland Garros title. The closer the Spaniard got to the final, though, the better he played. But would it be enough against a reinvigorated 29-year old Federer, embracing his underdog role and looking more and more like his "old self" rather than his "old" self with potentially his career's grandest achievement just one win away from becoming a reality?
Federer jumped out to an early lead on Nadal in the opening set. So much so that he almost seemed to be "coasting" to a 1st set win. Maybe he believed that to be so, too. In retrospect, it might have been just enough to put his lead in jeopardy. In essense, he ventured too close to the sun, only to get burned.
Things looked good for Federer for a while. In Nadal's first service game, the 16-time slam winner from Switzerland finally put away a break on his fourth opportunity when his opponent netted a forehand that put Federer up 2-0. With Nadal's always-troubling lefty forehand not kicking up off the terre battue to Federer's backhand as high as it generally does, and with Federer making a point to step in and take such shots earlier, he sidestepped trouble and went ahead 5-2. In game #8, Federer held a set point on Nadal's serve, but rather than take a clean groundstroke cut at a ball in an attempt for a set-securing winner, Federer attempted a drop shot. It just missed catching the right sideline, and even if it had landed in he likely would have had to return a get from a scrambling Nadal. At the time and afterward, it was easy to wonder why Federer decided to pull out one of the many touch shots in his repertoire when something straightforward might have proven to be more effective. Perhaps because he thought he had enough of a cushion at 5-2 to take the chance? Maybe.
If he did make the wrong choice, he would soon pay dearly for it. It lit Rafa's fire. Nadal held the game to get to 5-3, then carved out his first break point of the match in the next. He converted it with a running down the line forehand from behind the baseline that bounced off a reaching-for-a-volley Federer's racket and into the net for 5-4. After Nadal held for 5-5, Federer's near-servcie ace down the "T" was called wide, then he netted a forehand after getting in a second serve. It gave Nadal the break for 6-5. The Spaniard then served out the "stolen" set at 7-5, winning his fifth straight game when he put away a forehand winner.
Federer was slow to get over the disappointment of the blown set, and fell down an early break at 3-1 in the 2nd. He after he saved three break points to hold for 3-2, with the crowd behind him, he got a break to get back on serve at 4-4 when Nadal couldn't get back a Federer return. But Nadal immediately broke back, going up 5-4 as Federer let out a audible sign as it appeared as if a two sets to none hole was imminent.
But the rain saved him, albeit briefly.
After a nine-minute rain delay, Nadal failed to convert his second set point, and Federer got to break point at the end of a long rally. When Nadal framed a forehand, Federer got the break to knot things at 5-5 as the two headed for an eventual tie-break. There, though, it was Nadal who jumped ahead 3-0. A Federer crosscourt forehand error later and it was 4-0. He closed to within 4-2, but then missed a forehand return. Federer nearly framed an overhead shot that ultimately landed softly in the backcourt, setting up nicely for Nadal to pound a backhand crosscourt winner to go up 6-2. He won the tie-break 7-3 and had a two-set lead.
As the 3rd set progressed, Nadal seemed to be breezily walking to the title. He took a 4-2 lead and the virtual "countdown" began. Only Federer didn't cooperate. He managed to get his foot in the door, stealing away a break to get to 4-3, then carried over his momentum to get another for 6-5. He won the set 7-5 and threatened to make a match of things. But Nadal didn't let it happen.
After having seen Federer take advantage of a slight dip in this play and concentation, Nadal beared down and took care of business in workmanlike fashion. He was quickly up 4-1, and this time Federer never got close to finding an opening. When Federer's backhand fell short of the net, all hope was essentially gone as Nadal went up 5-1. The Spaniard easily served out the final game for a 7-5/7-6/5-7/6-1 win and fell to his knees behind the baseline after Federer's final shot sailed long.
The closeness of the match made it the best of the five played between Nadal and Federer in Paris, but once Nadal gained his footing in the contest his path to extending his career RG mark to 45-1 with six titles over the last seven years was fairly direct. If Federer had won the 1st set that had seemed well within his grasp, things might have been different. But who knows?
