Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Five things we learned from Roland Garros

1. Roger Federer isn’t yet the greatest of all time:

It is nigh on impossible, I believe to make such an assertion in the first place, and in any event Roger Federer’s record against his chief rival, Rafael Nadal ridicules the suggestion. Of course, Federer is statistically the most successful player in Grand Slam tennis history and he wins by playing in a beautiful, easy style. But Nadal has beaten Federer in 17 of their 25 meetings and in 6 of their 8 contests in Grand Slam finals, putting in rich perspective the fallacy in the argument that Federer is the greatest to have wielded a tennis racquet. No doubt, the Swiss belongs in a pantheon that comprises Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, Rod Laver and a few others, but to place him indisputably on top of that list is incorrect, to put it mildly.

2. Nadal’s greatest attribute is his ability to win ugly:

I doubt anyone in the history of the sport has been better than Nadal at winning ugly when required to. This is not to suggest that he cannot win beautifully. Indeed when he is at the top of his game, he is as imperious and as handsome a sight as any other. But even when his game isn’t quite up to scratch, Nadal finds a way through irrespective of the demands of his opponent. On Sunday, Federer was at his mesmerizing best in the first set, seemingly killing Nadal with his sinuous, entrancing grace. Down 2-5, the Spaniard had no right to win the set. He was being enthralled into submission. His groundstrokes were meek, his serves were devoid of punch and he looked a shadow of his usually commanding self. Yet, he came-back to win five games in a row to seal the set and effectively kill any hopes of an upset. Not, though, by finding rhythm in his strokes, but by chasing Federer’s shots down with vigour and vitality and stunning the Swiss into compliance through sheer force of will. Before the Djokovic-Federer semifinal, Nadal commented that the match pitted the "best player at the moment against the best player in history". Where does it leave him then?

3. All-court players are on the rise:

Rarely in Grand Slams do the top four seeds of the men’s game qualify for the semi-finals. This is rarer still at the French Open, for historically many top players have been ill suited to the red clay in Paris. In recent times, though, players have become increasingly more comfortable on all surfaces. I would imagine that the causes for the phenomenon are essentially two-fold: (a) The surfaces at all four of the Grand Slams are coming closer to each other in terms of their overall play. The clay at Paris has become quicker, the grass at Wimbledon slower and the hard courts in Melbourne Park and Flushing Meadows have gravitated towards each other in terms of their constituents. (b) Concomitantly, players no longer shape their styles to suit a certain surface. Romantics crave for the return of the serve-and-volley game, but when one can win Wimbledon by playing from the baseline in a style that will also predominantly suit the clay at Roland Garros, players would be foolish to model themselves on an Edberg or a Sampras. Equally, though, the clay-court specialist, the slugger from the baseline, is also no longer in abundant evidence. The top players are capable of winning any of the four Grand Slams by merely tweaking certain aspects of their game without altering its foundations.

4. Brit when he wins; Scot when he loses:

Had he been competing in any other era, Andy Murray would, perhaps, have been a Grand Slam champion by now. That he is fourth in the list of a truly outstanding quartet is no disgrace for his talents are nonetheless deserving of a Grand Slam title. Fred Perry was the last Briton to win a Slam (the 1936 US Open) and the pressures of this void had weighed heavily, first, on Tim Henman – a player infinitely less talented than Murray – and now weigh heavily on the Scotsman who has reached three Grand Slam finals without success. In evidence, though, at Roland Garros was an attribute, which should continue to brighten the hopes of the British. In his third round match against Michael Berrer, Murray turned his ankle, injuring it critically, and yet soldiered to victory in four sets. A lesser man would have withdrawn from the match and the tournament. Murray, however, battled hard, defeated Victor Troicki in five grueling sets in the fourth round before cruising past Juan Ignacio Chela to set up a duel with Rafael Nadal. Against the Spaniard, admittedly Murray came a cropper in three straight sets, but for much of the match, Murray was the better player. It would be pure conjecture to suggest that he may well have beaten Nadal, if not for his weak ankle, but in fighting the Spaniard and running him close – which he certainly did in spite of the suggestions of the scoreboard – Murray showcased that he has the requisite skills to, one day, win a Grand Slam.

5. The Women’s game is in a bit of a shambles:

We all love an underdog success, but in women’s tennis, the world number 1 is often the underdog. Caroline Wozniacki, the twenty-year-old Dane, has held the position for 32 weeks now, and yet hasn’t a single Grand Slam title to show. In fact, she has reached only a solitary final, the 2009 US Open. This of course raises questions on the ranking system, as it rightly should. But the malaise in the women’s tour runs deeper. Serena Williams, unquestionably the finest player produced since the days of Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, hasn’t played a tournament since Wimbledon last year owing to injury and even when fit restricts her appearances to Grand Slams and a few other high-profile tournaments. The other top players in recent times, Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic fell early at Roland Garros as they have tended to do in recent times. So too did Kim Clijsters, Victoria Azarenka and Vera Zvonareva, the more consistent of the higher ranked players, leaving the no. 6 seed, Li Na and the No. 8 seed, Francesca Schiavone to contest the final. This preponderance of ‘upsets’ though must not be confused with depth of talent. In the absence of Serena Williams, and since the retirement of Justine Henin, the women’s game not only lacks a predominant power-base, but is also devoid of quality at the top. ‘Quality’ though must not be interpreted as mere physical and technical abilities. The likes of Wozniacki and Azarenka, perhaps, have the requisite technical attributes for Grand Slam success, but as history has showed us, sustained success at the level takes more than just that. The fact that the draw at Roland Garros was wider than ever before wasn’t indicative of depth but the lack of a single outstanding candidate.

(Inspired by The Guardian's Five Things We Learned series)

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