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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.

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?

Del Potro downs Federer in US Open Final! September 15, 2009

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Del Potro wins the 2009 US Open!

Del Potro wins the 2009 US Open!

In one of the more exciting US Open Finals in recent memory, 20-year-old Juan Martin Del Potro dethroned 5-time defending champion Roger Federer- in 5 sets, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2. The win marked Del Potro’s first ever Grand Slam title, and denied Federer his 6th consecutive US Open title, his 41st consecutive win at the US Open, and his 16th career Grand Slam title.

Personally, I think few people expected Del Potro to win.  Federer had never lost to anyone other than Nadal (disposed of by Del Potro in the semis) in a Grand Slam final and had never lost to Del Potro in 6 previous matches.  However, the agile 6-6 giant was able to keep his composure despite being down 1 set to love and 2 sets to 1, and rallied down the stretch for a memorable victory.  The win is certainly great for tennis and marks the official arrival of Del Potro into tennis superstardom.  He definitely has the size, talent and potential to be a multiple GS winner, so let’s hope the young Argentine can keep his head on straight and excite us for many more years to come.

Wrapping up a fantastic year in tennis

What a weird, fantastic and memorable year this has been in tennis!  It started off with Nadal capturing the Australian Open in January over Federer, with the latter reduced to a sobbing wreck at the presentation ceremony.  Most believed at the time that it signalled the end of Federer’s dominance of men’s tennis and some suggested that he’d never win another Grand Slam.

Then what do you know, Nadal gets bounced in the French Open unexpectedly by Robin Soderling, and Federer delivers in the final to win his first ever French Open, adding the last trophy missing in his cabinet and tying Pete Sampras’s record of 14 Grand Slams.

Next, Nadal shockingly pulls out of Wimbledon due to injury, and Federer battles a rejuvenated Andy Roddick in another epic 5-set Wimbledon Final.  Federer wins his record-breaking 15th career Grand Slam, and ends up in a position no one thought he would be in after the Australian Open.  Guys like Djokovic and Murray keep hanging around but they never seem to have it when it comes to the Grand Slams.

And finally now, Del Potro spoils the end of what would have a fairy-tale year for Federer by coming from behind to snatch the US Open from his grasp!  Who could have imagined all this drama at the start of the season?

ATP World Tennis

The end-of-year event is now called Barclays ATP World Tour Finals

So now men’s tennis heads into a period of uncertainty.  Will Roger finally start to lose his edge in Grand Slams?  Will Nadal ever be the same again after his injury woes?  Can Djokovic be a serious Grand Slam threat again or just consistently good?  Will Roddick ever recapture his Wimbledon final form and win his second Grand Slam?  Is Del Potro for real or a one-slam wonder?  Can the young guns like Soderling, Tsonga, Simon and Monfils break through and win a major?  And will Andy Murray ever win anything?

Bring on the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals (the heck?) and 2010!

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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