Sunday, June 24, 2012

Remember Paris

(by Alison Kim and James Buddell, Duece magazine, May 24, 2012)

As Rafael Nadal embarks on a mission to become the first player to win seven Roland Garros titles, DEUCE magazine turns to a host of former champions to analyse one of the most remarkable records in tennis history: Nadal’s 45-1 record on the red dirt of Paris.

2005: Michael Chang On The First Triumph

Final, d. Puerta 6-7(6), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5

A 16-year-old Rafael Nadal should have made his Grand Slam debut at Roland Garros in 2003, only to suffer an elbow injury during practice leading up to the event. The Mallorcan’s coming out party was once again put on hold the following year due to a stress fracture in his left ankle.  “I think in certain aspects it probably made him very hungry,” says Michael Chang, the 1989 champion.  While Chang’s triumph in Paris - when he became the youngest men’s Grand Slam champion at 17 years of age - came as a bit of a surprise, Nadal had already proved that he was a force to be reckoned with by the time he finally stepped on the Roland Garros courts.

In the year between the 2004 and 2005 championships, Nadal had won his first six ATP World Tour titles - all on clay - including a pair of Masters 1000 titles at Monte-Carlo and Rome. He had Grand Slam experience under his belt, highlighted by a fourth-round run at the Australian Open earlier that year, and also boasted a 17-match winning streak entering Paris.  “Ironically it was his first French Open, but he was seeded four in the tournament already,” remembers Chang. “He already knew how to win. It was just a matter of getting on that clay, which he has been so extremely dominant at that period of time. He did have actually a very good draw that first year, though I don’t know that necessarily would’ve made a difference.  “I think he was already a heavy favourite to certainly, if not win, certainly to go out there and do extremely well. It’s not like he came out of nowhere and we said, who is this guy?”

Nadal marched past Lars Burgsmuller, Xavier Malisse, Richard Gasquet, Sebastien Grosjean and David Ferrer with the loss of just one set, and then came face-to-face with World No. 1 Roger Federer in the semi-finals. The pair had met in the Miami final a couple months earlier, a match Federer had battled from two sets down to prevail in five, and Chang reckons that Nadal called upon that experience in Paris.  “I know that for me, having lost to [John] McEnroe the previous year at the French was actually a really good experience for me because it helped me to get a good gauge of what it’s like to play against a top-ranked player on a very big stage,” he says.

“Whenever he’s out on the red clay courts at Roland Garros, there is an extra fire”.  While Chang produced a classic Davis versus Goliath take-down of World No. 1 Ivan Lendl in the Round of 16 after four hours and 39 minutes, Nadal needed less than three hours to defeat Federer 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in overcast conditions. “He’d already beaten some of the big-name players and now putting him on his favourite surface, on the red clay, it was a surprise, but not so much a shock because you knew his capability already,” says Chang.  “That definitely was a pretty big win for both of us at that stage. Obviously, a fair bit of notice that we’re both playing really well. I think that normally what happens is that you have a really big win and when you’re young, it’s easy to kind of have a letdown. You have a big win, and then the following match you play, it’s tough because of all the commotion; you received a lot of attention, a lot of accolades already, and a lot of times the next match you don’t play as well.”

Neither Chang nor Nadal suffered letdowns in the matches to follow. Chang capped off his dream run with a five-set win over Stefan Edberg in the final, while Nadal defeated unseeded Argentine Mariano Puerta, 6-7(6), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5, to become just the second player since Mats Wilander in 1982 to win Roland Garros on debut.  “From a very young age, he was saying his dream was to win the French Open and you can see it,” says Chang. “Whenever he’s out on the red clay courts at Roland Garros, there is an extra fire, an extra intensity, if you can possibly see that in someone like Rafa.”

2006: Gustavo Kuerten On Being Defending Champion

Final, d. Federer 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6(4)

Rafael Nadal returned to Paris in 2006 looking to become the first player to successfully defend the Roland Garros title since Gustavo Kuerten in 2000-01. The popular Brazilian had unexpectedly won the clay-court major for the first time as a 20 year old in 1997, in what was actually his first tour-level final, but fell to Marat Safin in the second round the following year.  On his 2001 defence, Kuerten entered as the World No. 1 and with 13 titles to his name, including the previous season’s Tennis Masters Cup. “I think that the difficulty is directly linked with the experience, especially in a Grand Slam,” he says of the difference between his two repeat bids. “In the ‘97-98 campaigns I didn’t have the sensation to deal with the title, to become a champion. In 2000-01, these characteristics had blossomed.”

