It’s getting harder and harder to define what makes Rafael Nadal so great on clay… which is ironic considering that he has given us over a decade of excellence to study and analyze. A person can watch highlights or read articles until the brain begins to resemble the crushed clay that Nadal has thrived on… and STILL be left wondering: Does a limit to his success actually exist? It takes a particularly special achievement like a potential eleventh Roland Garros title to diminish a week in which Nadal captured his 900th career win and was almost on his way to matching Bjorn Borg’s record of 41 consecutive sets won at Roland Garros. Thanks to a game Argentine named Diego Schwartzman, the record books can save some of their ink budget. Schwartzman and soggy, wet weather could be considered Nadal’s toughest opponents until the upcoming final on Sunday, and still, recorded history will stingily credit him for only one successful set.
So how do we begin to discuss Nadal’s career on clay? We can talk about how he has been a gatekeeper against two all-time greats in an era when the pursuit of a completionist resume has urged athletes to new heights. At the start of 2018 Roland Garros, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic had combined for “only” two Roland Garros titles to deposit in their illustrious trophy cabinets. Federer and Djokovic have two of the highest-regarded styles of play that are successful across all surfaces. They have both beaten Nadal in classic Masters 1000 events on clay. They have both reached multiple Roland Garros finals — at least four, to be even more precise. Saying they are extremely successful tennis players would be an understatement. Yet neither has been able to knock Nadal off in the semifinals or final in France, though both have had a chance in both rounds.
Federer has never been able to defeat Nadal in Paris; his lone title came after Robin Soderling descended like an asteroid from the sky and delivered a big bang to the evolution of the 2009 tournament. Djokovic on the other hand defeated Nadal in Paris in 2015, but in a cruel twist of fate Stan Wawrinka had learned from “failing better” in the previous year’s near-defeats to Djokovic in majors. Stan claimed his second major title to render his first one a year earlier in Australia as “not a fluke.”
In the conversation about Rafa on clay, we can talk about how rare it is for any player to win 10 of anything in tennis, especially within the Open Era. No male had won double-digit titles at a single major before Nadal did it at Roland Garros in 2017. Only Federer and Nadal have reached enough finals at a single event for the option to be fathomable. This achievement alone is special to any person who identifies with the values of Nadal because many predictors figured Nadal would be retired by the age of 27. His “punishing” style of play has been contrasted with Federer’s evergreen durability over time, but both men have aged into being sources of mischief for Father Time. Nadal’s 85 wins and 2 losses at Roland Garros are a testament to his drive, competitiveness, and mental toughness over the years to not only defend titles, but carry on his legacy as well.
Dominic Thiem is hoping that we will talk about what makes Nadal great at clay, but also still a fallible human being. Thiem, who has been hailed as the next great clay-courter, has beaten Nadal on clay three times. Thiem will try to challenge Nadal in the first major final of his young career on Sunday. Nadal leads their head-to-head 6 wins to 3, yet Thiem should not be discouraged. Nadal has looked uncomfortable this fortnight against players who were said to be favorable draws for him. Maximilian Marterer and Simone Bolelli took Nadal to tiebreaks and the above mentioned Schwartzman stole a set.
Looking over photos from earlier in the week, the tensions and doubts in Nadal’s head were apparent. When winning is the only acceptable outcome and the world’s fans and media reinforce that expectation on a daily basis, a sport played by humans and not robots will evoke real-world pressures even for the legends who walk among us… because they still carry human and mortal flesh.
Yet, those doubts Nadal felt — as real as they have been — were distinctly followed by a level of intensity that finally helps one understand how Nadal has continued to endure the different challenges his rivals have thrown at him. Being better than Nadal for 75 or 90 minutes is not the challenge posed by Roland Garros. Being better for three hours or more is the test. This is partly the result of opponents not being able to keep up, but it is much more centrally a result of Nadal solving whatever problem most immediately stares him in the face.
Nadal — like any athlete — is not a doubt-free creature. What he manages to do with very rare exceptions, especially on clay, is to transform doubt into resolve, which enables him to look at a confusing puzzle and make the pieces fit before it’s too late.
As we approach the 2018 Roland Garros final, Thiem will hope to make Nadal as human as possible… and by chance prove that a limit to the powers of Rafa on clay does indeed exist.
Image source -Clive Brunskill/Getty Images Europe
NADAL’S OWN NOVELTY
The biggest upset at the 2018 men’s Roland Garros tournament was not Marco Cecchinato over Novak Djokovic. It was something much bigger: Through the first six rounds of play, the men produced a better, more interesting, more compelling tournament than the women. That hadn’t happened in a few years. The 2017 Australian Open was great on both the men’s and women’s sides. The last time the men were unambiguously better than the women? If you have a clear answer, good for you, but it won’t come from the past three years. The men have occasionally matched the women and usually fallen short.
At Roland Garros in 2018, the men were better. (more…)
WOMEN’S TENNIS: THIS KIND OF SOCIALISM WORKS
Socialism sounds good in theory but never ends up well in practice, they say.
“They” obviously aren’t watching women’s professional tennis these days.
Remember when Serena Williams continued and extended her control over the WTA Tour at the 2017 Australian Open, following a 2016 run in which she made three major finals and a fourth semifinal? That 2016 season was also a campaign in which Angelique Kerber reached three major finals and won two. Not a lot of sharing happened on the WTA Tour, and when Serena lifted her 23rd major crown in Melbourne, it seemed that women’s tennis would remain a monarchy run by Serena, not a democracy in which various players had an equal say in the year’s most important tournaments.
