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The Rafael Redemption: Nadal wins 2010 French Open! June 7, 2010

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I’m ecstatic for Rafael Nadal, who just captured his 5th French Open title by downing Robin Soderling, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4.  It was sweet revenge for Rafa, who defeated his one and only conqueror on Paris clay and is now a staggering 38-1 at Roland Garros.  He also reclaimed his number 1 ranking while preventing Federer from equaling Pete Sampras’ all-time record of 286 weeks at that spot.

Last year when Nadal shockingly bowed out of the French Open last year, paving the way for Roger Federer to win his first ever Grand Slam on clay, people were ready to write off the then 23-year-old as “past his prime”.  They said he was too one-dimensional, his style too prone to injury, and that he had already peaked.  But he proved them wrong once again, as he did by winning Wimbledon in 2008 and the Australian Open in 2009.  Now Nadal has 7 Grand Slam titles (5 French, 1 Wimbledon, 1 Australian) and 2 runner-ups (both Wimbledon).

While it is still waaaay to early to put Nadal in the GOAT discussions with Roger Federer (who has 16 Grand Slam titles and 6 runner-ups, plus that ridiculous 23 consecutive Grand Slam semi-final appearances), is it conceivable that one day Rafa might overtake Roger?  Let’s have a look at the numbers.

Federer is turning 29 in August whereas Nadal just turned 24 a few days ago.  At the age of 24, Federer had just won his 6th Grand Slam title (at the US), having won each of his first 6 Grand Slam finals.  Before he turned 25, Federer captured his 7th, the 2006 Australian Open, came runner-up in the 2006 French, and won his 8th Grand Slam at the 2006 Wimbledon.  Barring injury, Nadal would be the heavy favourite to win the French for the next 5 years, and by the time Federer hits 30, Nadal should also be the favourite for Wimbledon.  He could conceivably also win one or two more Australian Opens, and even though he has never done very well at the US, let’s say he breaks through and wins one there.

If we assume Federer doesn’t win another Grand Slam in his career and Nadal doesn’t miss any more time due to injury (both pretty unlikely), it’s within the realms of possibility that Rafa could end up with say something like 10 French Open titles, 4 Wimbledons, 2 Australian Opens and 1 US Open (that’s 17 for you math geniuses).  Even if he doesn’t quite get there, and ends up with say 13 or 14 Grand Slams (still a long long way to go), with his current 14-7 record against Federer, including 6-2 in Grand Slams (and 5-2 in Grand Slam finals), that makes the debate whole a lot more interesting.  Federer’s all-court game, consistency on all surfaces, effortless style and grace will always make him the front-runner in GOAT discussions, but can someone be the greatest of all time despite having one guy getting the better of him the majority of the time?  Right now the answer is yes because Federer is so far ahead of Nadal, but what if one day that gap becomes only a couple of Grand Slams?

I’m already looking forward to this year’s Wimbledon.  Will Federer get another one or will Nadal consolidate his Paris victory?  Or will someone else (like poor Andy Murray) finally come through?  Can’t wait.

Heartbreak for Stosur; Schiavone bags French Open June 6, 2010

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I stayed up late last night hoping to watch Samantha Stosur capture the first female grand slam title for Australia in 30 years.

Not to be.  After downing heavyweights such as Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic in success matches, Stosur went into the French Open final against fellow debutant Francesca Schiavone as the strong favourite.  The 26-year-old Stosur had beaten the almost 30 Schiavone four times in a row, including in the final in Osaka and in the first round of the French Open last year.

Despite having the odds firmly on her side, Stosur stumbled to a 6-4, 7-6 (2) loss, giving Schiavone her first grand slam title and once again raising questions over Stosur’s mental toughness when she needs it most.

Coincidentally, that morning I came across a sports magazine from January 2010 that featured an article on Stosur, saying that it was going to be a big year for her as her mental strength was now beginning to catch up to her physical abilities.  She had always been considered a tremendous talent, but time after time, for whatever reason, she faltered at the final hurdle.