Nadal's title ties him with Borg for the most in Roland Garros history, with his sixth crown coming just two days after celebrating his 25th birthday. It's the same age that Borg was when he lifted HIS sixth Coupe des Mousquetaires. While Borg never played another match in Paris after winning his final title in '81, Nadal's career end would seem to be nowhere near being within sight. His tenth career slam makes him the seventh man with double-digit major titles, and brings him to within one of tying Borg and Laver, and two from being behind only Federer and Pete Sampras on the all-time list. With sixteen slams under his belt, Federer will likely spend the rest of his career feeling the hot breath of Nadal on his neck as their respective slam totals get closer and closer. If Nadal does eventually surpass him, today will be a good example of why. For while Federer is no longer a "lock" to win more titles at Wimbledon and will have to scratch out however many more slams he might win, Nadal is still without equal in Paris for the near-future and would seem to have at least two or three more RG titles in the cards before he turns 30 and time (and injuries) finally catch up with him. Djokovic seemed as if he might be capable of rising above him in '11, but it didn't turn out to be the case. Not yet, at least.
However the numbers eventually play out, Nadal and Federer will forever be inextricably linked in tennis lore, measured against each other in historical terms as they have so often been in their primes. Today was their eighth slam final match-up (the most ever), and nineteenth overall final (one off the ATP record). But could this final turn out to be their LAST in a slam? Maybe. But probably not, if we're lucky. We could very well see them face each other again in a month at Wimbledon, where they've met in three finals and shared the last eight titles. But they've only faced off in one of the last nine slam finals, so any one could be the last from here on out. Both have and will continued to undergo changes throughout the next few years, with their statuses likely both rising and falling and maybe rising one final time before they're through. Divine as their presences have been on the tennis landscape, nothing lasts forever.
So savor today, and the reality that neither man seems intent to be going anywhere any time soon. Even when they're no longer together, though, they'll still be together forever... and everyone who attempts to follow them might be the ones forever staring into the sun.
...the Girls champion has been crowned, and it's Ons Jabeur, who defeated Monica Puig 7-6/6-1 in the final. Seriously, how international is a sport that has "tennis powers" like Tunisia and Puerto Rico producing the junior slam finalists? Jabeur, who finished as the runner-up in this competition a year ago to Elina Svitolina, is the first Tunisian to win a slam junior crown (and, a bit unexpectedly, I actually get one of my pre-season junior slam picks correct with her win). Meanwhile, Puig, who was also the runner-up in the AO Girls final in January, is the first girl to come in 2nd place in back-to-back slam finals since Tatiana Perebiynis at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2000.
In the Boys final, Bjorn Fratangelo (yes, he was named after THAT Bjorn, so this is a REALLY good day for the family) defeated Austria's Dominic Thiem to claim the title. He's the first American junior to claim the title since John McEnroe in 1977 (and the last American in Paris to win any junior crown since Jennifer Capriati in 1989).
...in ITF news, veteran Eleni Daniilidou of Greece is the "ITF Player of the Week" after winning the $75K grass court challenger in Nottingham, England, robbing victories from Anna Tatishvili, Melinda Czink, Tamira Paszek, Alison Riske and Olga Govortsova in the final and giving to herself. Some other results of note in that event: Sloane Stephens defeated Melanie Oudin, Riske got a win over Coco Vandeweghe and Michelle Larcher de Brito took out Stephens to reach the semifinals, where she lost to Govortsova (who she'd beaten on grass in Birmingham in '10). Also of note, Stephens lost to Naomi Broady today in qualifying for this week's WTA event in Birmingham, and Larcher de Brito retired after just two games against Sarah Gronert in that same qualifying tournament.
Meanwhile, 19-year old American Christina McHale won her first career ITF title (hey, there's another pre-season prediction I can now check off the list) in a $50K challenger in Rome, qualifying and defeating Ekaterina Ivanova in the final.
