5/12/2008 6:05:00 PM
by Steve Flink
I can't wait to get back to the French Open. I look forward to Roland Garros every year. I have been to the tournament 29 of the past 35 years, and have not missed the event since 1981. It will be a joy to return to those hallowed clay court grounds on June 3. After watching the proceedings from Hamburg on Tennis Channel this past weekend, my sense of anticipation is even greater than usual. The semifinal and final round triumphs recorded by Rafael Nadal over Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in Germany were such blockbusters that the stage has clearly been set for an enthralling time at Roland Garros.
Let's consider what happened in Hamburg, and how well the three best players in the world performed that amazing weekend. Djokovic, in full command of his steadily evolving game, made a brilliant start against the redoubtable Nadal as they clashed in the penultimate round. The Serbian, fresh from his victory the previous week at the Italian Open, came at Nadal forcefully and purposefully, leaving the Spaniard dumbfounded at the outset. Djokovic bolted to a 3-0, 15-40 lead. Until that critical moment, he was letter perfect in both his tactics and his execution, setting the tempo entirely with supreme baseline aggression, flattening out his forehand masterfully, making timely advances to the net.
Had Djokovic managed to secure an insurance break by reaching 4-0, he would almost certainly have taken that opening set, and he might have prevailed in the match. But Nadal dug in as only he can. He took advantage of one relatively loose error off the backhand from Djokovic at 0-3, 15-40, and gamely held on. Djokovic moved swiftly to 3-1, 40-15, but once more Nadal obstinately held his ground. He broke back for 2-3, then saved a break point on his way back to 3-3. Nadal, finding his range off the forehand, fending off Djokovic with superior defense, substantially raising the level of his emotional energy, served for the opening set at 5-4. He was denied his opportunity then, but it did not take him long to seal a crackling 7-5 set.
Djokovic had thrown everything he has in his arsenal at the left-handed Spaniard, but he found himself in a difficult predicament. At 2-2 in the second set, Djokovic was down 15-40. He could not afford to get broken. Nadal, unprovoked, surprisingly drove a backhand into the net on the first break point. Djokovic saved the next one with stellar play. He had sedulously fended Nadal off, and the Serbian collected four straight games to make it back to one set all. Djokovic displayed much gumption in that stretch.
Eventually, a highly charged and perspicacious Nadal came through with a flourish, winning 7-5, 2-6, 6-2, but the score does not begin to reflect the astounding level of play from both competitors. In fact, Djokovic competed honorably all through that third set. He had 40-15 on his serve in the opening game but did not hold. He had Nadal down 15-40 twice on his way to stretching his lead to 4-2. When a seemingly fatigued Djokovic lost his serve at love to trail 5-2, the end seemed just around the corner. That was clearly not the case. In the final game of the match, Nadal had to fight off four break points and needed five match points before closing out a stirring account. The rallies were fought with unimaginable ferocity and imagination throughout the contest. Both players knew how much was riding on the outcome. Had Nadal lost, Djokovic would have taken away his No. 2 world ranking and Nadal would have been relegated to a No. 3 seeding in Paris.
But Djokovic, despite falling short of victory, gained as much as he lost that afternoon. He took a set off Nadal on clay for the first time. He demonstrated his growing awareness as a clay court player. He came away buoyed by the quality of his play and eager to keep progressing at Roland Garros and beyond. Djokovic had every reason to feel proud of what he had achieved in a bruising and riveting skirmish. It was the best clay court match I have witnessed in the last five years, with the exception of Nadal's victory over Federer in the 2006 Rome final, when the Spaniard saved two match points at 5-6 in the fifth set and collected four consecutive points from 3-5 down in the ensuing tie-break.
