Sunday, June 8, 2008

Day 15: Rafa is not Human

The script writers at Roland Garros need to be more creative. Who hires these guys anyway? It's always the same old thing: A young, earnest, and humble Nadal crushes the opposition into submission. He literally tears him apart limb from limb with impeccable ground strokes from both wings, and leaves him beaten, a shadow of what we thought he would be when we first contemplated the epic proportions that this match might reach. Why can't these script writers throw in a twist? A sudden lapse in concentration from the impervious king of clay that opens the door for a beleagured Federer? It's not that far-fetched, is it? How about a twisted ankle, a shredded groin, anything to make Nadal cough up at least one set?

Not this year. The script has gone to press. In one of the most one-sided Grand-slam finals you'll ever see, Rafa Nadal pummelled the man that many experts call the greatest of all time, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0. How did he do it? How can you utterly dominate a man who is possibly the greatest tennis player of all time in such a way? On a stage as grand as this, with so much on the line? It truly is hard to fathom.

From the early stages of the match Rafa was in control. A morose Federer, showing very little emotion other than bewilderment, had his serve broken in the very first game. It didn't get much better from there. Federer, who looked at times as if he'd rather be filming a commercial with Tiger Woods, committed 18 unforced errors in the first set (he was averaging 8 per set in the first six matches of the tourney)- not exactly a recipe for gaining an edge against the worlds nastiest clay court player.

"Once he's on top of you, he doesn't release his grip," mused Roger in a post match interview with another man who never won the French Open, John Mcenroe. Indeed. After Nadal cruised to a 6-1 first set victory, Federer aka our heavenly father did briefly provide a glimmer of hope for his fans (and the capacity crowd who cheered him on in hopes of seeing a closer match). After a few well played games and several successful trips to the net, he found himself at 3-3 with a break point opportunity. But the vice-like grip of Nadal tightened - remarkably, he brushed away the break point, held his serve, and went on to win the last 9 games consecutively without very much resistance from the worlds #1 tennis player.

Federer, who felt that he had served well, still was broken 7 times by Nadal. I guess it's a good thing that he did not serve poorly or this one could have been uglier. But ugly is the wrong word to use here. What occurred in the 2008 Men's French Open final was nothing short of pure perfection. How does a three time champion at Roland Garros, one who has never lost or even been pushed to a fifth set on the fabled French Clay, improve upon his performance? It seems to me that at some point he would have to feel the pressure; he would have to come down to earth and play a few soggy points in a row. Perhaps tank a game or two and lose a set. Evidently not this year. At the ripe age of 22, Nadal's focus, intensity, and accuracy are second to none. His deadly array of topspin ground strokes and ever-improving serve variety are the perfect complement to what we already know: That his mental and physical endurance are unequaled by any other tennis player on tour, and are tailor made for clay domination.

As for Federer, the worst of 2008 may very well be over. He has suffered through illness, and has also been forced to divert some of his valuable attention to fending off the up and coming Novak Djokovic. The winner of the last five Wimbledon Championships has a few weeks to regroup before another highly anticipated rematch with Nadal might take place (this time on grass, where Roger has defeated Nadal in the last two finals). Surely, at 26 years of age, Federer is starting to realize that his quest for Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles may not be achievable without another monstrous surge in commitment.

It should make for high drama come late June and early July. Hopefully the Wimbledon script writers are doing their homework, unlike these Roland Garros lackeys.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Day 14: The new #1 grabs her first major

It was apparent from the onset that Ana Ivanovic was determined. After losing in the 2007 French Open final and the 2008 Australian Open final, Ana aka fistpumper Ivanovic made no mistake at Roland Garros. She triumphed over tempestuous Dinara Safina in a little under 2 hours, taking her first ever Grand Slam championship, 6-4, 6-3.

Though it was apparent that Ivanovic was the superior player today, this match was a struggle until the very last game. In the first set, the ever-feisty Safina fought back from two breaks down to even the set at 4-4. But Ivanovic, eerily focused and moving with a sense of purpose, quickly turned the tides and took the set by storming through the next two games.

In the second set it was more of the same with Ivanovic taking the early break and Safina fighting back to try and level the set. Battling personal demons, a crying baby, and a slugger with a world class forehand, Safina held serve after 7 deuces to edge closer at 4-3. But once again, Ana saved her meanest groundstrokes for when it mattered most. She cruised to the finish line, dropped her racquet and kneeled on the clay, then climbed up on a linepersons chair, hurdling the first row of spectators on her way to embrace her family and coaches.

