“When you have a period of time like I had, you realize that you don’t know if you will have the chance to be back here with this trophy another time.” Rafael Nadal, after winning the French Open final
Roland Garros: the clay grand slam
Rafael Nadal, the man known as the King of Clay, has won his eighth French open singles title: a record in the modern era. Prior to World War One, Max Decugis had eight victories, but at that time only French nationals could contest the tournament.
New Zealand’s greatest tennis player and four time Wimbledon winner, Anthony Wilding, would surely have won the title back then if he had been allowed to play.First contested in 1891, the tournament moved in 1928 to a new stadium named after a World War One aviator Roland Garros. Today it is the only one of the four grand slam tournaments played on a clay surface. A familiar sight in matches is players hitting their shoes to get the orange clay off the soles. Another unique feature in European clay tournaments is the sight of an umpire leaping out of the elevated chair to pinpoint where the ball has landed in a disputed call.
As you would expect in Paris, the crowd is very knowledgeable and vocal, and the ball boys and girls are stylishly turned out.
The King of Clay –the right temperament and all the shots
Spaniard Rafael Nadal is one of greatest players ever to hold a racquet and currently has 12 grand slam victories to his credit. Only the great Roger Federer with 17 and the legendary Pete Sampras with 14, have won more.
He is coached by the inscrutable Uncle Toni, a man whom television cameras constantly pick out in the crowd, when Rafa is playing. He has instilled in his protégée the need for discipline and focus. There are scowls and glares but never any tantrums or racquet abuse from Nadal, and he respects the ability and skills of his opponents. On the court there is a steely determination and confidence whereas in interviews he comes across as being very humble and rather shy.
Nadal’s playing strengths are his anticipation, incredible speed around the court, lethal forehand, powerful double-handed backhand and mastery of top spin and placement. The left-hander will often slide along the baseline for a wide ball and angle an unplayable cross court winner. He is also a master of the passing shot, so much so that opponents are often scared to come to the net. Although not a natural serve and volley player like Federer, he is still deadly when he does come to the net and rarely misses putting away a smash.
The semi-final that was the real final
To reach this year’s final, Nadal had to beat Djokovic in the semi-final. The Serbian master and world number one, had defeated him in the Monte Carlo final back in April, in their only previous meeting this year. Both players are superb exponents of the clay court game and the semi final was always going to be a closely contested thriller. By a quirk of the seedings which are based on points from previous tournaments played and results on the ATP Tour, Nadal was seeded No 3. He had been out of competition because of a knee injury for seven months up until March. So the world’s two best current players were destined to meet in the first semi-final.
High drama in the fourth and fifth sets
Going into the fourth set, Nadal was leading 6-4, 3-6, 6-1 and seemingly poised to wrap up the match. This looked a certainty, with the Spaniard ahead 6-5 and serving at 30-30. However he made two uncharacteristic unforced errors in a row and when Djokovic won the ensuing tie-break it was two sets all. The Serb now had the upper hand and raced to a 2-0 lead in the deciding set.
Now it was Djokovic’s turn to falter on the brink of victory. Leading 4-3 and serving at 40-40, a 5-3 lead seemed likely. Nadal was forced to throw up a lob which Djokovic thrashed away. Unfortunately he slipped and hit the net before the ball bounced twice and consequently the point went to Nadal. The latter took the game and then won his serve to go ahead 5-4.
Both players had been serving well and so it continued
- Nadal won his serve to love: 7-6
- Djokovic won his serve to love: 7-7
- Nadal won his serve with only one lost point: 8-7.
But then it all ended in an anti-climax. After battling for over 4 hours, Djokovic couldn’t win a point in his last service game and the match was Nadal’s. The Serb was gracious in defeat: I congratulate my opponent because he showed the courage when it counted.
Nadal’s twelfth grand slam title and more to come?
The final against compatriot and fifth seed, David Ferrer, was a mere formality with Nadal prevailing 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. This was Rafa’s eighth win in Paris in nine years. As journalist Christophe Ena observed: Sorry, David. This is Nadal’s tournament.
The next grand slam at Wimbledon is just two weeks away and Nadal faces tough opposition. Last year’s winner Roger Federer will be there on his favoured grass surface and world number 2 Andy Murray is back from injury. Furthermore Djokovic, the winner of the 2013 Australian grand slam, will be keen to justify his number one ranking. It is a mouth-watering prospect.