PARIS — The talk of the French Open was, after Federer, Nadal. Translation: the years of Roger Federer’s domination of big time tennis ended in 2008, and the reign of his successor, Rafael Nadal, was about to end this year and right here, at Roland-Garros, the clay court Grand Slam.
In particular, Rafael Nadal has been under the magnifying glass for the past couple weeks due to not knocking down every opponent in straight sets. Journalists have been practically begging him to offer an excuse. Neither wind nor new-type balls has he accused, however, nor an opponent’s power nor his tenacity. In the post-match after the stress Pablo Andujar put him through, he again refused the bait. “My legs,” he allowed. Someone said, “Aha!” Something to blame.
Nadal shrugged: “They’re my legs.”
No excuses: a pro’s answer. In any case, no one is talking about problems with this or that part of any of the finalists’ physical preparedness or the way they are playing. There was some talk of Andy Murray’s ankle for a while, but he quieted that with the dashes he made to catch drop shots in his quarter-final match. Maybe the dry weather (with some windy afternoons) contributed to making this year’s French Open a level playing field, hard fast clay, probably about as fast and even as clay comes. It has not given anyone advantages or disadvantages. The conditions allow everyone to take turns trying to impose his kind of game.
What is remarkable about the quarter finals is the way the top players are doing just that, imposing their games. That is why the first week’s comments seem, upon near-instant replay, to be so off the mark. Determined to find fault, especially in Nadal, the laptop pack seems to have been unable to imagine that maybe he was just warming up, or practicing, or even conducting a disinformation campaign. The last is admittedly unlike him, and he himself said quite candidly that he was feeling the stress of having to defend a title or a No. 1 ranking. But you should not forget that when Nadal gets going, nothing matters but what is directly in front: the point he is playing. He never relents and he never gives anything away. And obviously this quality intensifies with the rising tempo of a tournament.
As to Roger Federer, anyone who watched him give a lesson to Gael Monfils on Tuesday would conclude last week’s commentators were living on another planet. Federer has yet to lose a set or break a sweat. Nadal, though the Swede Powerhouse Robin Soderling made him perspire, never fell behind, except two or three 0-30s, quickly recovered.
Andy Murray won his match easily too, running Juan Ignacio Chela ragged on the Suzanne Lenglen court with not more than two of those gestures of self-despair that make everyone think, Steady Andy, steady. He stays steady, hitting deeper and deeper as each point progresses, until the other fellow is hitting balls that are bouncing right off the baseline, or he moves into, catches a volley, places it wherever he wants. The statisticians will correct me, but I do not think he missed a single volley in this match.
Nine sets for the three of them.
Against Pablo Andujar in the second round, you could make a case that Rafa Nadal was not on top of his game; the fact that he came back from 1-5 in the third set should have put some doubts into the doubters, however. Against Robin Soderling, he never let a disadvantage faze him; at 0-30, he lets go a couple of aces and then adds a third one to get ahead; or else, he makes sure the return of the return is so deep or hard to reach that there is no way he can lose the initiative. Soderling is a power hitter, but so is Nadal, and he has the touch as well, puts it where he wants it.
We have seen quite a bit of almost McEnroe-like shot placement in Murray, too, but he tends to do it when he moves toward the net, not when he is trading shot for shot from the baseline. The contrast with Nadal is so marked, in fact, that their semis match, which should take place on Friday, is easily the most anticipated of the week, next to Federer-Djokovic and whoever-whoever, on the last day. What I mean is that each one of these last three matches has every chance of being selected right away for the Anthology of Court Classics
Robin Soderling made 41 unforced errors to Nadal’s 13. I always have viewed the unforced error as an odd statistic. Why is it “unforced”? Presumably because ya coulda got it. But why could ya? Somebody — the other player — applied pressure somewhere, even inadvertently (if you insist). The only true unforced error would logically be the double fault. What seems to me more interesting is Nadal and Federer have been missing so rarely, when they get their racquets on the balls, that it comes as a surprise when they do miss. Murray and Djokovic, to beat them, cannot rely on their shots going into the net or out of bounds: they have to keep them out of reach.
Everything up to now has been a rehearsal for what comes next. That is one way to define rising to the occasion. It is why they are called pros.
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