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Steve Flink: French Open Reflections

6/10/2009 10:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

Roland Garros has frequently been one of those prodigious stages on which the best clay court players have succeeded over and over again. They have ruled imperiously on the red clay, casting rivals aside with regularity and without hesitation, collecting titles in clusters, habitually carving out victories at a place where artists, craftsman and those who work the hardest reap the largest rewards. The unflappable Bjorn Borg secured the premier clay court crown of them all for the first time in 1974, defended his turf in 1975, and later swept four championships in a row from 1978-81. The gracious and graceful Chris Evert won a record seven titles in a span from 1974-86. The charismatic Guga Kuerten was three times a victor from 1997-2001.                

And then, of course, along came the redoubtable Rafael Nadal to garner four consecutive titles from 2005-2008. Nadal was the overwhelming favorite to win a fifth straight title this year. He had never lost a match at Roland Garros. He had been the dominant clay court competitor this spring, adding three more titles on that surface to his collection. But Nadal was beaten for the first time in 49 best of five set matches on clay across his career, the victim of one of the biggest upsets ever at a major championship. Sweden’s towering Robin Soderling toppled Nadal 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-6 (2) in the round of 16, turning the tournament upside down, altering the outlook of every other top player.                

It was as if a chain reaction was set off after the shocking departure of Nadal. From that moment on, it was apparent that this was going to be a very different kind of year at Roland Garros. To be sure, No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic had already been ushered out of the event in the third round a day before Nadal was beaten, losing in straight sets to the German Philipp Kohlschreiber. But then No. 4 seed Andy Murray lost his quarterfinal in four sets to No. 12 Fernando Gonzalez. So three of the four top seeds did not make it to the penultimate round of the tournament, and the fourth was perilously close to joining the other big names on the sidelines.                

No. 2 seed Roger Federer was in a dire predicament against Jose Acasuso in the second round. Acasuso had four set points before dropping the opening set, but he roared back to take the second and establish a 5-1 lead in the third. Acasuso had a set point to move ahead two sets to one before he cracked. Federer escaped to win that match in four sets. The day after Nadal lost his appointment with Soderling, Federer took on Tommy Haas, a player he figured to beat comfortably. But Haas captured the first two sets and then was a point away from serving for the match when he reached break point at 3-4 in the third set.                

Haas was right where he wanted to be on that critical break point. Federer missed his first serve, and predictably spun his second delivery deep to the Haas backhand. The German played the percentages, sending his return with reasonably good depth crosscourt. Federer realized it was time to be bold and aggressive; it was a moment to take a modest risk. He ran around his backhand and laced a forehand inside-out. The shot landed just inside the sideline for a clean winner. Federer soon held on for 4-4. At 4-4, Haas had a game point, but double faulted. An opportunistic Federer broke, served out the set, raced through a 6-0 fourth set, and gained a five set victory.                

That was a pivotal moment at the 2009 French Open. Here was Federer, theoretically five points away from a fourth round defeat which would have created even more commotion in an already tumultuous event. But he overcame his shot making deficiencies and won largely on will. In the semifinals, Federer needed to demonstrate some of the same strength of character to make it past Juan Martin Del Potro. Del Potro had never made an impression in five previous clashes with Federer. He had yet to take a set off his renowned adversary, and had often looked clumsy and tactically tone deaf against Federer.                

This time around, the 6’6” Del Potro went out to face Federer with a completely different mindset. He reminded all of us why he had achieved wins this year over Nadal and Murray, and how he had managed to sweep four tournaments in a row last summer. For three sets, Del Potro held Federer almost entirely at bay. He was setting the tempo in this contest almost entirely, driving his ground strokes with phenomenal depth and astonishing ball control. Moreover, his serve was excellent. In his previous meetings with Federer, I always had the feeling the Swiss could read the Del Potro serve easily and find a way to block it back and work his way into the point.                