Although he wouldn’t turn 20 until the end of Roland Garros that year, Nadal already showed those champion’s characteristics. The Spaniard had firmly established his foothold at No. 2 in the world and, in impressive fashion, as the man to beat on clay. His winning streak on the surface going into Paris stood at 53 matches - tying the record established by Guillermo Vilas 29 years earlier.  “He always seemed to me a spectacular tennis player; he is able to deal with competitiveness with maturity,” says Kuerten of Nadal’s ability to handle the added pressure of being the defending champion for the first time. “That's how Nadal won the tournament.”  Nadal eclipsed Vilas’ clay-court record with his straight-sets win over Robin Soderling in the first round, then defeated Kevin Kim, Paul-Henri Mathieu, Lleyton Hewitt, Novak Djokovic and Ivan Ljubicic to set up the highly anticipated Roger Federer showdown in the final.

The Swiss had not lost in seven Grand Slam finals up to that point, and was chasing history, attempting to become the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four major titles at the same time. His last loss in Grand Slam action had come against Nadal in the previous year’s semi-finals. Nadal, in fact, had won their past four meetings, including the two clay-court finals in Monte-Carlo and Rome.   “I always watched the challenges between Nadal and Federer, considering Nadal as the favourite,” admits Kuerten. 

Nadal’s title hopes appeared in danger early in the match as he dropped the first five games in a 1-6 first set, his worst set loss at Roland Garros to this day. He quickly turned the match around, coming up with his own 6-1 set to seize the momentum. He suffered a hiccup as he served for the victory at 5-4 in the fourth set, but held his nerve in the tie-break to become the youngest back-to-back Roland Garros champion since Bjorn Borg in 1974-75. “I consider it a typical final between two great champions,” says Kuerten. “That’s what a Grand Slam allows, a time for tennis players to find solutions. Nadal felt comfortable on the court; he found a formula to defeat Federer.”

2007: Carlos Moya On Playing Nadal

Final, d. Federer 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4

Rafael Nadal was 12 when he watched on television fellow Mallorcan Carlos Moya lift the Roland Garros trophy. Nine years later, the student and mentor would meet in the quarter-finals on a Wednesday afternoon on Court Philippe Chatrier.   Despite their special relationship, Moya admits he was not happy to be playing Nadal, wishing instead that he could’ve been in another part of the draw. “With Rafa on clay in best of five, it’s like a war,” he says. “You know that you are not going to go past that wall. That’s something that all of us know.”

Their previous five matches, of which Moya had won two, had been tighter affairs. But true to expectation, Nadal rolled past the 1998 champion 6-4, 6-3, 6-0 in just over two hours.  “It was very windy that day, and I didn’t have any chance really to win,” remembers Moya. “The first two sets were very big sets for me. I wasn’t like a break up or something where I could feel that I had a chance, not at all. I broke him back in the first set, and I realised how difficult it was. He was playing very, very deep, very confident.”  During that year’s run, Nadal was at his ruthless best. For the first time at Roland Garros, he did not drop a set en route to the championship match, disposing of Juan Martin del Potro, Flavio Cipolla, Albert Montanes, Lleyton Hewitt, Moya and Novak Djokovic in succession. Following his first-hand experience against Nadal in Paris, Moya had good reason to believe that he would once again win the title.

“You see in him something that you don’t see against any other player,” he says. “I could see if I play well against any player, I could have a chance to win at least, at least have it be a close match, but not against him. He forces you to play every single point; he doesn’t give you any free points. In best of five nobody can do that like him.”  ”For the second straight year, Nadal came up against Roger Federer in the final, with the Swiss once again gunning for a fourth straight Grand Slam title. In contrast to the previous year, however, Federer had won three of their past four meetings entering the match. One of those victories had come on the eve of Roland Garros, when Federer snapped the Spaniard’s 81-match winning streak on clay, conceding just two games to Nadal over the final two sets in Hamburg.  This time, Nadal coolly saved 16 of 17 break point chances as he went on to claim the 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 win and his third Roland Garros title. 

“Before 2007, I was surprised how Nadal was beating Federer,” reflects Moya. “I don’t think 2005, 2006, that Nadal was better than Federer, even on clay. I thought it was more of a mental thing. But he was finding the right way to play Federer, to hurt him, to hurt his game.  “In 2007, I started to feel that Nadal was a better player than Federer on clay. That was the first year I felt that Rafa was controlling the match, controlling the point, and the way he was losing that set against Federer was because he was not playing at his best. When he was playing at his best, he was finding his way to beat Federer.”

