When Nadal departed the Italian Open early a couple of weeks ago — a straight-set loser to Juan Carlos Ferrero in his first match in Rome — his wounded right foot looked like a disaster area. Blisters, cracks, holes — an awful sight for spectators as courtside treatment administered to Nadal was displayed on the Italian Open Jumbotron. It should have been X-rated video. But Nadal didn’t quit or sulk, as any reasonable guy would have.
Instead he accepted the loss and began hungering for Hamburg. Not the Big Mac kind but a title he wanted badly — the German Open. It was a title he got, continuing to frustrate Roger Federer in a dirt arena, defeating the Swiss in the final 7-5, 6-7 (3-7), 6-3. That’s eight out of nine for Nadal over Federer when the playground has been clay (the one win by Federer coming in Hamburg last year).
And now it’s Paris, the capital of clay — heaven for Nadal, hell for Federer — as they look forward to colliding again in a third straight French Open final.
Nobody quite as imposing as Nadal has ever strode into Paris. Never beaten on the crimson soil, he is pursuing Bjorn Borg’s record run of four straight French Open titles (1978-81), and will celebrate his 22nd birthday June 3. Borg, also a June baby, was as quick and competitive as Nadal, but he was flailing away with a wooden weapon. He couldn’t produce the overpowering blizzards of spin that flow from Nadal’s high-tech racquets. This torrent, unleashed by a left-hander, is even more malevolent.
Of course, somebody will beat Nadal on clay someday (he has 108 wins in his past 110 clay matches), but this doesn’t look like the year for it in France. Will Federer even get to the final? He’s lost seven matches this year and won only one title (Estoril), looking shaky as he was beaten by such players as Mardy Fish (current ranking of 39), and at Rome, Radek Stepanek (current ranking of 22).
There are dangerous potential opponents lurking for Federer — among them Nikolay Davydenko, David Nalbandian, David Ferrer, Igor Andreev, Mario Ancic, and Ferrero. And certainly the bumptious kid, Novak Djokovic, who lifted Federer’s Australian Open title.
Djokovic pushed Nadal ferociously in the semifinals of the German Open and has beaten him on pavement. But clay? Nadal must have grown up in a room floored and papered with clay.
Despite his ups and downs, Federer, I think, has his best chance this year. A year ago, with the Australian Open in hand, he dreamed of achieving a Grand Slam — the first since Rod Laver’s in 1969. After his title Down Under he thought of nothing but the French Open, his father said. The pressure became fierce and Nadal beat him 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, slamming the door on his pursuit of a Grand Slam.
But there’s little pressure on Federer this time as everybody expects Nadal to win. However, Federer has been playing better against Nadal, increasingly attacking at the right times, volleying more often and with greater effect, building leads, although they didn’t hold.
The French will be screaming for their new found hope, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, such a sensation in Australia (where he made the final) and worried about their gifted Richard Gasquet, who has been acting indifferently lately.
Switzerland now has a pair of men worth the ringing of cowbells. It’s not just Federer anymore. Stanislas Wawrinka was troublesome for Djokovic in the Italian Open final.
Americans will be wondering about the towering 20-year-old, 6-foot-6 Sam Querrey, whose dash to the Monte Carlo quarterfinals was astounding. They won’t need to wonder how Andy Roddick will fare as he won’t play the fortnight. I felt Roddick would have his best French Open (that wouldn’t take much given his poor past on the clay of Paris) because he looked so good in Rome, seemingly improved on the dirt and seemingly headed to the final before back spasms knocked him out in the semifinals. Those back spasms are the reason he’s missing Roland Garros.
Still Nadal will have to falter on his dirt field of dreams and that happening is about as probable as the loosening of the bolts on the Eiffel Tower.
After 16 consecutive years of always showing up at Wimbledon, winning five titles along the way, Venus Williams pulled out of the grass-court Grand Slam tournament Tuesday, citing a lower back injury.
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