Monday, July 05, 2010

Wimbledon Final: The King of Clay... and Grass?

Second verse, same as the first.

Until a few months ago, Rafael Nadal had had a pretty tough year or so. Family issues. Knee problems. The inability to defend his Wimbledon title. Real questions about the length and overall scope of his career. He even went a year without winning a title.

Ever since he turned 24 on the third of June, though, the Spaniard has been golden.

Still, there was some reason to believe that Nadal might have a battle on his hands in the Gentlemen's singles final against Tomas Berdych. The Czech fit the casting call for an "old time" SW19 champ to a "t." Six-foot-five, and armed with a big serve and powerful ground game, he'd the spent the last few weeks finally making good on his long-time potential. He reached his first grand slam semifinal in Paris, then came to London and simply ended Roger Federer's seven-year run of appearances in the final by dispatching the six-time and defending champ in the quarterfinals en route to his own first slam final.

Berdych's countrymen and women have a long history of success at the All-England Club. But save for Martina Navratilova (who actually only won two of her nine Ladies titles as a Czech citizen) and Jan Kodes ('73 champ, but an early-round loser in twelve of his fifteen trips to SW19), they've often been star-crossed, as well. Hana Mandlikova had a game built for grass, but had to contend with Navratilova and Chris Evert (she lost to both in finals) thoughout her career. Ivan Lendl reached two finals, but never won. Jana Novotna had one of the most fabled major final collapses in tennis history, and will probably always be remembered for that more than her eventual Wimbledon title five years later.

In the final match of an historic Championships, Berdych was positioned to end a slam as one had never ended one before. Last fall, Juan Martin del Potro became the first man to defeat both Federer and Nadal on his way to a slam crown at the U.S. Open, but a win by the Czech over #1 Nadal would complete an unprecedented sweep in a single slam of all three of the top-ranked men's players in the game, following wins over #2 Federer and #3 Novak Djokovic.

But it wasn't meant to be.

Coming into the final on a thirteen-match Wimbledon winning streak, Nadal's serve was never broken on the afternoon (Berdych was 0-for-4 on break point attempts), while the Spaniard managed to break his opponent's serve four times in the match (4-for-6 on BP), three times in the final game of a set to put the stanza in his own personal victory column. Nadal won 6-3/7-5/6-4, blazing a forehand passing shot past the Czech on match point and then collapsing on his back in exultation at the Centre Court baseline.

Rarely has Rafa, by now a definitive Wimbledon crowd favorite (even after drumming Andy Murray out of the tournament in the SF), had a better sense of the moment. This time around, he even added a celebratory somersault in front of the net to his usual post-slam rituals, which once again included him taking a "good luck bite" out of the trophy while the photog's cameras flash. While his previous Gentlemen's title was treated as the reward at the end of a concerted effort to transform himself into a fine grass court player, this one took on a far different feel. It's significance is potentially monumental.

Nadal has reached the Wimbledon final in his last four appearances, and won in his last two. In the 2008 final, he bested Federer in "The Greatest Match Ever Played," and is currently sporting a 25-2 record at the All-England Club since 2006. Has the "King of Clay" become "The King of Grass," as well?

If he has, it places one more check mark in Nadal's career column when it comes to judging the "ultimate champ" in the long-running, but good-natured, rivalry between Rafa and Federer, a "contest" in which a "winner" won't be declared until both have hung up their rackets. With a 14-7 head-to-head advantage versus Federer, and already the acknowledged better of the two on clay, Nadal's grass court accomplishments are catching up, as well. Now comes the hard part. Literally.

Seven times in the Open era, men has won back-to-back titles at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, including Nadal ('08/'10) and Federer ('09) the last three seasons, but none have been able to add a third slam win at the U.S. Open since Rod Laver did it in his Grand Slam season in 1969. Nadal is still declaring his quest for a title in New York to be the biggest goal for the rest of his career, just as his singular pursuits of a Wimbledon title ('08) and hard court slam (AO '09) were in the past.

After claiming his eighth career slam title (half-way to Federer's 16) in just his twenty-fifth slam (RF had five at the same stage), the long-term success over the remainder of Nadal's career will rest on how well his body holds up and his ability to alter his game enough in order to conserve himself and take pressure off his ailing knees. So far, he's managed to win on grass while flattening out his shots and moving forward more often, shortening the points on a faster surface and giving himself a better shot to win. There's a reason why he has a two-handed grasp on the #1 ranking these days, and it's not because he's the best clay courter in the world.

Next up is NYC.

Nadal might not lift the Open trophy come September, but a case can be made that he has as good or better a shot to do it as Federer had to complete HIS career slam with a win at Roland Garros. After all, Nadal has no equivalent, as Federer faced, to himself-in-Paris to contend with at Flushing Meadows. Plus, defending champ del Potro won't be there, Murray still doesn't look slam-worthy (and, truthfully, neither does Djokovic), and Federer's health and form will have to be sured up if he's to "rise from the dead" in the face of the many probably-premature career epitaphs that are once again being uttered about his already-legendary athletic life's work. Federer finally got his RG title last year when Nadal's health made him something "less" than his usual self, and Nadal might just find a similar situation awaiting him in the Big Apple at the end of the summer.

Actually, as long as Nadal makes it to late August without a recurrence of his knee tendinitis (which isn't a lock, considering he had a minor flare-up when he was twice forcerd to five sets in the opening week of the London fortnight), Federer might still be the best bet to be the "last line of defense" against a true Rafa run at matching Laver's accomplishment. The Swiss Mister has less than two months to get fully healthy and round his game into form. If he can, maybe the one grand stage where he and Nadal have never met could provide yet another epic moment on the biggest stage of them all.

We can only hope.

But that's a story for September. Today, Rafa is the King... yes, of grass..

16 - Roger Federer
14 - Pete Sampras
12 - Roy Emerson
11 - Bjorn Borg
11 - Rod Laver
10 - Bill Tilden
8 - Andre Agassi
8 - Jimmy Connors
8 - Ivan Lendl
8 - Fred Perry
8 - Ken Rosewall

[Open era]
1969 Rod Laver, AUS
1978 Bjorn Borg, SWE
1979 Bjorn Borg, SWE
1980 Bjorn Borg, SWE
2008 Rafael Nadal, ESP
2009 Roger Federer, SUI
2010 Rafael Nadal, ESP

[Open era]
1969 Rod Laver, AUS
1974 Jimmy Connors, USA
1981 John McEnroe, USA
1982 Jimmy Connors, USA
1984 John McEnroe, USA
1989 Boris Becker, GER
1993 Pete Sampras, USA
1995 Pete Sampras, USA
2004 Roger Federer, SUI
2005 Roger Federer, SUI
2006 Roger Federer, SUI
2007 Roger Federer, SUI

Novak Djokovic - 2007-08 RG/WI/US/AO/RG
Marat Safin - 2001-02 US/AO/RG
Magnus Norman - 2000 AO/RG
Pete Sampras - 2000 WI/US
Sebastien Grosjean - 2001 AO/RG
Lleyton Hewitt - 2002 WI/US
Andre Agassi - 2002-03 US/AO
Andre Agassi - 2003-04 US/AO
Juan Carlos Ferrero - 2003-04 US/AO
Lleyton Hewitt - 2004-05 US/AO
Lleyton Hewitt - 2005 WI/US
David Nalbandian - 2006 AO/RG
Andy Roddick - 2006-07 US/AO

All for now.

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