Reflecting on Nadal’s achievements, Moya - now 35 and dominating the ATP Champions Tour - acknowledges that having the chance to go head-to-head with him at Roland Garros was also a privilege. “It was a good experience, on the other hand, to play him. He’s probably going to be the best tennis player ever who ever played Roland Garros. If he wins his seventh title this year, he’s going to be the best player on clay, so at least I can say I played him at that tournament.”

2008: Brad Gilbert On A Dominant Performance

Final, d. Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0

Rafael Nadal had long established himself as the favourite at Roland Garros, but no one could’ve anticipated how decisively he would win the title on his fourth go-around.  Brad Gilbert, who guided Andre Agassi to six Grand Slam titles including the 1999 Roland Garros triumph, had seen a number of great Grand Slam runs during his years as player and coach - and even he was awed by the Spaniard’s performance that year.  “The most amazing thing obviously is the guy comes in, three-time champion, and that was probably from start to finish his most dominant performance,” he says. “It just kind of had that feeling they’re just watching it from afar, that nobody had a shot the way he was playing at the moment.”

Nadal brushed aside his first five opponents - Thomaz Bellucci, Nicolas Devilder, Jarkko Nieminen, Fernando Verdasco and Nicolas Almagro - conceding a total of 25 games. His 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 win over Almagro, in fact, was the most one-sided Roland Garros quarter-final in the Open Era.  “I think he had guys so intimidated that they were 0-3 down walking out of the tunnel,” comments Gilbert. “Besides obviously his game itself, he just doesn’t give you anything. He makes you earn every single point. It’s a rare combination of unbelievable offense and defence.” Novak Djokovic had the best chance to take a set off of Nadal, extending the Spaniard to a tie-break in the third set of their semi-final match, but the defending champion built a 6-0 lead in the tie-break to quickly extinguish the Serbian’s hopes.

“He was playing unbelievable,” says Gilbert, who was in Paris for the semi-final match. “You got the feeling that even if Djokovic won that third, even if he had enough in the tank to go another set - obviously he’s a completely different player now - that he couldn’t win two more sets. I remember watching those matches; you were thinking it’d be an upset if someone wins a set, forget about someone winning three sets.”  The final, which featured World No. 1 Roger Federer versus World No. 2 Rafael Nadal for a third straight year, produced the most stunning result of all: a 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 rout of the Swiss. It would be Federer’s most lopsided loss in Grand Slam action.

Gilbert, who had been courtside when Agassi beat Federer with the loss of just seven games at the 2001 US Open, was floored as he watched the match from a hotel room in London. “I was like, this can’t be happening. Obviously the guy’s a great, great clay court player and he had him rattled and confused. My jaw was wide open at what I was seeing.  Rafa was pretty darn near invincible. Federer was maybe pressing a little bit, sensing the level Rafa was at. It was one of those things, like sometimes in a basketball game or a football game, three or four turnovers and it got away from him quickly. It wasn’t lack of effort or anything like that. Rafa was on his game, Federer was a little off, and he just was all over him that day.”

Nadal became the fifth player in the Open Era to win a Grand Slam title without dropping a set, joining Ken Rosewall (1971 Australian Open), Ilie Nastase (1973 Roland Garros), Bjorn Borg (1978, 1980 Roland Garros; 1976 Wimbledon) and Federer (2007 Australian Open).  “They were just busting through the draw like butter,” says Gilbert. “The guy was the overwhelming favourite and he went out and did it. That’s what makes it even more impressive. You know how hard it is to repeat a major, and Nadal, he did it three times. Then to do it on his fourth and the most impressive the way he did it? That speaks volumes to how great the guy is.  “You didn’t think it was possible for anyone to be better than Borg on clay. Well, he probably is. Nadal and Borg, they’re like Picasso.”

2010: Mats Wilander On A Momentous Win

Final, d. Soderling 6-4, 6-2, 6-4

Rafael Nadal was no longer perfect in Paris, having lost to Sweden’s Robin Soderling in the Round of 16 the previous year. As fate would have it, the pair would meet again in 2010 - this time in the final.  Mats Wilander, who won his first of three Roland Garros titles on debut in 1982, regards that match as the most significant in Nadal’s six triumphs. “That one stands out to me because he changed his game after losing to Soderling in 2009 and came back in 2010 and had nearly as good a year as Djokovic in 2011,” he explains. “I think that was the first match where Nadal really stepped it up, and of course he won Wimbledon straight after and the US Open later. It was hard to predict that Nadal was on the brink of having his best year so far on tour before the final.”

