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Steve Flink: Nadal reaches more milestones with popular French Open triumph

6/9/2013 3:00:00 PM

ROLAND GARROS—One of the most enjoyable things about having been around tennis for so many decades is the opportunity the sport has given me to have a front row seat frequently when history of a high order is made. I consider myself fortunate to have been at Forest Hills in 1969 when the estimable Rod Laver completed his second Grand Slam with a dazzling four set, final round win over countryman Tony Roche. I watched Bjorn Borg capture his fifth consecutive Wimbledon singles crown in 1980 over John McEnroe in a magnificent five set encounter. I was at the All England Club again 28 years later when Rafael Nadal toppled Roger Federer in the finest tennis match I have ever witnessed, preventing the Swiss Maestro from collecting a sixth consecutive title on the lawns of Wimbledon, claiming the crown on the edge of darkness and inspiring sports fans from all around the world in the process.

Those are just a few of the many moments that I will cherish forever as a tennis reporter. But I celebrated another landmark event in my career today at Roland Garros as Rafael Nadal dismissed his compatriot David Ferrer 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 in a one-sided final that was seldom if ever in doubt. The match itself was not what mattered; it was what Nadal accomplished that made it all so extraordinary. Not only did he become the first man ever to win any Grand Slam championship eight times, but he also established himself as the first man ever to capture at least one major title for nine consecutive years. Nadal had shared that important record since last year with Federer (2003-2010), Pete Sampras (1993-2000), and Borg (1974-81). But now he stands alone in a category that most accurately defines consistency and long term excellence in the upper reaches of the sport at the places of lasting consequence.

That he was even in a position to realize that considerable goal was a testament to his character and durability. Consider what happened to the Spaniard after he left Roland Garros in 2012 with his seventh title. He went to Wimbledon with an ailing knee, and was ushered out of the tournament in the second round by the unheralded and madly inspired Lukas Rosol. That was only the fifth time ever that Nadal had lost a five set contest and plainly he was not himself. He did not play a tournament again for seven months, missing the Olympic Games last summer, bypassing the 2012 U.S. Open, staying away from the Australian Open at the start of this season.

When he returned in the first week of February, he made it to the final of the ATP World Tour 250 event in Vina Del Mar, Chile, but was upset by another left-handed named Horacio Zeballos, an Argentinian who under normal circumstances would not have stood a chance against the redoubtable Nadal. The Spaniard’s biggest boosters were shocked and dismayed, wondering how a loss like that could happen to a player of Nadal’s stature. But that defeat was the product of no more than a long absence from a demanding game. He took the setback with typical equanimity and grace, and simply played on into his comeback with growing conviction and unwavering intensity.

Since the stunning loss to Zeballos, here is what Rafael Nadal has done. He has played eight more tournaments, winning seven of them. He has won 41 of 42 matches in that span, including three Masters 1000 titles and now another Grand Slam event. Know this about Nadal: he has made one of the great comebacks in the modern world of sports, and his resurrection has surpassed any tennis player of his era by a wide margin.

Because the official Emirates ATP [World] Rankings are based on a 12 month system of evaluating results, Nadal will actually slip from No. 4 in the world on Monday behind Ferrer. But because he lost so early at Wimbledon and was gone for the rest of 2012, the 27-year-old dynamo will inevitably finish the year in a battle for No. 1 with Novak Djokovic. A much better barometer of where Nadal really stands among his peers at the moment is the ATP Race, which only considers points earned at tournaments for this year. On that list, Nadal has opened up a significant lead at No. 1, with Djokovic behind him in second place. When you win seven tournaments and the season is not even half over, you have positioned yourself for a magnificent year.

But let’s review what happened in the Nadal-Ferrer Roland Garros final. Consider that Ferrer was appearing in his first career major final. The 31-year-old had not dropped a set on his way to the meeting with Nadal, who had been stretched to his absolute limits before recouping boldly from 2-4 down in the fifth set of a stupendous four hour, 37 minute semifinal clash with Djokovic. But the fact remained that Nadal owned a 19-4 career winning record against Ferrer coming into this contest, and he had not lost to his countryman on clay since 2004 in Stuttgart.

