Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Affirmation of the Great Tennis Paradox

The match was over after the tenth game of the first set.  Rafael Nadal, certainly the best player ever to set foot on a clay tennis court, would win his sixth French Open championship, tying him with Bjorn Borg for most ever.

He'll break the record with his seventh title in 2012.

Not even Borg could have executed the two shots that enabled Nadal to break Federer's serve in that tenth game, with Federer serving for a set he had dominated up to that point.

Federer hit two shots that were sure-fire winners -- except that somehow Nadal returned them both.  He lunged desperately for a ball no other player could hope to reach, and threw up a lob that enabled him to take control of the point.  He followed with an impossible backhand to win a point any other player in the world would have lost.

Yes, there were  more sets to be played before Nadal's victory was official.  Yes, Federer, a man of incomparable grace and artistry on any surface, made the second set close, and managed to win the third before Nadal performed the coup de grace.

Yes, it was an exciting match -- another in a string of gems these two men have played.  But it was, as usual in the Big Ones, another victory for Nadal. It reinforced the irony of their rivalry: Federer, who otherwise, with his record number of Grand Slam championships, has a claim to be called Best Player Ever, clearly is only the second-best player of his era.

The two impossible shots in the tenth game tell the story: on clay, when Nadal is at his best, it is impossible to hit a ball that stays in the court that he can't, somehow, return, often for winners of his own.  If not the greatest player of all time, he is surely the finest defensive  player of all time.

These matches are contests of will; a brutal test of which player can impose his will on the other.  After that tenth game,  even Roger knew, deep, deep inside, that this was another day when Nadal's will would prevail,.

Federer prepared assiduously for this tournament, adding topspin to a vulnerable backhand so that he could place the ball deeper on Nadal's side of the court.  He played the best clay court tournament of his career, losing only one set -- to soon-to-be No. 1 Novack Djokovic--en route to the finals.

He was confident, as always, before the match, and played confidently for nine games.  One could forgive him for thinking, "This time, it's mine!"  But then he hit two sure winners -- and lost both points.

And so the man many tennis aficionados have anointed Best Player Ever remains only the second-best of his own era.

Go figure.

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