btw this was written yesterday immediately after nadal's semifinal
Earlier today, the final obstacles to the most anticipated tennis match in recent memory bowed out, as French Open semifinalists Nikolai Davydenko and Novak Djokovic succumbed in straight sets. The stage has been set for the one moment that the entire tennis world has been waiting for ever since this tournament began – the men's singles final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on Sunday, June 10.
To be sure, other storylines and dynamics have been at play this Roland Garros. Serena Williams demonstrated the talent that once threatened to end interest in women's tennis, only to wilt in her quarterfinal match against an even more determined foe. American men once again crumpled out of the singles draw, while Serbian women surprisingly filled two of the four semifinal slots. And Justine Henin has showed an admirable recovery from personal issues and dehyphenation to obliterate her opponents en route to a try for a third straight title at her most beloved Grand Slam. At any other tournament, perhaps, these stories would have gripped the attention of the tennis world at large.
But not here. With all due respect, this Roland Garros has never been and will never be about them. Much like the triumphs of Diomedes or Menelaus in the Iliad, their battles - however heroic - are but a side note to the seemingly-destined battle of the titans. Federer and Nadal, Achilles and Hector – it is their climactic clash that this tournament has been moving so inexorably towards.
The importance of winning this French Open to Roger Federer cannot be underestimated. For the past three years, the 25-year-old has indisputably been by far the best tennis player in the world (1). The Mighty Fed (as he is known) is expected (at better-than-even odds, according to English bookmakers) to win almost every tournament he enters. Sampras' defining record of 14 career Grand Slam titles now teeters on the edge of irrelevance: in the past four years Federer has already won 10 Grand Slam titles (2), and smashing the heretofore thought unbreakable – nay, thought unapproachable record – now looks like a formality, a matter of time more than anything else. His records book has begun to take on a Gretzky-esque appearance. So it's safe to say that even if he were to retire today, his place in tennis history is already safely enshrined.
But there is one gaping hole in his resume. It is the proud Roland Garros, a legendary graveyard of hardcourt champions, the black sheep of the Grand Slam family. Federer's great predecessors – Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras – all of them, so dominant at every other Slam, all have come perilously close to winning on the famed red clay, but never succeeded. Indeed, Sampras' failures reached almost tragic proportions – in thirteen tries, he made it to the semifinals only once, where, exhausted by the grueling heat and his 5-set matches, he collapsed in straight sets to the eventual champion Kafelnikov. The greatest player in the world could simply never provide an answer for Roland Garros.
Federer is a descendant of that proud lineage in more ways than one. In eight tries, he has never won the French Open. It is the one accomplishment in his career he lacks, and it is the one thing that separates him from immortality. Rightly or wrongly, tennis judges its champions only by their Grand Slam titles; that is why, for example, despite all his heartbreaking losses at Federer's hands, Andy Roddick's place in history is assured, whereas fifty years from now Tim Henman's name will be relegated to little more than a Wimbledon footnote. The legacy of the mercurial Marat Safin is forever secure because of those two brutally beautiful weeks at the 2000 US Open; the legacy of the ever-consistent David Nalbandian is not.
So it is of no use to Federer that he has already, far and away, surpassed Sampras in the clay department, making the finals of a dozen clay-court tournaments so far, and winning six of them. But history will not note that, just as it will never note that Sampras finished 90-54 on clay and, defying all odds, managed to win three major clay tournaments. All history will remember is that Sampras could never win the biggest clay tournament of them all.
And that, more than anything else, was what gnawed at Sampras throughout the twilight of his career. For all his accomplishments, his inability to succeed on clay's grandest stage haunted him, and prevented him from becoming the indisputable Greatest of All Time. There were always the doubters, the Rod Laver fans that pointed to Laver's eleven Grand Slams that came on all surfaces and his two calendar Grand Slams, a feat that no other male player since has accomplished even once.