Moreover, Nadal had swept eight matches in a row overall against Ferrer since losing to his revered rival in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Australian Open. Clearly, Nadal has historically picked apart Ferrer with meticulous backcourt craftsmanship, but in their two most recent showdowns, Ferrer had given impressive accounts of himself. In the quarterfinals of Madrid last month, Ferrer came within two points of stopping Nadal in the quarterfinals before losing 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-0. A week later in Rome, Ferrer pushed Nadal considerably again before bowing 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 in another quarterfinal. Perhaps Ferrer had planted a few seeds of encouragement for himself with those performances.

But perhaps not. The French Open final is a setting far removed from Madrid or Rome. Nadal has never lost a Roland Garros final, and Ferrer had never been in one. That was strikingly apparent right from the outset of their confrontation. Although Ferrer held at love for 1-0—closing that game with an ace—Nadal settled down swiftly. He held at 15 for 1-1 and then broke Ferrer at 15 in the following game. Nadal was finding his range quickly and convincingly while Ferrer looked awfully tight when he lost his serve. Nadal advanced to 2-1, 30-0, but Ferrer managed to draw even at 2-2. At deuce in that fourth game, Ferrer used a drop shot to draw Nadal in, and then passed him cleanly down the line off the backhand. When Nadal made a backhand unforced mistake on the following point, they were back on serve.

Briefly, Ferrer seemed settled and composed, holding from 15-30 for 3-2. But the clay court master now took matters almost entirely into his own hands and essentially broke the match wide open be securing seven straight games. Nadal held at love for 3-3 in that opening set. After Ferrer rallied from 15-40 to deuce in the seventh game, he narrowly missed a forehand down the line long. At break point for the third time in that game, Nadal converted with a trademark play. He angled a forehand crosscourt short, forcing Ferrer to come in on his terms. Then Nadal laced a spectacular backhand passing shot crosscourt for a winner. Ferrer had a break point in the eighth game, but Nadal stymied him with a forehand inside-out winner off a reasonably deep return from his opponent. That was a shot Nadal played with consistent brilliance all match long. Nadal eventually held for 5-3 with an ace down the T at 201 kilometers. Serving to stay in the set, Ferrer faltered, serving a double fault for 15-40. Nadal took the next point with a short angled forehand crosscourt that provoked an error from Ferrer. Set to Nadal, 6-3, on a run of four games in a row.

He simply accelerated. Down 30-40 in the opening game of the second set, Nadal stepped up the pace on his crosscourt forehand to draw an error from Ferrer. Nadal held on his second game point for 1-0. With Ferrer serving at 30-40 in the second game, Nadal sent a scorching forehand up the line for a winner off a crosscourt backhand from Ferrer, moving into a 2-0 lead. He went to 3-0 in a hurry, opening that third game with an ace, making all four first serves, holding at love with a service winner. That was the seventh and last game of his streak, and the tougher part was ahead for Nadal.

When Ferrer served in the fourth game, he was under siege. Nadal had a couple of break points for 4-0 but Ferrer steadfastly erased those opportunities. Nadal just missed a forehand down the line that would have been a winner on the first break point, and Ferrer attacked boldly on the second, using a fine forehand approach to thwart his adversary. In a crucial hold, Ferrer made it back to 1-3. The next game went to deuce four times. Ferrer had four break points. But the perspicacious Nadal simply would not let go. He saved one break point with an inside-out forehand winner, escaped another with a sizzling forehand down the line that Ferrer could not handle, and averted a third when Ferrer missed off the forehand long.

But it was the fourth break point that featured Nadal at his very best, and that was surely a backbreaking moment for Ferrer. Nadal made his opponent come forward on his own terms by playing a short backhand slice. Nadal realized Ferrer would approach down the line, and he easily anticipated that play, cracking another impeccable backhand passing shot crosscourt for a scintillating winner. Nadal held on with a backhand down the line winner to extend his lead to 4-1.

