Written by Jay Jarrahi
The dust has settled on the significant part of the European clay court season, and at the Mecca of clay court tennis, the King still reigns. Here’s a look back on what unfolded over the past fortnight on the men’s side of things.
Still King – Rafael Nadal was expected by many to dominate the major clay court events, as he had done in 2005 and 2006. Despite the complacency and predictability, the replication of such results is nothing short of extraordinary. Nadal has looked even more dominating this year than he had the last, bringing at times a more aggressive game to his opponents than in the past. Still the best defender on tour, the young Spaniard continues to improve other aspects of his game and has at times literally looked unstoppable. The few times that Nadal has looked vulnerable, he has been mercilessly good when it comes to saving break points when it matters most. There could be no greater illustration of that than in the first set of the final. Roger Federer had engineered ten break points, but Nadal didn’t allow him to convert a single one. Although the final did not bring out the best in both players, what rarely remains in doubt on clay (and is in effect on faster surfaces at times also) is Nadal’s strength relating to the mental side of the game. Three visits to Roland Garros, and Nadal has left each time biting the trophy. Not since Bjorn Borg has a player won the French Open three successive times, you’ve heard of him, haven’t you?
This one hurts the most – A year on from his final defeat to Nadal, the world number one was left to experience another. Federer finally achieved a clay court victory over Nadal in Hamburg, and as much as the victory would have provided him with confidence and a greater self-belief in clay court battles with Nadal, the truth is that Hamburg and Roland Garros are different beasts. Federer has always been comfortable with conditions in Hamburg, but Roland Garros presents a different challenge. The match up was always liable to cause him problems and although some will argue that Federer’s backhand was greatly improved from the 2006 final, the fact is that it is still an area that Nadal can relentlessly attack and play the match on his own terms. Federer’s usually dominant forehand was responsible for many more errors than we have come to expect, and much of that can be put down to the pressure he felt to take control of the point before Nadal could further expose the backhand. Federer cites physical exhaustion as his reason for not defending his title in Halle this week, but it should go without saying that Federer will be recovering from the mental scars of this final, as well as resting aching limbs.
Djoker in the pack – Novak Djokovic continued his fine season with a last four appearance. At only 20, the Serb is demonstrating an ever increasing amount of maturity on court, and hilarity off court. Djokovic produced some fine tennis against Nadal at the semi-final stage. However, he was still unable to claim a set in the match, which speaks for volumes for where Nadal is at right now on clay. At the current rate, it will be quite a surprise if Djokovic does not end the year ranked the number three player in the world. And if he can continue his progression, it might not be long before he is genuinely in the mix with Federer and Nadal at the very top of the sport.
Bright spots –Nikolay Davydenko produced the kind of consistent tennis on both wings that we have all come to expect from him. Davydenko defeated David Nalbandian in round four. Despite trailing by a break in the fourth set and looking out on his feet, he somehow summoned the strength and determination to close out the match in a tie-break. Avoiding a fifth set of which he said afterwards, Nalbandian would have been the favourite for. Davydenko followed up that triumph with a gruelling straight sets win over Guillermo Cañas. The first set alone took 76 minutes, with punishing rallies being the order of the day. Davydenko’s tournament was eventually ended by Federer, but not before he led by a break in each set and even served for sets two and three.
Guillermo Cañas started the year ranked 142. He ended Roland Garros ranked 17 and has taken the mantle as the number one Argentine on tour. This is quite the comeback for a man whose story is well documented. Cañas’s sights will now be set on trying to secure a spot for the season end Masters Cup in Shanghai.
It was a good showing for Igor Andreev, who until Federer’s Hamburg victory over Nadal was the last man to defeat the Spaniard on clay. Possessing a devastating forehand, the Russian took out Andy Roddick, Nicolas Massu and Paul-Henri Mathieu before succumbing to Djokovic in round four.
A tournament to forget – Nine Americans made the main draw, but the only reason any of them lasted until the first Wednesday was the rain. Not a single player from the USA was able to negotiate their first round match. A far cry from the recent past where the USA had been able to celebrate Roland Garros triumphs from Andre Agassi, Jim Courier (twice) and Michael Chang.
David Ferrer would have expected to at least reach the last eight, but the Spanish warrior lost out to compatriot Fernando Verdasco in the third round. Ferrer led by a set and 5-2, but ended up on the wrong end of a four set encounter.
For the second successive year, Nicolas Almagro entered Roland Garros with visions of making an impact. And just like in 2006, Almagro left the tournament without too much to say, losing in the second round to Michael Llodra in five sets.
Fernando Gonzalez has had a very up and down season. The Chilean began the year playing flawless tennis on the way to the Australian Open final. He followed that up with months of mediocrity before exploding again to reach the Rome Masters Series final. Gonzalez was upset in the first round at Roland Garros, losing in straight sets to Radek Stepanek.
Written by Jay Jarrahi