Nadal Hits 7-11

22:49 Mon 11 Jun 2012
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Today, one day behind schedule[1], Rafael Nadal won his record[2] seventh French Open, breaking a tie with Björn Borg. He also gained his 11th Grand Slam title, tying Borg and Laver. He also got back on track in his pursuit of Federer for the all-time Grand Slam record—and at the moment it looks as if he could catch him simply competing at Roland Garros alone[3].

He defeated Novak Djokovic in the final, halting a couple of streaks in their rivalry: Djokovic had won seven straight finals against Nadal, and had defeated Nadal in the previous three Grand Slam finals. Perhaps more significantly, he prevented Djokovic from becoming the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slam titles at once, and from completing his own career Grand Slam.

Going into the final, I didn’t give Djokovic much of a chance. That’s somewhat remarkable in itself, given the previous paragraph’s litany of reasons why he should have been favored. He simply didn’t look comfortable at Roland Garros this year, however, making heavy going of the earlier rounds while Nadal breezed past everyone in his path, dropping not a single set en route to the final.

While the match had tremendous historical significance, what little drama it had regarding the outcome was provided by the weather: rain drizzled for most of Sunday, eventually resulting in postponement—but not until it changed conditions sufficiently to take away Nadal’s comfort on the surface. Without that, his play waned, and Djokovic seized the moment, running away with the third set and making things look interesting. The conditions were fairly bad; I had never previously seen Nadal completely miss shots on clay, which happened on Sunday because the rain interfered with the bounce on the court. In truth, Nadal didn’t lose any sets on clay in the tournament, as the set he lost to Djokovic was played on a surface more similar to mud.

Starting play today 0–2 down in the fourth, Nadal quickly broke Djokovic and then held to even the set, and they both held serve until Djokovic served at 5–6, trying to make it to a tiebreaker. At 30–30, Djokovic missed with a forehand, going down match point. After saving four of those against Tsonga, perhaps this was just where he wanted to be—but not against Nadal, apparently, because Djokovic lost the match on a double fault. It was the third time he double-faulted to give away a break, which seems awfully likely to have been the pressure of trying to achieve the Grand Slam. His inconsistent play from the entire tournament didn’t disappear, and he was not the threat he would have been against Nadal in 2011, when Nadal wasn’t playing as well and Djokovic was playing better—but Djokovic ran into an in-form Federer in the semifinal last year.

There were times when Djokovic made it look as if he could seriously trouble Nadal, particularly a number of early rallies where Nadal would have control of the point and approach the net, only to be passed or lobbed by superb shots. At those times it seemed as if he could beat Nadal at his own game, and at other times it seemed he could out-hit Nadal from the baseline. In combination, those things should add up to victory, or close to it. But his serving was poor, and his mental state shaky, and he couldn’t match Nadal’s phenomenal consistency.

Despite that consistency, and despite his performance in the tournament overall, Nadal still seemed more vulnerable than in the past. So did Djokovic, whose performance prior to the final wasn’t particularly impressive. Federer was worse, and played an atrocious semifinal to lose to Djokovic. Andy Murray didn’t make it to the semifinals, losing to David Ferrer[4], and he has his own vulnerabilities to match the top three’s. The gap at the top of the game seems so vast, even with the top three all looking as if they’ve lost something from 2011. Federer has had a great year so far, but just looked poor in Paris, and seemed mentally way off against Djokovic, going down meekly in three even after having held significant leads in the first two sets.

Eventually another player will have to rise to their level, if only for a tournament, but the candidates are few. Tsonga seems promising, since it seems that he has the tools and could trouble all of the top players if only he could keep his head together. It is asking a lot for him to do so repeatedly, but he seems the most likely of “the rest” to break out and grab a Grand Slam. Juan Martin del Potro is trying to regain his form, but seems plagued by injuries and perhaps a lack of confidence. No-one else seems even to give the top three a hard time with any regularity.

Since Rafael Nadal entered his first French Open, there have been 29 men’s singles Grand Slam championships, and only one (del Potro’s 2009 US Open win over Federer) has not been won by Roger Federer (12[5]), Rafael Nadal (11), or Novak Djokovic (5), a ridiculous stranglehold on the top of the game[6]. The last year has been even more skewed, with Djokovic and Nadal contesting a record four Grand Slam finals in a row.

The situation is vastly different on the women’s side, where six different women have won the last six Grand Slams[7]. It’s possible that Maria Sharapova’s victory at Roland Garros, completing her career Grand Slam, means that she will compete consistently for Slams and that she’ll “restore order” to the women’s game. It’s not clear that this is a desirable goal, and I think I’ve enjoyed the women’s game more when there’s more unpredictability. However, great tennis seems to be reliably produced only by transcendent players, and since Graf retired, there have been three transcendent female players: Venus Williams, Serena Williams, and Justine Henin. Henin is gone, Venus ill, and Serena waning. Perhaps Sharapova can rise to that level too.

Wimbledon is next, followed swiftly by the Olympics. As a Federer partisan, I have to hope that he gets over whatever afflicted him at Roland Garros, because otherwise I can’t see anyone preventing a fifth consecutive Djokovic–Nadal final (although I’d love to see Tsonga rebound from his crushing loss to Djokovic and break out, preferably for more than just one match against the top players). I feel as if the Olympics are less predictable—although it should be noted that the only Olympic men’s singles tennis tournament held since Nadal’s first French Open was won by…Nadal[8].

[1] Or a year and a day, given that 2009’s loss to Robin Söderling likely wasn’t scheduled.

[2] For men; he’s now tied for the overall all-time record with Chris Evert.

[3] That 7 of his 11 (63.63%) come from one tournament is amazing; of the other players with 8 or more Grand Slam titles, only Jimmy Connors (US Opens were 5 of his 8, 62.5%, but he didn’t play the Australian Open regularly) comes close in the modern era, and he’s passed only by Bill Tilden, 7 of whose 10 came at the US Open, but that was at a time that foreigners couldn’t play in the French Open, and Tilden never played the Australian Open at all.

[4] Technically that was an upset, but Ferrer has troubled Murray before and is one of the best in the world on clay, and I’m pretty sure he was favored over Murray. After defeating Murray, however, he managed to take only five games from Nadal in that semifinal.

[5] Federer’s other four came before Nadal’s first French Open; note also that he won four of the seven Grand Slams before Nadal’s first French Open.

[6] If we add in the year-end championships, we get another seven titles to add to the mix since the 2005 French Open, and then the top trio hold only 33 of the last 36 major titles (the exceptions being Nalbandian’s 2005 YEC, del Potro’s 2009 US Open, and Davydenko’s 2009 YEC).

[7] Clijsters 2011 Australian Open, Na 2011 French Open, Kvitová 2011 Wimbledon, Stosur 2011 US Open, Azarenka 2012 Australian Open, Sharapova 2012 French Open. Since the start of the 2010 French Open, eight women have won the nine Grand Slams, Clijsters being the only one to win two, the US Open 2010 and Australian Open 2011.

[8] Which means the top trio hold 34 of the last 37 major & quasi-major titles.

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