It is those same doubters that nag at Federer. Granted, many of them, as well as almost everyone in the Sampras camp, have already converted to Federer (given, of course, that Federer stays healthy enough to surpass Sampras' aforementioned 14 Grand Slams), but the most diehard stubbornly refuse, clinging to Laver's Grand Slam legacy. They do not care that Federer has been far and away the second-best clay-court player in the world for years now, nor that he was the first male player since Stefan Edberg to reach the finals of both clay Roland Garros and grass Wimbledon in the same year. It is winning that clay Grand Slam final that matters to them.
But if Federer could hoist that Roland Garros trophy - even just once - completing his resume and erasing that stigma of being an anything-but-clay "specialist" - suddenly, it's all over. All the speculation, all the locker room debates – they would all cease. There could be no more disagreement as to the greatest tennis player of all time – after all, what more could Federer possibly achieve? By any conceivable benchmark he would stand heads and shoulders above anyone else who has ever played the game. June 10 is a defining moment for Roger Federer - it is the final peak he must to conquer in order to achieve the immortality that so eluded his idol Sampras.
But of course, Achilles needs his Hector – the archrival antagonist, the only thing standing between him and eternal glory. In this case, it is the Spanish southpaw Rafael Nadal, in every conceivable way Federer's foil. A mere glance at the 21-year-old's baseline playing style reveals a tennis player seemingly born, bred, and built to excel on clay. Armed with perhaps the most-feared forehand in the world, an undying passion for vicious topspin, as well as the best defensive game in the history of tennis, he is the quintessential modern clay-court specialist, perfecting it into an art form in much the same way that Federer has perfected classical tennis.
Not that Nadal isn't strong on other surfaces – he did reach finals at Wimbledon last year, more than what serve-and-volley maestro Henman can ever lay claim to – he's just not so ruthlessly dominant on those surfaces, and vulnerable to being outclassed by others at the very top. But on clay he is undisputed. He owns a jaw-dropping 81-match winning streak on clay, the longest winning streak in tennis history on any single surface (3). Indeed, his dominance on clay is comparable to Federer's on grass or concrete.
And as far as Federer on clay goes, Nadal has his number. To Nadal (and perhaps only Nadal), Federer is just another player. Nadal is the only player in the world with a winning record against the Mighty Fed, and has frustrated Federer in the finals of four of the biggest clay court tournaments. Perhaps at this point it is more psychological than anything else, but something about Federer's game wilts when confronted with such relentless topspin and seemingly inexhaustible defense.
Roland Garros is no exception. Even though Nadal has only played the French Open twice before, he has won it both those times, knocking out Federer each time. Nadal's own legacy is at stake here; not since Bjorn Borg in the 1970's had any player been so dominant on Paris' red clay. Winning the tournament this year would not only make Nadal the first person since Borg to win three straight at the French, but also make Nadal an incredible 3-for-3 at the French – each time, eliminating perhaps the greatest player the world has ever seen. Federer would have to take three sets off Nadal to win; this is the same number of sets Nadal has lost in the past two French Opens.
So why, might you ask, is this particular Roland Garros finals matchup so weighty, so monumental, considering Nadal's already won it twice?
Because Federer, for the first time, has shown a flash of brilliance against the only person that could deny him that Grand Slam. After five straight clay losses to Nadal, Federer recently notched his first-ever clay win against Nadal at the final of Hamburg, one of the biggest clay court tournaments (and incidentally, snapped Nadal's 81-match winning streak) – and what a win it was. After getting wiped out in the first set 6-2, Federer suddenly found his groove, making a remarkable 17 of 23 first serves in the second set, and completely turned the match around, winning the next two sets 6-2 6-0. All of a sudden Nadal's aura of invincibility is gone, Federer's confidence is through the roof, and the questions begin – can the Fed actually do it this year?
