Serving at 0-30 and down 0-40, the young challenger hits two aces and a perfect forehand winner on the next serve-plus-one to even the score. He goes on to hold; then the rout begins. In less time than it takes to take his position behind the service line, Rafael Nadal has raised his level and gone ballistic. He pummels the pretender — for this is the championship match of the tournament Nadal owns — with power serves and winners to every corner; breaks his next service easily; and, serving for the match, draws from his opponent a routine forehand that sails long, as if to say, you’re so beat up you are down to beating yourself.
Actually, there is little doubt Rafa Nadal, who won his 12th French Open yesterday, emphatically reaffirming his monarchial ownership of the tennis Tour’s clay season, beats his opponents. He grinds them down. He out-forehands all comers, as he out-backhands them and out-volleys them. You might make the case he does not out-serve them in the sense that they not infrequently hit more aces than he, but the point of a service is not to hit an ace but to help you win the point. If you serve to set yourself up for a winner, and you do that more often than the other fellow hits aces, you have as useful a serve as he has — in fact, a better one.
Also, Nadal out-runs them and out-lasts them. He has a better sense of the movement of the ball on the clay court than his opponents, as he shows by the choices he makes to run backwards after a lob or to let a cross-court shot go (both of which he rarely does). Conversely, he hits the ball where they ain’t more than they do, with an insistence, a persistence, that is unheard of — at least it was not heard of until he showed up on the famous old center court of the Stade Roland-Garros 14 years ago to win his first trophy, starting a run that has yet to give any sign it will ever end. In short, he wants it.
That is the story of the French Open. But, in fact, there were some interesting details, subplots might be the better term, along the way. Dominic Thiem, the young pretender, won the second set, improving on last year’s final. And he played a fantastic semifinal against world no. 1 Novak Djokovic, battling over two days, due to rain delays, and five sets each one of which could have gone either way and in particular the last one.
If you can do that, you can beat the master of Manacor. In fact, Thiem — who is Austrian not Vietnamese, as Mr. Pleszczynski likes to think, notwithstanding his deep historical and tactical knowledge of tennis and his appreciation of its international, indeed cosmopolitan, qualities — Thiem, then, in fact did beat Nadal on clay, this year even — he beat him straight sets in the semifinal at Barcelona on a court called the pista Rafael Nadal and he went on to take that trophy, again in straights, against a young Russian his own age.
You can beat Novak Djokovic in Paris and you can beat Rafa Nadal in Barcelona, you can even beat Roger Federer at the final of the Indian Wells tournament in California, as Thiem did earlier this year. You can achieve all these astonishing, breathtaking feats of athletic prowess. Not always — to take only one example, the young phenom from Wroclaw, Hubert Hurkacz, in whose progress Mr. P. takes a keen interest, beat Thiem at the Miami Masters first round in straight sets — but sometimes. Often enough to become No. 4 in the world at 25.
But beat Rafael Nadal in Paris, on the avenue Gordon-Bennett (named for a legendary American press baron and bon-vivant)? Not yet. Maybe — Nadal is 33 — someday, as the king always the good sport, suggested in his trophy acceptance speech. But as likely not.
The cinderella story was that the best Australian player on the ladies’ side since Evonne Goolagong, Ashleigh Barty — who like her legendary predecessor proudly asserts her Aborigine identity — won the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen (the equivalent to the Coupe des Mousquetaires that Nadal again won) at the end of a brilliant fortnight in which she played her game without fault or fail, and it is refreshingly classic.
Miss Barty covers the court with a guile, a tactical shrewdness, that harks back to the traditional ladies’ game. It requires the sure eye and the fleet feet that the divine Suzanne introduced in the postwar boom years of the sport. A superb athlete — she quit tennis to play pro-cricket for two years — she mixes her shots and goes for daring angles as well as deep winners to the lines. It is original in that she must combine this with an ability to meet the pace of the often bigger players she confronts — she is scarcely five and a half feet tall — who have followed the course of history in adopting a female version of the baseline power game.
The American she beat in the semis, New Jersey’s own Amanda Anisimova, is herself a big girl (this is no condescension, she is only 17 ) and she too made a powerful impression. Already two years ago, when she first appeared in the draw here, it was clear she has a big game, and an unusual set of athletic skills. Her backhand is a thing of beauty — and a permanent threat. But Miss Barty, at 23 — who beat another teen phenom, Czechia’s Marketa Vondrousova, in the finals — has wisdom and a certain mental determination that goes with championhood.
The mental side of tennis, yes: Nadal’s and Miss Barty’s are excellent example of why you know this matters, while you cannot quite define it, at least not in a way that would apply to everyone. Nadal’s mental energy makes him worry, and his worrying makes him fierce, and his fierceness makes him put everything he has into winning every game. In Ashleigh Barty one sees, certainly, a ferocious determination — can’t win without it — but you also see a kind of happiness, a serenity almost: she loves to be on the court. She is having a good time.
She wants to keep winning so she can have more court time. Maybe it comes down to that, with each his or her own mix of motivations and moods and mind-sets. Well, that’s tennis, folks, and for the scores if you want them, not to worry, you can look them up.
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