Roland Garros 2009 Dialogue

A conversation about the upcoming French Open between three tennis fans: Sydneysider Lucy Perkins, New Yorker Asad Raza, and Ecuadorian-North Carolinian Juan José Vallejo.

Asad Raza: Hey guys, thanks for coming aboard the 3quarksdaily raft. So here we are at Roland Garros time, again, where for the last several years Rafa Nadal has been the bear that eats Roger Federer. J.J., you have the best account of the state of their rivalry I've heard. Care to run through it?

Juan José: I'm currently toasted, but I promise I'll send my run-through tomorrow. Hope you're all doing well!

Lucy: JJ! If I had thought one of us was gonna delay writing on account of being under the influence, you would have been my THIRD choice. I'll check back in after Fed's straight-set drubbing of Rafa in his HOME MASTERS FINAL. Oh yes. (Ed. Note: this message written eight hours before Roger Federer's May 17th straight-sets defeat of Rafael Nadal in the Madrid final.)

Juan José: Eh…oops. Wrong choice of words there!

What happened was that yesterday ended up being way more exhausting than I expected. It all started at 7:40 in the morning, when I woke up to fish for an internet stream so I could watch my Manchester United clinch the English Premier League title. Which they did, and I was very happy. Shortly after the celebrations ended, Nadal and Djokovic were on.

Now, I had already written off the match as a straight sets defeat for Djokovic, since he was playing on his third straight week, and Nadal even had a walkover in his “home” tournament. But then the match started, Nadal looked terrible and Djokovic looked good. When Djokovic served out the first set, I thought he had a great chance to win this, if Nadal didn't improve dramatically. Djokovic was playing his game, not even going for anything spectacular, and it seemed that staying the course would be enough to win the match. Then, at 1-2 in the second, Nadal calls for the trainer, and he gets his knee taped. I thought, hey, now there's an enormous chance. Djokovic adjusted on the fly, making Nadal hit loads of backhands, since the taped knee was his right one, which he pushes off when he hits off his backhand side. That was a nice adjustment to see. So I thought, man, this is really going to happen! Even if it was similar to last year's Nadal-Ferrero match in Rome, who cares, it was a clay win over Nadal. And Nadal didn't look good. He wasn't moving well. He looked like he was about to retire.

But of course, that didn't happen. What happened instead was that he stopped missing. Welcome to Nadal hell. However, Djokovic was still playing well, so even when he lost that second set tiebreaker, I thought he had a big chance in the third. So it was no surprise to see him go up a break. But then cramps hit, he gets broken, and the real match started.

I'll echo Djokovic in saying that there is very little to say about what followed. All the evidence you need to see was there in those last games of the third set. It was unbelievable, it was ridiculous, it was crushing, and it was heartbreaking, in a strange way. The worst way to endure a defeat is if your sporting entity choked, and that was not the case. But it also hurts when your sporting entity plays as well as he can possibly play, and still lose. As an Agassi fan, I've been through that before. It's a special kind of heartbreak.

So the only influence I was under all day was from a pint of Guiness I had stored in our refrigerator here for extreme emergencies. It had been sitting there for about 9 months. So that and videos of Manchester United celebrating made me happy again.

Anyway, we're missing the Madrid final here because of Amy's birthday brunch. I'll talk about the Federer-Nadal thing when I get back.

Asad: Actually, I think it's quite appropriate that we ended up talking about Djokovic, who has been pushing Rafa on clay more than anyone else–Federer may have won the Madrid final, he might owe Novak part of that check–it was the match with Novak that took the starch out of Rafa. Or did Federer make a true breakthrough just when none of us expected him to beat Nadal on clay again, Luce?

Lucy: I very much doubt it, although I reserve the right to boast about my prescience. Rafa was exhausted. It wasn't just the Djokovic match – although that little foray into claycourt dramatics probably didn't help Rafa any. It's also the fact that he's reached seven finals already this season. Even Rafael Nadal gets tired sometimes. This is a blip, along the lines of Hamburg 2007, in which an exhausted Rafa lost to Federer in a Masters final (Federer even bageled him, as I recall!) and proceeded to win the French Open in grand, sweaty, fist-pumping Rafa style.

So I don't think this final matters much to Nadal. (Check out his grin during the trophy ceremony, then tell me he's secretly dying inside.) It does matter to Federer, however. He's only just coming to terms with the fact that his days of majestic dominance are over. You can hear that in what he said after this final: “In other years it didn't matter whether I won or lost, I was always one of the top two or favourites”. That was, you get the impression, a fun time in Federer's life, and it lasted longer than he had any right to expect, but it's over.

The thing about Federer, too, is that he subscribes firmly to a reality-based world view, as I believe it is now called. In his salad days, this helped him out greatly. After the 2007 Federer-Nadal Wimbledon final, which Federer won in five dramatic sets, he was asked if he had been worried during the match. No, he said. He had won the first set. He was always ahead in the match. He was number one in the world. He was the defending champion. Why would he have worried? This is the attitude many people mistook for arrogance when Federer was king, but it was really something more like empiricism. Now that he is no longer number one, now that Nadal owns him and Djokovic and Murray are both closing in, he doesn't have that to turn to. So what now, when he gets down a break? He's not a born pugilist like Rafa, he's not the type to find solace in Buddhist mantras, like Agassi (can you imagine it?). So it's been tough for him to adapt to the new world order, even tougher than is generally the case.