To be fair, there were a lot of mitigating factors, chief among them Nadal's sheer exhaustion at the end of such a grueling clay-court season. But such a surge could not have come at a more improbable time for Federer. He had just came off his worst slump since his ascension to the top of the tennis world, failing to win any of four consecutive tournaments for the first time in years (4), and losing matches to fifth-ranked Fernando Gonzalez and 34th-ranked Fillipo Volandri. His confidence was clearly missing, having even taken the unusual step of firing his part-time consulting coach (not that he's particularly needed coaching – after all, he won three Grand Slams in 2004 without one). Entering Hamburg, journalists across the globe despondently agreed – if the Mighty Fed on clay couldn't even beat the wildcard Volandri, what hope did he have of derailing the runaway express that was Nadal?
But that match – that one match – changed everything. Now that all of us – Federer and Nadal included – have finally caught a fleeting glimpse of what Federer is capable of on clay, all the bets were off entering the French Open. The Federer mythos is back. Suddenly it was no longer a foregone conclusion that Nadal would raise his third straight Roland Garros trophy. Could Federer finally conquer his demon and avenge his previous French Open losses to his nemesis? Could he claim the last title that has so far eluded his grasp, the one he aches for to complete his resume? Or is Nadal ready to rain on the Federer parade for a third year in a row on the red clay of Paris?
It is now nearly two weeks and 126 matches in, and Roland Garros has not disappointed. As lesser names dropped out, and as the rain sagged the spirits of others, Federer and Nadal ripped through the rest of the field towards each other, greatness seeking its own. Together, they have won 36 out of their 37 sets played, and almost twice as many games as their opponents combined. Sunday's final may well be the first true test for either of these two players so far; fitting, considering how often these two transcendent players seem the only worthy opponents for each other. Their semifinal opponents managed to push them farther than anyone else had, but the outcome could never truly be in doubt - nobody was going to stop these two from meeting in the final. The gods themselves were helpless against Achilles' rage and burning vengeance; likewise, against Federer and Nadal, the best efforts of the world's finest clay-court players were in vain. The task falls to those two men to stop each other and claim the title for himself.
And so it is. On June 10, the seemingly destined finals match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will finally be played. Both players have demonstrated that true hallmark of a champion, to step up the level of their game when it truly matters (5) - and never has it mattered more than this Roland Garros final. Riding on this match is everything these two greats have ever fought for: for Nadal, his own legacy as one of the all-time great clay-court players; for Federer, immortality. Regardless of which champion emerges triumphant, history will be made in Paris on Sunday night.
It's gonna be good.
(1) Watching Federer play, it's not hard to see why. His talent, seemingly too much for one shot alone, encompasses his entire game. Watching him play Agassi, one of the game's greatest returners, one wonders: could Federer be even better? Against Hewitt, one of the game's fastest players, one wonders: could Federer be even faster? There are no weaknesses in his armor - perhaps Nadal is a bit faster than him, or maybe Gasquet's topspin backhand is a touch more stylish, but aside from that Federer is pretty much the best in the world in virtually every tennis department. Serve, return, forehand, backhand, volleys, speed, defense, offense, touch, mental toughness - he's got it all.
(2) For comparison, the other 127 men at Roland Garros combined only have 11 Grand Slam titles – five of those from so-called clay-court specialists who have only won Roland Garros and nothing else.
(3) It is a feat comparable to a pitcher throwing back-to-back-to-back no-hitters, or Fischer's double 6-0 Candidates shutouts of Bent Larsen and Mark Taimanov.
(4) A ludicrous criterion for a player's "worst slump", to be sure, but hey, those impossible standards are what comes with being Federer.
(5) Rattling off records Federer holds has become almost trite, but allow me to give an example of his performance under pressure – after crashing out of the French Open in the first round back in 2003, he has since done extraordinarily well at Grand Slams, going an astounding 96-5, winning 54 of his last 55 matches, and reaching the last twelve consecutive semifinals (and the last eight consecutive finals). This is even more impressive given how many athletes in the history of professional tennis are known as chokers – players who can't bring their game to the biggest stage. Federer thrives on that. And as far as performance in finals go - since July 2003, Federer has played in 43 singles finals and won 37 of them – with 5 of the 6 losses from Rafael Nadal. Likewise, Nadal has played in 25 singles finals in his career and won 21 of them – with 3 of the 4 losses from Roger Federer.