By Maud Watson
Happy Hunting Grounds
Last weekend, Rafael Nadal was right where he wanted to be – on red clay and back in the winner’s circle. His play at the Foro Italico was a glowing example of why Nadal is arguably the greatest clay court player ever. He’s mixing in the right amount of aggression, and his defense is second to none. He’s also shown that his mental toughness is once again intact, as evidenced by his ability to come out on top in virtually any tight situation, absolutely refusing to give anything away to the opposition. This is the pre-2011 Nadal fans are used to seeing – less complaining and more sure of his game. This Rafa is also likely to hang around through the Roland Garros fortnight. There’s no doubt he’s the heavy favorite. There are only a handful of players that can even hang with Nadal when he’s playing this well, and it will take a Herculean effort from any one of them to defeat the Spaniard. At this stage, only a fool would bet against Nadal earning a seventh title in the French capital.
Don’t Rain on her Parade
Sharapova is not the most gifted athlete, and her shrieking is a source of annoyance to many. But irrespective of any of this, you have to respect that she’s currently No. 2, and it’s due in no small part to the fact that she is one of the fiercest competitors on the WTA. Down a set and 4-0 to Li Na on a cold, rainy day in the Italian capital, it would have been easy for Sharapova to throw in the towel. She’d already won Stuttgart and had put in a good effort to defend her Rome title. But the Russian has never been one to settle, and she fought to secure a dramatic three-set win to successfully defend her Rome crown. Sharapova heads to Paris as one the favorites, but gut instinct says she’s going to need some help to complete the career Grand Slam. Unlike Serena, who virtually blitzed most of the competition en route to titles in Charleston and Madrid, Sharapova more than once benefited from an opponent’s collapse. Not to take away from her victories, but it’s better to be in control of one’s destiny. Suffice it to say, Sharapova won’t be an easy out for anyone (except maybe Serena), but she’s not a lock in Paris.
Paris or Bust
Novak Djokovic hasn’t had a bad season. He won the Aussie Open and Miami, and he reached the finals of two out of the three clay court Masters leading up to Roland Garros. But after last week’s Rome final, Djokovic fans may have some cause for concern. On the one hand, he showed he still has the skills and the right game plan – when properly executed – to beat Nadal. The Spaniard has closed the gap, but there’s still a feeling that Djokovic can control the majority of points over the course of an entire match, which will likely continue to be the case given his superior return. But controlling points means nothing if you can’t execute the finishing shot. The Serb committed an uncharacteristically high number of unforced errors – 41 to be exact – ranging from shanked overheads to overcooking easy sitters. To be fair, Nadal’s incomparable retrieving ability put pressure on Djokovic to hit ever closer to the lines, but 2011 Djokovic didn’t press in those same situations. Additionally, while you had to feel for Djokovic when a botched line call late in the first set gave Nadal a reprieve and ultimately proved a crucial turning point, you can’t expect to remain No. 1 and allow such a call to have a long carry over effect as it clearly did heading into the second. Djokovic is going to have to find that 2011 form and mindset if he wants to have any shot at completing the “Nole” Slam.
White Flag Ready
With the French Open just days away, Jo-Willie Tsonga is ruffling feathers with his pessimistic forecast for French players at this year’s French Open. Tsonga stated there was zero chance a Frenchman would be hoisting the trophy, and while none would argue against the realistic nature of his comments, they were no less disappointing. Most of France’s top stars are cast in the traditional French mold – flashy shot makers able to catch lightening in a bottle at any moment. Perhaps none are more capable of catching fire than Tsonga himself. Though he’s never won a clay court event, the fact that he’s currently No. 5, has been to a major final, and has beaten each of the four guys in front of him at least once makes his comments all the more galling (or is it Gauling? – sorry, bad pun!). Yes, the Frenchmen may all be eliminated in week one, but would anyone honestly be surprised to see a handful reach the second week? It would be wonderful to see Tsonga prove himself wrong, but it’s awfully hard to put together a good run when you’ve already decided defeat is inevitable before the first ball has even been struck.
Earlier this week, Kim Clijsters confirmed what many of us already saw coming. Rather than finish out the 2012 season, she will officially hang up the racquet at the conclusion of the US Open. It’s been a frustrating year for the Belgian, who has had to forgo the entire clay court season due to niggling injuries. As the competition is growing stiffer at the top, Clijsters’ lack of match plays is also apt to prove more costly this summer than in years past. In short, though as a four-time major champion Clijsters may know what it takes to win the big titles, it’s still a big ask for her to reign victorious at Wimbledon, the London Olympics, or at Flushing Meadows. But as one of the nicest and greatest players of her generation, here’s to hoping for a successful swan song. Here’s to hoping fans are treated to vintage Clijsters. And here’s to hoping she grabs what will be one of the three most prestigious titles remaining in 2012 before she heads off into the sunset.