Rafa strikes back Nole’s best shots, pushes him to the side of the court, whams one to the other corner, stares murderously as his rival looks on hopelessly.
The match, which began with a strong showing by the world No. 2, Novak Djokovic, 6-3 for him in the first set and looking more balanced, skillful, steady, than his great rival Rafael Nadal, has turned on its head, and turned into a rout. In the second set they played even tennis, breaking, breaking back, getting through 10 games with deuces and ad’s. Then the caballero from Majorca began to surge.
Interestingly enough, though he took that set in the 12th game and finished the third set at 6-2, it was in the fourth that he showed most decisively who was boss, even though it went to 6-4. He did this by repeatedly giving Djokovic what looked like an opening, and then stomping it shut. It was not great tennis, though there were magnificent shots from both champs, aiming with mighty inside-outers for the sidelines. There were one or two nice plays at the net as they risked drop shots. There were mighty serves, five or six aces total I think. But for the most part, it was power tennis from the back court — Rafa power, awesome, unanswerable power. Nole, the man who catches every thing you send him and finds a way to put it where you least expect it, Nole was, by that ninth game in the fourth, just looking. He looked, rolled his eyes, spoke words of frustration, whacked his racquet — on the ground, on his head — took his position, tried.
But Rafa holds at love, 5-4.
One last surge, surely: Novak is too good not to. He is on serve. They have each broken, evened it at four, they have been here before, surely this one too will go to extra innings.
And it hits you: Rafa is doing what Masha did yesterday, going all out. The tough old (if over 25 is old) veteran champs are not just beating back their challengers, they are whipping them. Simona Halep is the last in a line of young phenoms who thought they could pull a fast one on Maria Sharapova, and each one almost did, three of them, forcing her to three sets and near disaster, only to find themselves on the wrong end of her unrestrained forehand down the sidelines.
Truly, there was wonderful talent on the youngish side of the ladies’ draw of the Championnats Internationaux de France this year, but in the end experience counted more than raw eagerness. As the tournament reached its last weekend one had the feeling the young Romanian, Simona Halep, would not overcome Maria Sharapova’s determination to win a second trophy here, any better than did Eugenie Bouchard in the semis, or Garbine Muguruza before that, or Samantha Stosur before that.
Easily said in retrospect; but the numbers were with the tall lithe blond Siberian girl, now a successful entrepreneur in Florida as well as one of the world’s top professional athletes. Observe that Simona Halep, at 22 (Miss S. is 27) is shorter but a little heavier. Gentlemen do not speak of ladies’ weights in public, and anyway Miss H. is in great shape. Tennis players always are, even as they suffer from shoulder and arm and ankle and knee and back injuries, plus mental anguish. It was warm, muggy day, too, under a splendid blue sky, as Nadal and Djokovic tested each other. The latter had won their last contest, the Rome final, also on clay.
Miss Halep is a terrific dynamo, but she plays a fundamental kind of game that a veteran, relatively speaking, with years of experience at major tournaments, can figure out pretty easily. That does not mean it is an easy game to beat. But at least Miss Sharapova knew that it was not going to change during the match— it will in years to come, one presumes — and the question was, should she play it safe and try to hit back more balls than Miss Halep could, or should she go on offense and try to get shots that her opponent could not reach or return effectively.
She went on offense. And it worked. Did Rafa watch? He knew he had to go on offense, anyway, against Nole.
It was risky. The consensus in the press box seemed to be the 2012 champ would take it in two, and as usual the consensus was wrong. Miss Halep forced Miss Sharapova into a second set tiebreak after losing the first set. And in the third set, the veteran got the lead early, lost it (her chronic problem of double faults, due perhaps to the shoulder surgery of a few years ago), stayed in the match to even it at 4-4, then broke away, with a break and a strong hold at love. Miss H.’s strategy was to keep the ball in play and wait for Maria’s shrieking attacks to go long. They did, but not often enough. Miss Sharapova throughout this tournament battled through three setters by going on offense. She admitted it, this was the toughest. It nearly broke the record for duration of a ladies’ final here, over three hours. Well done, fearless.
In the gentlemen’s draw the classy clay classic (sorry, I had to, once) at the Porte d’Auteuil on the west side of Paris brought out the contrasting styles that make up the contemporary game. Here was Rafael Nadal with his passionate all-court power game, Andy Murray with his graceful all-court power game, Ernests Gulbis with his creative all-court defensive offense, and Novak Djokovic with his relentless all-court offensive defense.
The only thing not silly about this catalog is the common denominator. And would you expect anyone in the semis at the French Open to not hit the ball from anywhere on the court to anywhere on the other side of the net? Yet, the point is not as dopey as it sounds. The sport at this level has been for several years a contest between the classic attacking style of a master in the genre, Roger Federer (who likely as not will return to front as center at Wimbledon in a few weeks), and what tennis circles call the baseline power game.
Given their athleticism and sports brains, Murray, Nadal, Gulbis, and Djokovic develop their variations on each of these fundamental approaches, as they must.
As do, in a different way, the doubles specialists. To no one’s surprise, with the ouster of Mike and Bob Bryan, the draw became unpredictable, and yet it was no surprise that the French team of Julien Benneteau and Edouard Roger-Vasselin took the trophy, decisively beating a Spanish team in two sets. It could not happen to nicer guys and finer doubles players, classicists who boldly seize the net together (somewhat like the Bryans) and run down everything sent to them in the backcourt and alleys with elegant groundstrokes. Apologies for missing the legends final and only mentioning that the McEnroe brothers, John and Patrick, not the kids in the main draw, were the last Americans standing, and stand they did. Just because you are over 45 does not mean you are no longer an American, though sometimes it seems that way, given the trends in our democratic society.