With Ferrer serving at 1-4, there was a disturbance in the crowd, causing a delay at 15-30 as Nadal looked up into the audience to figure out why there was unruly behavior. When they resumed, Ferrer fell behind 15-40, but he saved those two break points with sound aggression off the forehand. He then cancelled a third. But Nadal would not relent. He sealed the break on the fourth chance with a terrific forehand inside-out winner. He had a healthy 5-1 lead.

But there was bedlam for a brief moment as a young man somehow made his way out onto the court with a smoking flare. Nadal understandably looked frightened, but security guards quickly grabbed the man and took him out of the arena. Perhaps not only startled but disoriented for a few minutes, Nadal was broken at 15 in the seventh game after double faulting for 15-40, although he was serving into the wind and that was the end of the court where all three of the service breaks against him occurred. And yet, Nadal had a nice cushion, and still led 5-2. Now Ferrer seemed to lose his concentration. At 0-15 in the eighth game, he served consecutive double faults. Nadal broke him at love to secure a two sets to love lead. In moving to 2-0 in the third set, Nadal conceded only one point. But he was broken at 15 in the third game after double faulting for 0-30, and Ferrer held at love for 2-2. Remarkably, Ferrer had not taken two games in a row since early in the opening set. Nadal was in no mood to allow his opponent any more latitude than that, promptly holding at 15 for 3-2. In that fifth game, he opened with an ace out wide in the deuce court and he closed out the hold with the same serve for another ace. He sensed he could close out the tournament, but Ferrer is a fighter through and through.

Ferrer held on from 0-30 to make it 3-3, and then Nadal was down break point in the seventh game, serving into the wind. He sent a heavy topspin crosscourt forehand with good depth, and Ferrer could not handle it. After Nadal took that point, he broke into one of his few fist pumps, realizing how significant this particular game could be. If he could hold on, he would change ends and have the chance to make Ferrer serve into the wind. Nadal did hold for 4-3, and he made a concerted effort to get the break in the next game. Ferrer fought off one break point, but double faulted long on the second. Nadal had moved to 5-3, only one game away from his historic eighth title.

Serving for the match, Nadal was focused and deliberate, unmistakably eager but deeply serious. Nadal drove a backhand long to fall behind 0-15, but from there he was letter perfect. He coaxed an error from Ferrer with a crosscourt forehand struck confidently. On the next point, Nadal took Ferrer’s deep return of serve on the rise and sent a backhand down the line, provoking Ferrer into a backhand down the line mistake. At 30-15, Nadal went wide to the backhand with his first serve and Ferrer’s crosscourt return was out. That took Nadal to double match point, and he sealed it on the first. In many ways, that point symbolized the entire match. Ferrer’s return was deep enough to bother just about any opponent, but Nadal moved around for one last inside-out forehand, and found the open court for a winner. The key statistic in the match was this: Ferrer won only 25% of his second serve points, and was broken eight times.

Nadal claimed his 12th major championship. He has won all but five of his 17 Grand Slam tournament finals, losing to only two players: Federer twice and Djokovic thrice. Nadal is now tied with Roy Emerson for third on the all-time list of men’s major title winners. He is only two behind the great Sampras, and five behind the esteemed Federer. No one knows exactly where he goes from here, but the feeling grows that this man widely acknowledged as the best ever on clay will win Roland Garros at least one more time and probably twice. If he can stay healthy and avoid any more lengthy absences from the game—and that is always a big if—Nadal ought to be able to add to his total of two Wimbledon titles, one U.S. Open, and one Australian. We will know in three or four years a lot more about where Nadal will end up on the ladder of history, but he is steadily climbing.

Meanwhile, he should pause for an instant, appreciate the depth and scope of his comeback, and celebrate the fact that he stands by himself as the player who has won the French Open more than anyone else. Chris Evert, of course, holds the women’s record with seven championships. Nadal is an exceedingly humble man, a fellow who takes nothing for granted, a champion with as sharp and precise a mind as anyone who has ever played this singularly challenging game. For Rafael Nadal, this win today was much more than just another major championship triumph; it was enormously gratifying in a multitude of ways.
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.