Last night was no different.  Most experts expected the younger, stronger Stosur to blow the feisty Schiavone off the court with her kick serve and thudding ground strokes.  Instead, Schiavone was the clear aggressor from start to finish, getting to the net, running after every shot, and going for the winner when the opportunity presented itself.  On the other hand, apart from a confident first service game, Stosur was extraordinarily passive.  She was hesitant, indecisive, and seemingly had no strategy against an opponent who just wanted it more.  Stosur’s first serve really let her down and she hit countless opportunities into the net.

Even though the final score indicated a close match, to me it felt like Schiavone was in control the whole way.  The key was capturing the first set, which Stosur could have done had she remained aggressive, but Schiavone took a few chances in the 9th game to get out to a lead and Stosur handed her the break with a double fault.

In the second set, there was a glimmer of hope when Stosur broke and consolidated for a 4-1 lead.  However, I never thought it was a safe lead because Stosur went back to being passive while Schiavone fought and scrapped for every point.  When Schiavone broke back and they went into the tiebreak, I knew the match was as good as over.

I’m sure Stosur will look back on her missed opportunities and wonder why she couldn’t have played the final like she did against Henin, Williams and Jankovic.  It’s heartbreaking for her but she can only learn from her mistakes.  Hopefully next time she makes a grand slam final (and the odds are pretty good), she’ll be able to take that next step and finally get over the hump.

As for Schiavone, what a terrific champion.  It’s great to see someone her age succeed at the highest level through dedication, hard work and heart.

Luck no. 13: Soderling stuns Federer at French Open! June 1, 2010

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Nobody beats Robin Soderling 13 times in a row.  Nobody.

In the most unexpected result since he ousted 4-time defending champion Rafael Nadal in the French Open last year (becoming the first, and so far, only man to beat Rafa at the French), Robin Soderling delivered another shock bomb today when he defeated world no. 1 Roger Federer, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4.

It was sweet revenge for Soderling on a couple of levels — first, he had never beaten Federer in 12 previous attempts; and second, he lost to Federer in the French Open final last year (after which he said that before the match that he “yokingly” said that “nobody beats me 10 times in a row” — of course, he lost another couple of times to Federer after that, extending the streak to 12).

The stunning upset in the quarterfinals also brought an end to Federer’s remarkable 23 consecutive appearances in Grand Slam semifinals.  The next closest is Ivan Lendl with 10.  And if Nadal wins the French (and let’s face it, he probably will), Federer will lose his no. 1 ranking, robbing him of the chance to tie Pete Sampras’ record of 286 weeks at that spot.

Good for Soderling.  All streaks have to end some time.  This French Open has now become a redemptive quest for Rafa — or perhaps the crowning of the official giant slayer in men’s tennis?

Federer Finally Wins the French Open! June 7, 2009

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How sweet it is!

How sweet it is!

At last, Roger Federer has the career slam!

Not long after I wondered whether Roger’s run to the French Open Final was too good to be true, conventional wisdom prevailed in the end as Federer crushed a shell-shocked Robin Soderling in straight sets, 6-1, 7-6 (7-1), 6-4 to win the last Grand Slam missing from his trophy room.

That makes it 14 Grand Slams (5 Wimbledon, 5 US Open, 3 Australian Open, 1 French Open) in total, matching the record held by the great Pete Sampras – but one could argue that Federer is now the undisputed greatest of all time because he has the only Grand Slam that Sampras never came close to capturing.  Interestingly, Andre Agassi, the last man to capture the career slam (and the only other man in the Open Era) was on the dais to present the trophy to a teary Roger.  It was a fitting end to a dramatic, almost magical fortnight where 4-time defending champion Rafael Nadal was ousted by Soderling in dramatic fashion and Federer struggled through 2 come-from-behind 5-setters to reach the Final.