Not so this time around. Del Potro was finding the corners with regularity, locating his serve immaculately, winning tons of free points in the process. Del Potro broke Federer twice in winning the first set, and he had a chance to take the second. Federer was serving at 4-5, 0-30, but he bailed himself out with some clutch play. In the second set tie-break, Del Potro came apart at the seams. By my count, he made four unforced errors in that sequence and never was really in it. It was one set all.                

That was when I fully expected Federer to break free of his inhibition, but he did nothing of the kind. In the opening game of the third set, Federer misfired off the forehand consecutively to trail 0-30 and he lost his serve. Del Potro broke again and took that set confidently 6-2. When Del Potro served at 1-2 in the fourth, he had every reason to be confident. He had not lost his serve in the entire match. He was ahead two sets to one. He was in an enviable position.                

But in that significant game, Del Potro wasted two game points, the second with a double fault. Federer pounced. Now Federer was up 3-1 in the fourth, and he held at love for 4-1 and broke again for 5-1 on a Del Potro double fault. Revitalized, Federer held at love to run out the set 6-1, serving two aces in the last game. Federer charged to 3-1 in the fifth but Del Potro turned up the ignition of his ground game once more to break back for 3-3.                

At 3-3, Del Potro must have sensed another big chance to win. But perhaps he sensed it too much and he tightened up considerably. He went down 0-40 in that game, got back to deuce, but then lost the next two points, double faulting that game away. He missed all eight first serves in that game. His chance was gone. Federer closed out the match 3-6 7-6 (2), 2-6, 6-1, 6-4. But I liked the way Del Potro handled his defeat. He was clearly depressed by his narrow miss, and said more than once, “I feel bad.” That was good news to everyone who wants to see him take his game to the next level and become a champion. He was hurting, and that was not a bad thing.                

It was also encouraging to see Soderling not waste his stunning win over Nadal. The big Swede crushed No. 10 seed Nikolay Davydenko 6-1, 6-3, 6-1 with a blend of baseline potency and consistency he had seldom if ever displayed before, and then he stopped Gonzalez in a superb semifinal 6-3, 7-5, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4. Soderling had been brilliant for two sets, but then played two tentative service games at 5-6 in the third set and 4-5 in the fourth. Gonzalez burst in front 4-1 in the fifth, but Soderling was not ready to surrender. He won five games in a row to get the victory and earn a place in his first major final.                

Federer, of course, was waiting for Soderling. The Swiss knew he had to assert himself quickly in the championship match, and not force himself to fight from behind as he had done so often across the fortnight. Federer broke Soderling in the opening game as the Swede double faulted on break point, and the No. 2 seed thoroughly dictated from the back of the court for the whole set. He stationed himself inside the baseline, took the ball early off the forehand, and maneuvered Soderling all over the court. For the first time in the tournament, Soderling looked relatively slow. Federer, meanwhile, was crisp, confident, and strategically agile.                

But Soderling acquitted himself well in the second set and held all the way through to set up a tie-break. Here Federer made a declaration of his innate greatness. On all four of his service points, he released aces, which is no mean feat on a clay court, especially on a day when rain was falling and conditions were so slow. That essentially was the match. Federer, despite a brief attack of nerves when he served for the match, closed it out 6-1, 7-6 (2), 6-4.                

And so he now has tied Pete Sampras with 14 major titles. He has become one of only six men in history to win all four Grand Slam championships across a career. And--- in my book at least--- he has done enough to be recognized as the greatest player in the history of the game. His record is so complete now that he has finally won the French Open, and his dominance at the two biggest tournaments (Wimbledon and the U.S. Open) has been convincing; to me the numbers speak volumes. He will still need to find a way to contend with Nadal in the coming years. The Spaniard has beaten Federer in five of seven Grand Slam tournament finals, and 13 of 20 matches overall. But, for the time being at least, Federer has earned the right to be considered the best ever.                

Let’s take a closer look at what happened to Nadal against Soderling. We now know that Nadal has pulled out of the Queen’s Club tournament this week with knee problems, and his status for Wimbledon is uncertain. Against Soderling, his movement was not nearly as good as it needed to be, and on top of that he was full of anxiety. How else to explain losing a 6-2 first set?                

