As the school year winds down, tennis fans around the world get excited for the always-interesting French Open. The reasons for such excitement of course, aside from the convenient 7AM matches are 1.) the clay surface makes for the most unique game play compared to any other surface and 2.) Rafael Nadal has dominated it for the last half a decade. However, there is much more.
A year ago, Roger Federer was finally able to capture the elusive French Open, thus giving him the career grand slam and a legitimate claim, which I believe is true, as the greatest tennis player to ever live. However, many saw the victory as tainted, since Federer did not need to face Rafa, the then number one player in the world, in the finals after he fell to Robin Söderling in the fourth round. In Rafa’s defense, he was battling a knee injury during this time. Nonetheless, the French Open champion was a man other than Rafael Nadal for the first time since 2004.
This year, Rafa is back and looking poised to take his fifth French Open title, which would put him just one back of Björn Borg’s record six championships. In my article “The Greatest Rivalry” I spoke of the intensity of the rivalry between the Red Sox and Yankees. Rafa and Fed are approaching that level. At the French, this battle is especially interesting. On one side, you have Roger Federer, arguably the best tennis player of all time. On the other side is Rafa Nadal, arguably the best clay player of all time. Either way, someone great is going to win, that is, assuming they meet in the finals, which took place from 2006 to 2008.
Despite Federer’s age, this French may prove to be the greatest of the Nadal-Federer era. For one, Federer has already won it. He seems to avoid pressure better than almost any athlete on the planet, but one cannot help but think that during that 3-year stretch, Federer was thinking about what a French title would mean for his career resume and was wondering if could ever actually defeat Nadal on his home court. Beating Nadal to win the French would still be the greatest victory of Fed’s career and make the “best tennis player of all time” argument a mute one, but he doesn’t need to achieve this to reach tennis immortality. Another reason to anticipate a tremendous Rafa-Fed final would be Federer’s victory in Australia earlier in the year. By winning the first major tournament of the year, Federer has the ability, once again, to complete a career gland slam, which he has never done successfully. From 2008 to 2009, there was a 5-Major Tournament stretch during which Federer won just one title. He was losing confidence and everyone could see it. However, Federer has regained his younger form and taken 3 of the last 4 majors since then. On the other side of the spectrum, Nadal has not made a major FINAL since he won the 2009 Australian Open.
Roger Federer may have never killed or raped anyone, stolen anything, or been caught with possession of drugs or weapons, but he is one mean bastard. He doesn’t admit it, or come off overly arrogant, but Federer truly enjoys displaying his total dominance. When the guy rips a forehand down the line or hits the ball through his legs for a winner, you know he thinks to himself, “Let’s just all admit there has never been anyone like me. I am the best. I’ve got the most titles. I was ranked number one for 4 and half consecutive years. I’ve even got my own logo!”
After Federer’s 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 shellacking of Peter Luczak, the number 71 player in the world said of Federer, “If it was anyone else, I'd be getting pretty angry. He just had me on a string and just was toying with me at the end. I think he was enjoying it." Peter, he was enjoying it. A lot. Isn’t that statement amazing, though? You know Federer is good when all the other players in the world don’t even want to say a negative comment about him! God forbid they give him a reason to whoop their asses even harder (see straight set victory over Andy Murray in 2010 Australian Open final).
As for Nadal, he is back in form and coming off his victory over Federer at the Mutua Madrileña Madrid Open, which is played on clay. Prior to that, Rafa also won the Internazionali BNL d'Italia. That tournament is played on clay as well. It’s been over a year since he won a major title, and two since he won the French. He’s healthy and ready to reclaim his title and become regarded by many as the best clay surface tennis player of all time.
Of course, there are other tennis players aside from the big two. Here is my prediction of the French Open, beginning with round 4.
R. Federer(1) vs. G. Monfils(13) – In one of the most challenging games Fed will play leading up to the final, Federer comes out on top in 4 sets. Monfils curses his seeding, but explains that he is okay with losing only because he played Federer.