Similar to his last three title runs at Roland Garros, Nadal had reached the championship match without losing a set. But of his first six opponents - Gianni Mina, Horacio Zeballos, Lleyton Hewitt, Thomaz Bellucci, Nicolas Almagro and Jurgen Melzer - none was ranked inside the Top 20 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings.   Soderling, then ranked No. 7 at the time, had ousted defending champion Roger Federer in the quarter-finals and outlasted Tomas Berdych in a five-set semi-final to reach the Roland Garros final for a second straight year.  Wilander gave the advantage to his fellow Swede ahead of the match. “I thought Soderling was the slight favorite going in,” he admits. “I did think that Soderling would beat him that time since he had beaten him the year before. He had come in and beaten Roger Federer, the defending champion. We also hadn’t seen the transformation of Nadal after that loss.”

Nadal had endured his share of struggles following his defeat to Soderling in 2009. Hampered by knee injuries, he went title-less for 10 months and dropped to No. 4 before breaking through in the spring to become the first player to sweep all three clay-court ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments in the same season.  Similar to Wilander, who bounced back from a loss to Ivan Lendl in 1984 to defeat the Czech in the 1985 final, Nadal got retribution for the sole blemish on his Roland Garros record.  Back in familiar territory, playing for the Roland Garros title, Nadal dismissed Soderling 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. Afterwards, he buried his head in his towel and wept. The win guaranteed the Spaniard’s return to World No. 1, and began an impressive stretch in which Nadal went on to win Wimbledon for a second time and capture his first US Open title to complete the career Grand Slam.  “I think that win, that final against Robin Soderling, sort of got his career back on track,” says Wilander. “It was the match that made him believe that he’s not done and it transformed his game.”

2011: Andre Agassi On Nadal’s Clay Form

Final, d. Federer 7-5, 7-6(3), 5-7, 6-1

Rafael Nadal’s confidence was somewhat shaken as he began his bid for a record-equaling sixth Roland Garros title in 2011. Although he was still ranked No. 1 in the world, he had lost two clay-court finals to Novak Djokovic in the month of May - both in straight sets.  To top it off, Nadal drew possibly the trickiest of first-round opponents in John Isner. The 6’9” American won the second and third set tie-breaks to put the five-time champion on the ropes, only to see the Spaniard step up and prevail in his first Roland Garros five-setter.  “Nadal ensures his opponents have to deal with a variety of spins, and his margin for error in these long rallies is incomprehensible,” explains Andre Agassi, who won the Roland Garros title in 1999 after runner-up finishes in 1990 and ’91. “He hits close to the lines to move his opponent around the court. He strikes his forehand so he puts it above his opponent’s shoulder and Nadal is consistently great in defence.  “That is why Nadal is so tricky to beat in five sets, especially at Roland Garros. He is like a boxer who constantly jabs. It totally wears an opponent down.”

With his match against Isner serving as a wake-up call, a vintage Nadal swept through his next matches against Pablo Andujar, Antonio Veic, Ivan Ljubicic, Robin Soderling and Andy Murray in straight sets. In the other half of the draw, Roger Federer took care of Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals, putting an end to the Serbian’s 41-0 start to the season.   In the fourth Roland Garros final between the long-time rivals, Nadal once again emerged victorious, defeating Federer 7-5, 7-6(3), 5-7, 6-1 in three hours and 40 minutes.  “Nadal’s dominance over the years is down to the fact that he has a number of advantages,” says Agassi. “He moves the best that anyone has moved on clay - and perhaps on any surface. Djokovic has closed the gap, improving his own movement, but Nadal has so many weapons on red dirt.  “Can Djokovic and Federer beat him at Roland Garros? Yes, of course they can, but they have to be at 100 per cent the whole match and take risks. The way Djokovic has hurt him in the past 18 months is by stepping into the court to take the ball early. It is a risky strategy and hard to do over a prolonged period in a match.”  With his victory over Federer, the 25-year-old Nadal matched Borg’s six Roland Garros crowns - a record many thought would never be touched.  “Rafael Nadal’s achievements at Roland Garros and on clay courts are right up there with the greatest in any era of tennis,” says Agassi.

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