Dispatches: Affronter Rafael Nadal

Roland Garros, or tennis’ French Open, started yesterday.  Perhaps you’ve noticed; articles ran in most Sunday papers about it, quite extensive ones too, considering that the French has often been viewed as a third-rate (after Wimbledon and the U.S. Open) Grand Slam tournament, largely because it is usually won by a cadre of specialists instead of the best-known players.  Not only is this perception unfair, but, this year, Roland Garros will be the most important men’s tennis tournament of the year.  Here’s why.

The increasing specialization of tennis has meant that this tournament, the only Grand Slam played on clay, has a set of contenders that is quite distinct from those at the grass courts of Wimbledon and the hardcourts of Flushing Meadows, Queens.  Not only has it been won by players who have not been dominant on the other surfaces, but it has been very difficult for anyone to enjoy repeat success sur la terre battue.  Ten of the last twelve Wimbledons were won by Pete Sampras and Roger Federer; the last five winners of Roland Garros are Gustavo Kuerten, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Gaston Gaudio, and Rafael Nadal.  I’m going to try to explain both phenomena (specialized success and lack of repeat dominance) below.

Why does it make a difference what surface the game is played on, and what difference does it make?  Basically, the surface affects three things: the speed of the ball after it bounces, the height of the ball’s bounce, and the player’s level of traction on court.  In terms of the speed of the ball and height of its bounce, clay is the slowest and highest, and grass is the fastest and lowest, with hardcourt in the middle.  This results in differing strategies for success on each surface, with grass rewarding aggressive quick strikes – with the speed of the ball and the low bounce, you can ‘hit through’ the court and past the other player with relative ease.  For this reason, the great grass-court players have mostly been offensive players, who use serve-and-volley tactics (i.e., serving and coming to net to take the next ball out of the air).  Clay, on the other hand, reverses this in favor of the defensive player: the slow, high bounce means it is very tough to hit past an opponent, and points must be won by attrition, after long rallies in which slight positional advantages are constantly being negotiated before a killing stroke.  Clay-court tennis is exhausting, brutal work.

Clay and grass, then, are opposed, slow and fast, when it comes to the ball.  How then did Bjorn Borg, perhaps the greatest modern player (he accomplished more before his premature retirement at twenty-five than anyone other than Sampras) manage to win Roland Garros (clay) six times and Wimbledon (grass) five but never a major tournament on the medium paced surface, hardcourt?  The third variable comes into play here: traction.  Clay, and, to a lesser extent, grass, provide negative traction.  That is, you slip when you plant your foot and push off.  Hardcourt provides positive traction – your foot sticks.  Consequently, entirely different styles of quickness are needed.  Borg didn’t like positive traction.  On clay, particularly, players slide balletically into the ball, the timing for which skill is developed during childhood by the most talented players, most of whom grew up in countries where clay courts are the rule: Spain, Italy, Argentina, Chile, Brazil.  Grass is not as slidey, but offers less traction than the sticky hardcourts, and like clay, grass’ uneven natural surface produces unpredictable hops and bounces, frustrating the expectations of the more lab-conditioned hardcourt players.

So, clay slows the ball and provides poor footing, both of which qualities means that it’s ruled by an armada of players who grow up playing on it and mastering the movement and strategic ploys it favors.  Perhaps foremost among these is the dropshot, which works because the high bounce of the clay court drives players way back and sets them up for the dropper.  This explains the dominance of the clay specialists, but why has the title switched off among so many players lately?  For the most part, this is because of the grinding nature of clay.  So much effort must be expended to win a match (five sets on clay can take five hours of grueling back-and-forth; in contrast, bang-bang tennis on grass can be practically anaerobic), that players tire over the course of the tournament, and so much depends upon perseverance that a superhuman effort will often overcome a greater talent.  It just so happens that last year there emerged a player who combines the greatest clay talent with the greatest amount of effort, but more on him below.  For now, let me return to my claim that this edition of the French is the most important men’s tennis event this year.