M. Cilic(10) vs. R. Söderling(5) – Söderling advances for a rematch of last years final with Fed.
M. Baghdatis(25) vs. T. Berdych(15) – After upsetting Andy Murray in round 3, Baghdatis falls to the talented Tomáš Berdych, who is playing on one of his stronger surfaces.
M. Youzhny(11) vs. J. Tsonga(8) – Upset! Youzhny’s talents on all surfaces will be enough to defeat Tsonga, who’s serve and volley style is best on grass and hard court.
J. Monaco(26) vs. D. Ferrer(9) – Monaco’s upset of the clay-court-incapable Andy Roddick will be the highlight of his tournament after David Ferrer beats him rather handily. This comes as unfortunate news to all fans who misread his name for Federer.
J. Ferrero(16) vs. N. Djokovic(3) – Following a quarterfinal loss in Rome, Novak Djokovic gets back on track and defeats the pesky Ferrero, thus ending the confusion caused when fans misread Ferrero for Federer.
F. Verdasco(7) vs. F. Gonzalez(12) – Both players are talented on clay, but I give the edge to Verdasco because of his beautiful ex-girlfriends, Gisela Dulko, Dafne Fernández, Priscila De Gustin, and Ana Ivanović.
T. Bellucci(24) vs. R. Nadal(2) – After making quick work of the higher seeded Ivan Ljubičić and his complicated, consecutively dotted last name in round 3, Thomaz Bellucci, the clay court specialist, puts Rafa to the test in a thrilling and competitive 4 set match. Says Rafa, “I’m glad I’ll no longer be eating with him. He makes a mess of his mashed potatoes.”
R. Federer(1) vs. R. Söderling(5) – This rematch of last years final will have the same result. Federer wins in 3 and advances to the semi-finals of the French yet again. Söderling explains he is okay with losing only because he played Federer.
T. Berdych(15) vs. M. Youzhny(11) – Berdych continues his remarkable run by winning yet another upset. Now all that stands in his way of the finals is Federer, which Berdych is okay with because if he loses, at least it was to Federer, the best player of all time.
D. Ferrer(9) vs. N. Djokovic(3) – Novak Djokovic wins the match of the tournament thus far, prevailing in 5 sets and coming back from a 2 sets to 1 deficit. Djokovic continues to be useful for all careless readers as he defeats another Federer-looking name, earning him the title of “Oh My God, Oh Wait Never Mind.”
F. Verdasco(7) vs. R. Nadal(2) – Rafa wins again, but it is far from easy. His back-to-back difficult matches leave some skeptic of whether or not he will make it to the finals.
R. Federer(1) vs. T. Berdych(15) – After landing a series of upsets throughout the tournament, Berdych is finally defeated by Federer in a game that makes many believe Fed is ready to defeat Nadal or Djokovic in the finals. Berdych explains that, although he would have liked to win, there is no shame in losing to Federer. Says Berdych, “He’s simply the best.”
N. Djokovic(3) vs. R. Nadal(2) – Djokovic is in the semifinals for the third time in four years, but once again, cannot get to the finals. Nadal plays yet another difficult match, winning in 4 sets. Additionally, fashionistas across the country delight as Nadal decides to bring back the capris. Although they were especially tight, Nadal was loose and calm.
R. Federer(1) vs. R. Nadal(2) – The match everyone was waiting for happens once again. Given Federer’s play throughout the tournament, Nadal does not enter as the clear favorite. The match is one of the greatest in French Open history, filled with exceptional shots, class from both players, and Nadal’s capris for the second consecutive match. Absent from the match are fans running on the court. One guy actually gets close but Nadal smacks him in the face with a killer forehand (almost literally). After 5 sets of brilliance, Rafa becomes champion for the fifth time. Upon winning, Rafa tells the audience, “Defeating Roger if really special. He’s one of the best tennis players of all time.”