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND (Int'l $220K/grass)
10 Final: Li d. Sharapova
11 Top Seeds: Kanepi/Ivanovic
10 Doubles Champions: Black/Raymond (Black: 2008-10)
Lisicki d. #14 Rybarikova
Zheng d. #3 Peng
#4 Hantuchova d. Riske
#13 Marino d. #5 Vinci
Lisicki d. Zheng
#4 Hantuchova d. #13 Marino
Lisicki d. #4 Hantuchova
...I'm going a bit "out there" with these picks, but Lisicki IS a former Wimbledon quarterfinalist (2009), while Zheng reached the semis in 2008 (and maybe there'll be some carry-over from Li's success this week with either her or Peng). I'd be nice if the German could quickly get over her dramatic exit from Roland Garros.
COPENHAGEN, DENMARK (Int'l $220K/hard intdoors)
10 Final: Wozniacki d. Zakopalova
11 Top Seeds: Wozniacki/Zakopalova
10 Doubles Champions: Goerges/Groenefeld
#1 Wozniacki d. #3 Mattek-Sands
#4 Safarova d. #2 Zakopalova
#1 Wozniacki d. #4 Safarova
...only one Top 10 player is in action this week. I'd ask you to guess who it is, but even without the picks already appearing above I'm sure it would have been far too easy a question. The better question is why Wozniacki is playing in this event at all. Sure, it's back home, and she's the defending champion and she feels some sort of obligation to attend. But this indoor hard court event was held in August last year, not in a spot in the schedule where it'll end a week before the start of a grass court slam. If she's a #1 really seeking out her first slam title she either plays a grass event this week, or is spending the week making the transition from clay to grass on the practice court. She'll probably end up doing "all right" at SW19, but once again she'll be arriving at the All-England Club having barely caught her breath. This is one of those hard decisions the Dane has to bite the bullet, swallow hard and make if she's going to get serious about doing what's best for HER rather than other people. Not playing this event SHOULD be an easy decision. Yet, here she is.
...the 2011 Clay Court Awards arrive in a couple of days, and the "Time Capsule" for Wimbedon '89 (Graf & Becker) will come soon after that.
*WOMEN'S SINGLES FINAL*
#6 Li Na/CHN def. #5 Francesca Schiavone/ITA 6-4/7-6
*MEN'S SINGLES FINAL*
#1 Rafael Nadal/ESP def. #3 Roger Federer/SUI 7-5/7-6/5-7/6-1
*WOMEN'S DOUBLES FINAL*
Hlavackova/Hradecka (CZE/CZE) def. #7 Mirza/Vesnina (IND/RUS) 6-4/6-3
*MEN'S DOUBLES FINAL*
#2 Mirnyi/Nestor (BLR/CAN) def. Cabal/Schwank (COL/ARG) 7-6/3-6/6-4
*MIXED DOUBLES FINAL*
Dellacqua/Lipsky (AUS/USA) def. #1 Srebotnik/Zimonjic (SLO/SRB) 7-6/4-6/10-7
*GIRLS SINGLES FINAL*
#9 Ons Jabeur/TUN def. #5 Monica Puig/PUR 7-6/6-1
*BOYS SINGLES FINAL*
Bjorn Fratangelo/USA def. #14 Dominic Thiem/AUT 3-6/6-3/8-6
*GIRLS DOUBLES FINAL*
#2 Khromacheva/Zanevska (RUS/UKR) def. Kan/Schuurs (RUS/NED) 6-4/7-5
*BOYS DOUBLES FINAL*
#4 Artunedo Martinavarr/Carballes Baena (ESP/ESP) def. Krueger/Vinsant (USA/USA) 5-7/7-6/10-5
*ROLAND GARROS GIRLS CHAMPS*
1996 Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
1997 Justine Henin, BEL
1998 Nadia Petrova, RUS
1999 Lourdes Dominguez-Lino, ESP
2000 Virginie Razzano, FRA
2001 Kaia Kanepi, EST
2002 Angelique Widjaja, INA