In the Hamburg final, Nadal was heroic again. Federer rolled to a 5-1 lead in the first set and had a set point in the seventh game on serve. The Swiss sent a forehand swing volley wide, and Nadal broke him there. At the changeover, still down a break at 5-2, Nadal, concerned about an aching upper right leg, spoke with the trainer. Was he going to quit and save himself for Roland Garros? No way. Remarkably, Nadal saved another set point on his own serve at 2-5, wiping that one away with a trademark inside-out forehand winner set up by a well struck wide serve to Federer's backhand. Nadal held on for 3-5. He broke the world No. 1 at 30 in the following game, unleashing another explosive forehand inside-out winner. In the end, his vicious topspin forehand would be the dominant stroke on the court.
At the outset, Federer had Nadal back on his heels and was sensibly assertive. Federer attacked magnificently and made the Spaniard apprehensive with his consistency and panache off the ground. But Nadal won six games in a row to steal the opening set, and then broke a wayward Federer in the opening game of the second. But then, once more, with Nadal losing depth off both sides, Federer pressed forward persuasively, and majestically seized control of the rallies. He raced to a 5-2 second set lead. Two points from losing the set, Nadal aced Federer out wide with an audacious kick second serve in the deuce court.
He was ascendant again. Nadal reached 5-5, and then had Federer at 0-40 in the eleventh game. He seemed on the verge of a straight set win. Federer had other notions. He released an ace and two excellent first serves that Nadal could not handle to save those crucial break points, and gallantly held on. In the second set tie-break, Federer boldly recouped from 0-2, winning 7 of the last 8 points to level the battle at one set all.
The unshakable Nadal refused to buckle. He broke Federer for a 3-1 final set lead and did not lose his serve thereafter in closing out a hard fought 7-5, 6-7 (3), 6-3 win, lifting his record to 10-6 over his great adversary, defeating the world No. 1 for the eighth time in nine career clay court showdowns. Once again, the score line does not begin to do justice to the depth and scope of this latest Federer-Nadal collision. Aside from the Italian Open epic of 2006, this was their finest clay court meeting.
Nadal, victorious for the third time in four events on the 2008 clay court campaign, heads into Roland Garros as the undeniable favorite, seeking a fourth consecutive crown. He is my pick to realize that goal. He demonstrated his unmatchable mettle in overcoming Djokovic and Federer in Hamburg, and surely built another layer of confidence for himself in the process. He has never lost a match at Roland Garros. He is irrefutably the best clay court player in the world. But I also expect Djokovic and Federer to do very well in Paris. Djokovic now knows that he can compete with anyone on the slow red clay. For the first time he will head into Roland Garros believing he can win the tournament. After his first career major triumph in Melbourne this past January, he is looking at himself differently. He is not the least bit intimidated by any of his rivals, including Nadal and Federer.
Federer comes into Roland Garros perhaps better prepared than ever before. The 2006-2007 French Open finalist scheduled himself perfectly this time around. He won Estoril, was runner-up to Nadal in Monte Carlo, took a week off, reached the quarterfinals in Rome, and then got to the final in Hamburg. Federer has won only one tournament in eight appearances during a trying 2008 campaign, but he seems to be getting closer to the top of his game. I can't see anyone other than Nadal or Djokovic beating Federer in Paris. Only one player--- the estimable Nadal--- has defeated Federer in the past three years at Roland Garros. Federer will put forth a gigantic effort this year to seal the only major he has never owned.
As for the women, the absence of Justine Henin opens up many possibilities. Henin would have been going for a fourth triumph in a row at Roland Garros. Now a cluster of players will vie seriously for the crown. Jelena Jankovic, a semifinalist a year ago and a winner last week at the Italian Open, is one leading candidate. Her Serbian countrywoman Ana Ivanovic--- runner-up to Henin in 2007--- is another. Current world No. 1 Maria Sharapova reached the semifinals in Paris for the first time last year. She has a serious shot at the title.
But my pick is none other than Serena Williams, who came through to take the French Open in 2002. Although she has not been back in the final since she garnered the title six years ago, Serena is playing some of her best ever tennis. Clay is surely not her best surface, but she has the shot making variety, the experience, and the foot speed to succeed at Roland Garros. I expect her to struggle in the early rounds, but in the end I like her chances of securing a ninth career major in singles.
The feeling grows that we are in for a treat at the upcoming French Open.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com
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