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Steve Flink: Roland Garros Rewind

6/8/2008 12:24:00 AM

by Steve Flink

PARIS - As I leave Paris and reflect on the past week at Roland Garros, I find it amusing that the weather forecast for today is ideal. They say temperatures will be in the high seventies, the sun will shine, and it will be a summerlike afternoon. What a pity we could not have had balmy weather like that during the tournament. Play was constantly delayed by rain the first week, and all six days I was there at the end were cloudy, often dark, and entirely too cool for my liking. We hardly got a glimpse of the sun.

Be that as it may, it was a compelling French Open in many ways. Rafael Nadal concluded an astoundingly efficient two weeks by absolutely clobbering Roger Federer in the final, granting the Swiss a mere four games in three sets, making the world No. 1 look unimaginably helpless throughout most of the championship match. Nadal came away with his fourth French Open title in a row, remained unbeaten on the Roland Garros clay in 28 matches, and gave his boosters every reason to believe that he just might capture Wimbledon this year after reaching the final in 2006 and 2007.

But, while Nadal was front and center once more with his masterful clay court prowess, there were others who took a good deal away from the tournament. Ana Ivanovic won the women's event in style. Not only did she play an impressively mature final against Dinara Safina to seal her first major crown, but she also prevailed in the best female match of the event. The Serbian faced her countrywoman Jelena Jankovic in a gripping and high quality semifinal. The momentum shifted back and forth so many times in that battle that the outcome was in doubt until the last instant.

Jankovic took a 4-2 lead in the first set. Playing the game in a manner reminiscent of Martina Hingis, displaying shot selection and strategic thinking of the first class, she seemed to have the upper hand against the big hitting Ivanovic, who was always looking for ways to finish off points with explosive winners. Ivanovic then seized control, winning seven of the next eight games to secure the first set and move ahead 3-1 in the second. The wily and resourceful Jankovic was not swayed. Exploiting her wonderful ball control, Jankovic swept eight of the next nine games to grab the second set and lead 3-1 in the third.

It seemed then that Jankovic was going to get the victory because her more conservative style was better suited to the clay. Surely--- or so it appeared--- the percentages were on her side. But Ivanovic was not willing to concede a thing. She got back to 3-3, lost her serve to slip into a dangerous zone again, but then ran out the match by collecting three games in a row for a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 triumph. This was a gritty piece of business. In those last three games, she swung freely and produced some sweepingly beautiful strokes. Jankovic did not collapse by any means; Ivanovic simply took matters entirely into her own hands. She played exactly the way she wanted to play, going for broke, aiming for the lines, following her convictions.

Ivanovic played a smart final against Dinara Safina, winning in straight sets, mixing offense and defense skillfully against the 22-year-old Russian who was appearing in her first major final. She has now moved out among the elite, and I expect her to enjoy a very productive year and career from here on in. She has the right mindset, the best set of priorities, and a growing sense of self.

But this tournament was a great showcase for Safina as well. Her comebacks against top seeded Maria Sharapova and No. 7 seed and former Roland Garros finalist Elena Dementieva were extraordinary. Sharapova won the first set over Safina and led 5-2 in the second. The three time Grand Slam tournament champion served for the match and had a match point at 5-3. Safina climbed out of that dangerous corner, but soon trailed 5-2 in the second set tie-breaker. Once more, it was Sharapova who cracked while Safina stood her ground. Safina came away with a 6-7 (6), 7-6 (5), 6-2 victory. Two years earlier at Roland Garros, she had rallied from 1-5 in the third set to beat Sharapova.

In any case, Safina found herself in an identical situation against Dementieva. She trailed by a set and 5-2 against one of the soundest ball strikers in the business. She was match point down again. But Safina was victorious in three sets, leaving Dementieva as dumbfounded as Sharapova had been in the previous round. Not content with those two unlikely victories, Safina completed a trio of big wins over her countrywomen by knocking out No. 4 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova in straight sets. She lost to a better player in the final, but she had much to celebrate in Paris.

The same could be said for Gael Monfils, the charismatic Frenchman whose court coverage is right up there with anyone in the world. He made it to his first major semifinal at 21 by toppling No. 5 seed David Ferrer, and gave Federer quite a four set tussle. Cheered on vociferously by the French fans, he saved two match points at 4-5 in the fourth and later served at 5-6, 30-0. Had Monfils held there and battled his way into a fifth set, the crowd would have been delirious and who knows what would have happened. The better man won. Monfils has holes in his game, and at times relies too much on his foot speed. But he was a keynote performer at Roland Garros. He gave his country's ardent fans something to really cheer about.

I want to pay homage to Novak Djokovic as well. For the second year in a row, he got to the semifinals. As was the case a year ago, he could not hold back Nadal. And it was apparent in his press conference that Djokovic, now a Grand Slam tournament champion, was dismayed by his loss and unhappy with his performance. But I liked the way he acquitted himself in that match with the Spaniard. Nadal was beating him to a pulp, almost as badly as he would crush Federer in the final. Nadal, playing even better in some ways than he did in the final, swept through the first two sets and was serving with a 3-0 lead in the third set.

The Djokovic of days gone by might have figured it was a lost cause at that stage. But he is a genuine champion now. In that third set, he started pushing Nadal around and he raised the level of his game substantially. Eventually, Djokovic reached set point. Nadal stifled him with a winning forehand crosscourt and closed out the match in a tie-break, but Djokovic is to be commended for his professionalism and resilience. He bowed out honorably in the end on a day when his opponent was just too good. I liked that.

Come to think of it, I liked the entire tournament, with the exception of the weather.

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