2003 Anna-Lena Groenefeld, GER
2004 Sessil Karatantcheva, BUL
2005 Agnes Szavay, HUN
2006 Agnieszka Radwanska, POL
2007 Alize Cornet, FRA
2008 Simona Halep, ROU
2009 Kristina Mladenovic, FRA
2010 Elina Svitolina, UKR
2011 Ons Jabeur, TUN
*WTA GRASS COURT TITLES - ACTIVE*
1...15 players *
* -- Kateryna Bondarenko, Anna Chakvetadze, Eleni Daniilidou, Jelena Dokic, Jelena Jankovic, Michaella Krajicek, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Li Na, Ekaterina Makarova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Lisa Raymond, Magdalena Rybarikova, Caroline Wozniacki, Klara Zakopalova, Vera Zvonareva
*CAREER SLAM SINGLES TITLES - MEN*
*MOST RG TITLES - SINCE 1925*
6...Bjorn Borg (1974-75,1978-81)
6...RAFAEL NADAL (2005-08,2010-11)
4...Henri Cochet (1926,28,30,32)
3...Gustavo Kuerten (1997,2000-01)
3...Ivan Lendl (1984,1986-87)
3...Rene Lacoste (1925,27,29)
3...Mats Wilander (1982,85,88)
*BEST ALL-TIME RG WIN PERCENTAGE - MEN*
97.8% - RAFAEL NADAL, 2005-11 (45-1)
96.1% - Bjorn Borg, 1973-81 (49-2)
*CAREER RG FINALS*
*MOST RG FINAL LOSSES IN CAREER*
4...ROGER FEDERER (2006-08,2011)
3...Jaroslav Drobny (1946,1948,1950)
3...Guillermo Vilas (1975,1978,1982)
*CAREER ATP SINGLES TITLES*
*2011 ATP FINALS*
7...Novak Djokovic (7-0)
7...RAFAEL NADAL (3-4)
4...Nicolas Almagro (3-1)
4...David Ferrer (2-2)
3...Robin Soderling (3-0)
3...ROGER FEDERER (1-2)
TOP QUALIFIER: #21 Sloane Stephens/USA
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #8 Samantha Stosur/AUS
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): #6 Li Na/CHN
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): #6 Li Na/CHN
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Ekaterina Bychkova/RUS d. Lindsay Lee-Waters/USA 3-6/7-6/10-8
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - #3 Vera Zvonareva/RUS d. (Q) Sabine Lisicki/GER 4-6/7-5/7-5
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): QF - #5 Francesca Schiavone/ITA d. #14 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS 1-6/7-5/7-5
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr.): Final - #6 Li Na/CHN d. #5 Francesca Schiavone/ITA 6-4/7-6
FIRST WINNER: Simona Halep/ROU (def. Alla Kudryavtseva/RUS)
FIRST SEED OUT: #19 Shahar Peer/ISR (lost to Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez/ESP)
UPSET QUEENS: The Romanians
REVELATION LADIES: The North Americans
LAST QUALIFIERS STANDING: Chan Yung-Jan/TPE & Nuria Llagostera-Vives/ESP (3rd Rd.)
LAST WILD CARDS STANDING: Iryna Bremond/FRA, Caroline Garcia/FRA & Pauline Parmentier/FRA (2nd Rd.)
IT GIRL: Caroline Garcia/FRA
MADEMOISELLE & MADAM OPPORTUNITY: #5 Francesca Schiavone/ITA & #6 Li Na/CHN
COMEBACK PLAYER: Casey Dellacqua/AUS
CRASH & BURN: #2 Kim Clijsters/BEL (lost in 2nd Rd. to #114 Arantxa Rus/NED after leading 6-3/5-2 and holding 2 MP; worst slam result since 2002)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #7 Maria Sharapova, RUS (down 6-3/4-1, 2 breaks, in 2nd Rd. vs. Garcia)
LAST PASTRY STANDING: #11 Marion Bartoli/FRA (SF)
JOIE DE VIVRE: Virginie Razzano/FRA
DOUBLES STARS Andrea Hlavackova & Lucie Hradecka, CZE/CZE
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: Monica Puig/PUR
All for now.