Then came Serena’s pregnancy, and in a heartbeat, the WTA became a vast expanse of questions and uncertainties.
We have seen on the ATP Tour how the injury-based absences of top players have created voids — not only in terms of consistent results at majors, but also the overall quality of play. This just-concluded French Open was one of the ATP’s better majors in a while, but over the past two years, men’s tennis at the Grand Slam tournaments has been largely dreary and uninspiring. Most finals have been numbingly predictable snoozefests, and without proven players to take charge in halves or quarters of draws, many random results — “someone will win because someone has to, not because someone is transcendent or special” — have proliferated. The 2017 Roland Garros tournament was like this. The 2017 Wimbledon tournament offered glimpses of such an identity. 2017 U.S. Open was the ultimate representation of this dynamic over the past 18 months. The 2018 Australian Open largely fit this description as well.
Missing the top stars the past 18 to 24 months has noticeably hurt the quality of the ATP Tour, so when Serena had to tend to the task of childbirth, everyone naturally wondered how women’s tennis would respond.
The results have been unpredictable, just as they have been with the men (hello, Sam Querrey making a Wimbledon semifinal; Kevin Anderson playing Pablo Carreno Busta in a U.S. Open semifinal; Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund making Australian Open semis; Marco Cecchinato making these just-concluded Roland Garros semis). However, women’s tennis has produced the compelling major finals men’s tennis has failed to deliver. Just compare the two Roland Garros finals we witnessed over the weekend.
More than that, women’s tennis is crowning the new champions men’s tennis is failing to produce.
Since the start of 2010, men’s tennis has created only three first-time major champions: Andy Murray at the 2012 U.S. Open, Stan Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open, and Marin Cilic at the 2014 U.S. Open.
Ever since Serena stepped away from the sport in early 2017, the WTA — in a span of five major tournaments — has exceeded the men’s total of first-time major winners this decade.
Jelena Ostapenko last year at Roland Garros; Sloane Stephens at the U.S. Open; Caroline Wozniacki in Australia; and Simona Halep this past Saturday in Paris have all crossed the threshold. If the men — #ATPLostBoys — can’t pass the baton to younger generations just yet, the WTA is doing exactly that, and in supremely entertaining fashion. What is even more noteworthy: The players at the center of the WTA’s balanced distribution of signature championships are removing significant what-if burdens from the sport.
Ostapenko is the outlier in the group, but Stephens has answered questions about who will be the next American player to follow in Serena’s footsteps — not to the same extent, of course, but certainly in terms of being a constant threat to do well at the biggest events in the sport.
In 2018, Wozniacki and Halep have both removed the eight most oppressive words in tennis or golf from their necks: “Best player never to have won a major.” The unpredictability we all expected in women’s tennis once Serena stepped away has been the happiest, most productive unpredictability one could imagine. The combination of entertainment value and redemptive stories has been off the charts.
The flow of life on the WTA Tour has been so cathartic and inspiring that after Wozniacki and Halep removed burdensome labels from their careers, there’s no similarly acute example remaining of a player currently in contention at majors who is trying to banish her demons. Karolina Pliskova, at 26, is the oldest player without a major in the current WTA top 10. As she gets to age 28 or 29, her story might become more poignant, but as someone who has made only two major semifinals and only one major final, Pliskova doesn’t have the accumulation of memorably painful defeats both Wozniacki and Halep absorbed before those two finally broke through. Wozniacki’s and Halep’s respective triumphs this year carried so much impact because the tennis world was aware how often they had climbed the hill, only to be knocked down to the valleys below. Pliskova’s story doesn’t carry the same weight — not yet. The WTA has written the two foremost feel-good stories it possibly could have authored in 2018.
The one still-active player on the WTA Tour who can legitimately claim to be the “Best Player Never To Have Won A Major” is Agnieszka Radwanska, now 29 years old. However, she is outside the top 25 and hasn’t been a top threat at the majors for roughly two years. (She lost to Serena in the 2016 Australian Open semifinals.) Among active players in contention at the year’s biggest tournaments, no first-time major hopefuls carry the promise of hope or the weight of longing to the degree Wozniacki and Halep offered.
In an age when so many sports teams — internationally and in America — are winning their first huge championships in their respective realms of competition, the WTA is in step with the times. That the WTA’s evolution has coexisted with a high quality of play and gripping major finals shows that this version of socialism — wide and relatively even distribution of resources — works in practice, not just in theory.
We will see at Wimbledon if it continues.
Testigos de la grandeza
Mientras veía a Rafael Nadal intentar completar el tercer set de la final masculina de Roland Garros a la vez que resistía un calambre en su mano izquierda, de repente, comprendí algo que me impactó: cada pequeño detalle debe darse para que un jugador encuentre el santo grial del tenis, también conocido como ganar un gran título de grand slam. No puede haber ningún accidente.
Ningún conductor ebrio, como el que frenó a Thomas Muster, ni un fanático desequilibrado, como el que interrumpió el curso de la vida de Mónica Seles. No puede haber ninguna lesión, como las muñecas vulnerables de Juan Martín Del Potro o ninguna distracción que pueda causar algún problema personal. Ni siquiera se puede sufrir un lapsus de concentración porque eso le abre la puerta a rivales hambrientos que siempre están trabajando para mejorar. (more…)