Just when experts thought Federer had reached the end of his glorious career, he comes up delivering one of the greatest moments in tennis history.  Now the question will inevitably shift to whether he can reclaim the Wimbledon title he lost to Nadal last year (in perhaps the greatest match of all time), and in doing so, break Sampras’ record.  With Nadal out of Queens and questionable for Wimbledon, I’m sure people will start hopping back on the Federer bandwagon.  But with the likes of Murray and Djokovic eager to seize glory for themselves, I wouldn’t start carving Roger’s name on the trophy just yet.  However, after what I just witnessed I’m never going to count Federer out ever again.

[PS: Federer is 27 years and 303 days old.  Sampras was 31 years and 27 days when he won his 14th Grand Slam]

Doubting Federer in the French Open Final (2009) June 6, 2009

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Tomorrow afternoon, Roger Federer will face Robin Soderling in the French Open Final.

For once, the guy that beat him in the 3 previous finals (and the semi-final before that), Rafael Nadal, won’t be there (and he’s also dropped out of Queens and may now miss Wimbledon!).

But does this mean Roger will finally get his hands on that last remaining piece of silverware missing from his trophy cabinet and complete the career Grand Slam?  Does it mean he will finally tie Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles and be regarded as the undisputed greatest player of all time?

Not so fast.

I for one would love to see Roger hoist that trophy tomorrow.  And judging from the way the Parisian crowd has treated him the last couple of weeks, so would the French public.  Roger’s run to the French Open Final this year seems like a fairytale.  Almost too perfect, too dramatic, too good to be true.  Too much like destiny.

Think about it.  He had lost the 3 previous French Open finals against Nadal, not to mention last year’s Wimbledon Final and this year’s Australian Open Final.  He was a player in decline, with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray ready to pounce on his number 2 ranking and getting the best of him in their last few encounters.  Even though he beat a weary Nadal in the Rome Masters leading up to the French Open, he was considered an outside chance at best by most, and the majority of experts and commentators had already written him off.

He then goes about winning the first round in straight sets, but struggles in the second, winning in 4 but 2 of the sets were tiebreakers.  In the third round, he loses the first set but then rallies to win the next 3.  He’s getting through but hardly in dominating fashion.  Meanwhile, Djokovic, a guy who almost beat Nadal in Rome, is shockingly defeated.

And in the fourth round, the whole world turned upside-down.  Nadal bows out, changing the landscape for everyone, especially Roger.  If he’s ever going to win, it’s going to be now, people said.  And what happens next?  He falls down 2 sets to love against Tommy Haas, a guy he rarely ever has trouble with.  Just when it looked like Federer was about to crumble under the weight of new expectations, he roars back to win the match from the brink of elimination.

Next, in the quarterfinals, his next biggest threat, Andy Murray, is ousted.  Federer plays Gael Monfils, a guy who had been playing great tennis (and I thought would beat the seemingly unstable Roger).  The French crowd, instead of supporting local player Monfils, were actually on Federer’s side, rallying him to a straight sets victory.  Things were starting to get a little eerie.

But then it got downright scary.  I was convinced that Juan Martin Del Potro, the fifth seed and a guy who had never beaten Federer, would finally get him this time.  Things were just too good to be true.  Roger falls down 2 sets to 1, then once again, against all odds, like a Hollywood script (and an unrealistic one at that), storms back to claim the final 2 sets.  On the other side of the draw, it was only fitting that the guy who dethroned Nadal, Mr Soderling, would come through against Fernando Gonzalez, also in 5 riveting sets.

If you had told anyone that this would happen before the tournament began – that Federer would be facing some relative unknown who beat Nadal, in the final, after overcoming all odds including 2 come-from-behind 5-setters – they would have said you were crazy.  You couldn’t have dreamed of such a perfectly dramatic scenario even if you tried.  And yet, tomorrow afternoon, fantasy becomes reality.

Can Roger Federer fulfil what seems frighteningly like destiny?  Will he be coming this far, only to crash back down to earth again?  Normally, I would say all the warning signs are there.  The lead-up to the final was just too perfect, too scripted, too unbelievable.  Usually when things are like this it never turns out the way we want it to.  But after doubting Roger in the previous 2 rounds, I’m starting to believe in destiny too.

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