However, to get back to my theme, Andy Murray plays in a way that can be most readily compared to Federer. Not that you would ever mistake the tall Scot for the tall Swiss. “Somebody says I worry too much,” Murray might tell himself after another meltdown, quoting Buddy Miller, but that is his nature, at once dour and very sweet, a man emotionally fraught and a supremely good sport. “The balls came so high,” he said of the Nadal bombardment. Federer is cool, unflappable, phlegmatic and yet passionate, the Segovia of the sport. Where the comparison holds is that they both seek, in the lineage of the American and Australian greats of yesterday, to “set it up and put it away” as quickly as possible. They are, as attackers often are, brilliant at the net and magicians with the softly touched drop shot.
The other three in this year’s final square prefer to stay back, whip bullets into corners, and let the other fellow falter or err. The spins, the bounces, the placements increase in intensity and shrewdness as the point progresses, turning defense into offense. They are the heirs of René Lacoste and Bjorn Borg, with as many caveats as you want, or to continue on the music, they play to the rhythms of J.J. Cale (Djokovic) and Jimmie Hendrix (Nadal); it remains too early to characterize the previously loose-living Latvian, but Ernests Gulbis uses changes of pace like an old pro — Lightin’ Hopkins, Sonny Ray Vaughan.
At any rate, Nadal crushed Murray, and just to show that characterizations of great champions are always approximations, he went on offense right away and relentlessly attacked Murray with insanely fast shots to the corners. Never gave him a chance: so fast no one watching the match on center court in the Philippe-Chatrier stadium quite believed it. Scarcely an hour an a half on a clay court in a Roland-Garros semi? Unheard of. And shocking, given the improvements in Murray’s clay court game that were in evidence throughout his run here. Attacking players like Murray and Federer prefer faster surfaces (Federer has won only one French Open), but Murray showed earlier in the draw, notably against excellent clay men (Fernando Verdasco, Philipp Kohlschreiber) that he had the strategy and the stamina and the tactics to overcome them. Maybe the quarter against France’s Gael Monfils was just one five-setter too many (and too weird), and Murray just could not adjust to the furia Nadal launched immediately and that kept Murray behind the baseline running from one side to the other.
Nadal certainly knew what he was doing. He played an excruciating five-set semifinal here against Djokovic last year, and he wanted every ounce of energy he could save for the final. After dropping a set against his pal David Ferrer in the quarters (and complaining about being made to play on the Lenglen court whose narrower stadium he claims brings on claustrophobia and whose surface is faster than Chatrier’s), he went big and crushed him. Against Murray he did not wait. With a record of 68 singles wins to one loss here since 2005, Nadal was gunning for the unthinkable record of nine trophies at the Internationaux de France.
But the mighty and supremely athletic Serb stood in his way. Djokovic had more difficulty in his semifinal, disposing of Gulbis, who played a respectable match. The man from Riga never worried Djokovic, but he took a set from him and, with all due caution, it seems fair to say he showed he has what it takes, if he keeps working on it, to give the Big Four trouble.
In this regard, note, he is raising his game in a way the unfortunate Monfils, who will be 28 this summer to Gulbis’s 26, seems unable to do. Monfils has had serious injuries and was still in recovery here from a hurt ankle. He carried high-pressure local expectations as he was the last Frenchman standing in singles after Jo-W. Tsonga’s ignominious collapse before Nadal. Still in shock two days after his fifth-set flight into space, Monfils stated he threw the match away. He had come back from 0-2 with great grit to even the match, then he won four points in a fifth set played in the penumbra of Paris’s springtime double daylight saving time. It took 24 minutes.
You can throw a match away, but someone has to be there to catch it. Blaming oneself as an excuse (“I coulda been a contender”) is unfair to the other fellow. Murray played magnificent tennis in that quarterfinal, which is why Nadal’s steamroll was unexpected.
But at this French tournament, his favorite, his game is, as he might say, “fantastic, no?” He and his coach, his uncle Toni, said Nole was the favorite. He has been on a roll, compared to Rafa’s uneven season, and he won their final at Rome. Big mental boost. But, according to a specialist in the mental zones, ordinarily the advantage here goes to the man who has been dominant in the past. My answer is that there is nothing ordinary here. These are the two alpha males of today’s tennis. You cannot predict anything. Surely no one expected what happened. Most likely, the consensus — which is usually wrong, see supra — would have predicted a five-setter going point for point for four hours.
Well, it went pretty far even so. Nadal was fully in charge, controlling the points, and Djokovic looked ready to collapse. After the match, though, Uncle Toni claimed Rafa was on his last legs and could not have won a fifth set. The Nadal team tends to play the underdog card (even after winning), and maybe it works for them, and quite possibly in this case it was so. Control of the points may have been one-sided, but there is no doubt they were fighting like lions, going to deuce and back over and over. In the last few games, Rafa’s shots were as true and deadly as ever, with only three exceptions that I counted, whereas Nole’s were so erratic I stopped counting.
Serving to stay in the match, the Belgrade champ stays even, 30-30, then hits one of Nadal’s blistering returns wildly out of bounds, then doubles. Surrender.
And nine for Rafa Nadal.