To be sure, Soderling was magnificent. His forehand was almost out of this world, he served exceptionally well wide to the Spaniard’s two hander in the deuce court, and the Swede had incredibly few loose patches. Late in the second set, Nadal was in danger of going down two sets. He served for the set at 5-4, but at 30-15 he made a forehand unforced error into the net going crosscourt. At 30-30 he missed an inside-out forehand into the net. And then Soderling came forward forcefully and Nadal missed a backhand pass.                

Two games later, Nadal served at 5-6, 30-30, two points away from a two set deficit. But Soderling was just off the mark with an aggressive crosscourt forehand, and then he missed a forehand down the line wide. In the tie-break that followed, Soderling made four consecutive unforced errors, three off the backhand and one off the forehand. Nadal went up 6-0 and closed it out seven points to two.                

Surely, Nadal should have been in the clear by now. By taking the second set, it was as if a brand new best of three set contest was underway. The circumstances heavily favored Nadal. But at 3-3, Nadal played a sloppy game on his serve. Soderling broke him there and when he served for the set at 5-4, he was unstoppable, holding at love. Amazingly, Soderling was up two sets to one. And yet, Nadal broke immediately to lead 2-0 in the fourth, only to lose his own serve at love in the following game. It was that kind of day for the Spaniard; he could not depend on himself, nor could he count on Soderling for any help.                

Both players sedulously held their serves after Soderling had broken back, but Nadal uncharacteristically squandered a big opening. Soderling was serving at 4-5, 15-30. Nadal was set up for a routine two-hander. He drove it crosscourt but his execution was poor. The shot went into the net. Soderling held on. Soderling survived a two deuce game on his serve at 5-6, and on to the tie-break they proceeded. On the first point, Soderling drove a mighty two-hander crosscourt. Nadal was on his back foot, and he miss-hit that shot wide. With Soderling serving at 1-0, Nadal had a second serve return from the ad court. He ran around his backhand and bungled a forehand return. 2-0 Soderling.                

Serving at 1-2, Nadal tried approaching off the forehand from just inside the baseline. Soderling rolled a backhand pass crosscourt that stifled Nadal. Now down 1-4, Nadal went for a two-hander off a relatively short ball, but he missed it narrowly off the backhand. The match was essentially over. Soderling took the tie-break 7-2 for the biggest win of his career.                

As for the women, here is what stands out from my point of view. Svetlana Kuznetsova deserves immense respect for winning her second major title. The No. 7 seed toppled Serena Williams in the match of the tournament, upending the American 7-6 (3), 5-7, 7-5 with some remarkably solid and forceful play from the baseline. That quarterfinal triumph made Kuznetsova believe whole-heartedly in herself. She stopped Samantha Stosur in a three set semifinal and took apart the apprehensive top seed Dinara Safina in a straight set final.                

Safina was plainly overcome by nerves once more in a major final. She has lost three “Big Four” finals out of the last four, and her psyche has been severely wounded. But her time will come. She will get on the board at a major by the end of 2010. Meanwhile, Kuznetsova has a chance now to start making more regular appearances in Grand Slam finals. She has all of the tools a great player needs. I expect her to record more triumphs on this scale.                

Maria Sharapova should be applauded. After nearly ten months away from the game, after shoulder surgery, after many wondered when and even if she would be back, she made it all the way to the quarters at Roland Garros in only her second tournament back. Clay is her worst surface, but Sharapova went out and played her way, pounding the ball with her old authority, courageously capturing one match after another.               

So it was a riveting fortnight at Roland Garros. On his eleventh attempt, Roger Federer at last won the French Open after losing the previous three finals. On her seventh attempt, in her second final, playing some of the best tennis of her life, Svetlana Kuznetsova took the title, and did so deservedly. After watching it all unfold in Paris, as the winds swirled unpredictably, and the players pushed themselves to their limits, I look forward now to Wimbledon. Will form hold up more at the All England Club than it did at Roland Garros? I am not so sure.

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