A Joyous occasion indeed, and as NBC tennis analyst Mary Carillo said during the more tense moments of the 2nd set: "This is fun stuff." I wholeheartedly concur.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Day 13: Is Rafa Human?

Utterly remarkable is the first phrase that comes to mind when thinking of Nadal on clay. In some kind of super-human overdrive for 169 minutes, ornery Spaniard Rafa Nadal once again completely mastered a highly regarded opponent on the Roland Garros clay, in straight sets, 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 (3).

At 27-0 all time, he is now one win away from matching Bjorn Borg by winning his fourth straight title at Roland Garros.

Nadal, who entered the match averaging only 5 unforced errors per set, committed only 16 against an overwhelmed Novak Djokovic. His execution was so precise, so punishing, and so relentless, that Djokovic was pretty much helpless all match except for a late and brief rally in the third set. During that rally Djokovic was able to gain a set point, but it was quickly brushed aside by a reinvigorated Nadal, who sensed the imminent danger of losing his first set of the tournament just in time to reel off 6 unanswered points to start the tiebreaker, which he eventually won 7-3.

A stunned Djokovic really was never really in the match - Nadal had his first break just 3 games in - and a brisk wind blew across the stadium, making serving tough for Novak, who much to his own chagrin, could muster only a 54% first-serve percentage against 72% for Nadal. Without his big serve as a weapon, he was helpless against the all-out assault that Nadal delivered on a consistent basis.

One was left with the impression, as this match drew to a close, that playing against Rafa Nadal on Clay is perhaps the most impossible task that any tennis player of this era will ever have to face.

If there is one man who is up to the challenge, it was the winner of todays other Semifinal match. Roger aka our heavenly father Federer needed 3 hours to get past the man affectionately known as "La Monf," 6-2, 5-7, 6-3, 7-5. "La Monf," taking his first sniffs of the rarefied air that the other three semifinalists have become so used to breathing, used the support of 15,000 mainly French tennis enthusiasts (hoping that La Monf could be their knight in shining armor) to steal the second set, but in the end, Federer's diverse game and grace under pressure were too much for the albatross-like Monfils.

Now, all that remains for Federer to win his first ever French Open is for him to find a way to beat his arch nemesis Rafa Nadal on Clay. It seems weird, but the worlds #1 player will have to play near perfect tennis if he is to have any chance against Rafa. He has lost to Rafa in Roland Garros 3 consecutive times (2005 semis, and the 2006 and 2007 finals) and, as time progresses, it seems that Nadal only gets stronger on his favorite service, while Federer only gets more vulnerable.

Still, with Roger toting 12 major championships (since 2003) in his duffel bag, I'm not prepared to count him out of this one.

Johny Mac on Nadal (on clay): Day 13 part 1

Last night I watched Johny Mac talk about the French Open with Bill Macatee & friends on the Tennis Channel. Mcenroe, in my opinion, has blossomed into an incredibly good tennis journalist. He is passionate about todays game just as he was passionate about his own game.

Here is the quote that I just had to repeat:

"It's almost see Nadal get beat."

He was referring to Rafa's 26-0 record in his career at Roland Garros. It will indeed be a tough task for Novak Djokovic today in the men's semifinal match.

It is about to air on NBC. It's already been played but I've resisted the temptation to check the website. This could possibly be one of the greatest struggles that men's tennis has seen in a long time. Then again, it could be another quick hunt and kill for Rafa on clay, at Roland Garros.


Thursday, June 5, 2008

Day 12 : two girls left and a new #1!

I just witnessed some incredible tennis. I was crying at times. There is something about the amount of mental anguish a tennis player must endure in order to prevail on this grand stage. Trying to impose your will upon a tennis ball for over two hours on hard red clay is no small task. There were 15 k at Chatrier today, and I doubt any of them want their money back.

Oh, and by the way, we have a new #1 in the world! Sassy Ana aka squeaky shoes Ivanovic has walked through the valley of the shadow of death. She needed every ounce of petrol in her tank against Jelena aka houdini Jankovic, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4. But those are just numbers. They can't tell you the story of how both these girls fought. Of how they were able to recover from blows that would have left most players stunned.

The worlds new #1 (at least for the time being) is a Serb. Congragulations to the Serbs! I'd like to take time out right now to give thanks to all the members of the tennis programs in Serbia - the coaches, the management, the little people - for making the sport that much more interesting.