Historically, the greatest offensive players (meaning players who try to dictate play and win points outright, rather than counterpunchers, who wait for their opening, or retrievers, who wait for you to mess up), have been unsuccessful at Roland Garros, while the defensive fiends who win in Paris have been unsuccessful on grass.  (Borg, a counterpunching genius, is the great exception.)  The best attackers, namely John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, and of course Pete Sampras, have won zero French Opens, while Ivan Lendl, a three-time Roland Garros winner, narrowly failed in his endearing late-career quest to win Wimbledon (all of these players won major titles on hardcourts as well).  The only man since 1970, in fact, to win all four major titles (known as the Grand Slam tournaments), on the three disparate surfaces, is one Andre Agassi, a hybrid offensive baseliner.  This has made the dream of winning all four Slams in a single year, a feat also known, confusingly, as winning the Grand Slam–last accomplished by Rod Laver in 1969–seem pretty quixotic nowadays.  Until now.  The game’s best current offensive player is also an excellent defensive player, and an extremely competent mover and slider on clay.  Roger Federer has the best chance of anyone since Agassi to win the career Grand Slam, and, as the holder of the last Wimbledon, U.S. Open, and Australian titles, could win his fourth straight major this month (a feat he is calling, with a little Swiss hubris, the “Roger Slam”).  If he succeeds this year at Roland Garros, he’ll accomplish something Sampras couldn’t, and if he does I think it’s almost inevitable that he’ll sweep London and Flushing and complete the calendar Grand Slam as well. 

Standing in the way of Federer’s c.v.-building efforts is the aforementioned combination of talent and drive, the nineteen-year-old Mallorcan prodigy Rafael Nadal.  He had one of the finest seasons I’ve ever seen last year, absolutely destroying the field on clay, winning Roland Garros, winning over Agassi in Montreal and over Ljubicic in Madrid.  He’s now won a record 54 matches on clay without a loss.  Not only does Nadal’s astonishing effort level intimidate opponents, but he is surprisingly skilled, a bulldog with the delicacy of a fox.  You can see him break opponents’ spirits over the course of matches, endlessly prolonging rallies with amazing ‘gets,’ or retrievals, which he somehow manages to flick into offensive shots rather than desperate lobs.  When behind, he plays even better until he catches up.  His rippling physique and indefatigable, undying intensity make him literally scary to face on clay.  And yet, when off the court, he is a personable and kind presence at this stage of his young life.  All in all, a player this brutal has no business being this likable, but there it, and he, is.

Nadal and Federer have played six times: Nadal has won five, and held a huge lead in the other before wilting on a hardcourt.  Let me underline here just how anomalous this state of affairs is: here we have the world number one on a historic run of victories, and yet he cannot beat number two.  Federer has lost his last three matches with Nadal; with all other players, he has lost three of his last one hundred and nineteen matches.  Rafa is the only player on whom Federer cannot impose his will; indeed, Federer must try and quickly end points against Nadal to avoid being imposed upon.  In the final at Rome two weeks ago, Federer unveiled a new strategy, coming in to net whenever the opportunity arose, though not directly following his serve.  Federer’s flexibility, his ability to adopt new tactics, made for a delicious and breathtaking final, which he led 4-1 in the fifth and final set, and held two match points at 5-4.  Here Nadal’s hypnotic retrieving unnerved him once again, and two errors led the match to a fifth-set tiebreaker.  In a microcosmic repetition, Federer again led (5-3 and serving) and again let the lead slip away.  Nadal, after a full five hours, took the title and reconfirmed his psychological edge, even over the most dominant player of the last twenty years.  His confidence will be nearly unimpeachable, where Federer’s will be shaken by losing a match in which he played the best clay-court tennis of his life.  If, as expected, they play again in the final of Roland Garros, for all the marbles, you’re going to see the most anticipated tennis match in several years.

(Note: I have gone on for way too long without handicapping the women’s field, for which I apologize.  I’ll just say here that I am hopeful that France’s glorious all-court player, Amelie Mauresmo, will win.)

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