Sadly, I must admit I was pulling for Jelena. She is such a fighter - the kid is all heart - She was two games away from taking this match. And she played some truly gutsy tennis to find herself up a break, leading in the third and final set at 4-3. But you know what? Watching the way Ivanovic stormed back to completely control the final 3 games has given me a new respect for her. This girl can crush the ball. And crush the ball she did. And valiant she was. She had the courage and the wisdom to know that it was all or nothing and she somehow became free and effortless out there, in front of 15 k at Chatrier, with everything to gain and nothing to lose.

On the other side of the draw, Svetlana aka pitbull Kuznetsova (another favorite of mine) was easily cast aside by the wrecking ball known as Dinara Safina. As I watched Safina put Sharapova to bed earlier in the tourney, I couldn't help but think that Dinara might have a face that only a mother could love. But there is something so lovable and real about the way that she conducts herself, and about the way that she has accepted her recent ascent. She is full of charm and courage and passion. She isn't all perfect like Ivanovic, and that's what ingratiates her to me.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Day 9: The wicked witch is dead! And so are the Americans!

Clearly the French like their russians quiet. Sharapova aka daddy's little princess, lacking in fan support from the very start, lost a stunner to Marat's lil' sister, Dinara Safina. Dinara aka the little russian that could fought back from down a break at 5-2 to force a second set tie-breaker. In that tie-breaker she was down 5-2 as well. But apparently there ain't no mountain high enough to keep her from the French Open Quarterfinals.

It must have been tough for Maria to realize that fans simply don't want her to win. I get the feeling that her over-the-top shrieking is rattling the nerves of tennis fans nearly as much as it rattles the nerves of her opponents. I know it does me.

But enough about her, let's talk more about Russian girls.

How about Dementieva? She smoked Zvonereva to earn a spot in the quarterfinals against Safina. Say that 400 times fast.

How about Kuznetsova aka pitbull? She won the first set and was tied in the second at 2-2 when her match had to be suspended due to darkness. If she finishes off Victoria Azarenka she will be the third russian lady to make it through to the quarterfinals. Thankfully, none of them scream as loud as Maria aka daddy's little princess.

Moving on to the men, Roger aka Our Heavenly father looked rather human in his straight set undressing of frenchman Julian Benneteau. Neither played inspired tennis and I can't help but think that Roger may have the clay pulled from under his feet in the quarters, where he'll face Fernando Gonzalez, who easily put an end to unseeded American Robby Ginepri's attempt to represent the pathetic Americans on clay. I can't believe it, I have just doubted gods ability to win a stinking quarterfinal match at Roland Garros. Lord, strike me down.

Elsewhere on the grounds, David Ferrer stormed his way through his second consecutive 5 set thriller - this time Radek Stepanek aka the worm was his unwilling victim. His opponent in Wednesday's Quarterfinal round will be Gael aka the great french hope Monfils, who sealed the casket of Croat upstart Ivan Ljubicic to gain his first visit to a major quarterfinal.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Round of 16: Day 8, trimming the fat

The field is narrowing by the minute. It is 6:30 Pm, Sunday. Only two matches have yet to be finished today. After Chardy v. Almagro and Nadal v. Verdasco are finished, 1/2 of the quarterfinalists will be determined.

In case you haven't heard of Ernests Gulbis, he's good. You might want to get this quick read before you watch him go for the Joker's jugular in the quarters.

Speaking of jugular's, the joker had no problem spilling Paul-Henri Mathieu's blood in front of his home crowd. Still, a nice run, by the 18th seeded frenchman. But fear not francophiles, there are still 3 french players remaining (Benneteau, Monfils, and Chardy). Perhaps one will break through in Napoleonic fashion. Personally I've got my eyes set on Monfils - his match with Ljubicic could be a classic.

Moving to the ladies, Jelena aka houdini Jankovic has booked a spot in the quarters. She needed more coddling from trainers (this time it's her right arm), but eventually she dragged her unwilling body to the finish line ahead of fiesty Agnieszka Radwanska 6-3, 7-6(3).

In the bottom half of her bracket, super cutie aka sqeaky shoes Ivanovic served two toasted bagels to Petra Cetkovska. Hopes and dreams, dissolving in the sunburnt clay.

Later today, Rafa aka the matador will try to disect his countrymate, 22 seed Fernando Verdasco. Verdasco looked good in his last match against drago aka Youzhny, but most likely he will get his lungs handed to him by the King of Clay. There's no shame in that, just ask anybody who has ever stood across the net from Rafa in Roland Garros - you take your beating and you move on. It's not your place to ask why or how.