Asad: He does seem to be adapting, though–at least to my eye, Federer seemed more comfortable in the hungry number two role than ever before. He also served and volleyed enough to keep Rafa guessing in that match. Good sign for him. Speaking of adapting, the most consistently hot player of the last nine months, Andy Murray, has been trying to adapt to clay, but hasn't had great success yet. You'd think the surface would suit his tactically multiform, dropshot-centric game. But so far, no dice.

Juan José: Murray does seem like an interesting case study. You'd think that a guy with a gift for creating points, changing spins and throwing junk around would thrive on clay. However, I don't think it's realistic to expect Murray to challenge any of the other members of the Big Four on this surface, especially Nadal or Djokovic. I think Andy has two main problems:

– Nadal has revived the old paradigm about clay being more about muscle. However, with him, it's way more than just muscle. Nadal asks of you to take your game, amp everything up, and brace yourself to trade haymakers with him for a couple of hours. There is no shot you won't hit, and every little muscle in your body will ache with every shot. It reminds me of that Honda commercial where the two gigantic men are playing chess with even bigger chess pieces. The slogan is “strength meets intelligence”. You could see this being portrayed to the extreme in that third set tiebreaker between Djokovic and Nadal on Saturday: those two lunatics had been trading blows for almost four hours, and instead of slowing down, or just copping out and going for broke, they kept trading their meticulously brutal groundstrokes right until the end. The point of all of this is that Nadal and Djokovic's game is essentially muscular. Murray's really isn't, and neither is Federer's, really. Both Murray and Federer share that innate ability to change pace seamlessly on a hardcourt (in Federer's case, also on grass), but both struggle to do it on clay, and both aren't used to hitting with loads of top-spin every single time. They also like to slice, but that's a risky proposition on clay, since you have hit it at a consistently high level in order to avoid getting punished.

– Still, it's unfair to put Federer alongside Murray in terms of clay prowess. And the basic difference is the ability to move on the surface, something that I think doesn't come naturally to Murray. If you don't feel at home on the dirt, there's a higher likelihood that you'll make footwork mistakes, and if you're feet are not in the right position, you're more prone to missing.

And there's another issue: the other day, I watched Murray go down in flames against Del Potro, basically because he was missing a boatload of drive backhands. Drive backhands! That's supposed to be his best shot! I had already noticed in several Murray matches that every once in a while, he misses some drive backhands that make you think “Really, is that his best shot?”. And the thing is, Murray's strength lies in the variety his backhand gives him, by allowing him to hit drive backhands both cross-court and down-the line with great consistency, using the slice backhand to change pace and defend, and the backhand drop-shot to take control of the point. On clay, since he can't slice as much as he wants to, his shot selection isn't as clear, and he ends up missing drive backhands. Which he can't really afford on this surface.

If you look at Nadal, it's all about having a rock solid backhand, and that killer forehand. Djokovic goes a step further on the backhand side, by being consistently aggressive down the line, but can't replicate the power of Nadal's forehand. Federer dominates with his forehand, and tries to hide his backhand. Where is Murray in this? He doesn't dominate you with his forehand, which is way less dependable than Djokovic's. And his backhand is not yet solid enough to anchor the rest of his game.

I also think that clay will probably remain a little foreign to Murray, since he only expects to play on the stuff for about two months. Great Britain will never host a Davis Cup tie on clay, and yes, he'll have to play some clay ties away from home. But it's quite different to play a Davis Cup tie where you can't write off a result as “oh well, they put it on clay, nobody will kill us if we lose”. Spain will always play on clay, and Switzerland and Serbia have, and could very well choose the surface if it means getting an advantage on someone. It's that kind of experience, as well as a familiarity of growing up on the stuff, that lets you play clay tennis at a high level. And yes, Murray trained in Barcelona. But he didn't even stay that long to learn the language.

In the end, it's not like Murray's a total hack on the surface. He's good enough to win a couple of rounds every single tournament, but not good enough to beat anyone in the top 4.

About Federer, I think that recent S.L. Price piece on S.I drew a clear picture of the guy. I really don't think he understands the state of tennis nowadays, I don't think he'll ever understand Nadal, and he probably still thinks Djokovic and Murray are a couple of juniors. In his mind, he's a couple of wins away from getting back to his dominating days, when he was perfect, everyone bowed to him, and Mirka texted happily in the stands.

He's ignoring one number: 798. That's his total number of ATP matches. Sampras retired at 984. Agassi at 1144. Edberg at 1076. Becker at 927. Courier at 743. Todd Martin at 645. Safin is at 663, and he won't be adding many more to that total. Hewitt is at 672. The point is, the days of domination and awe are over, and he's entering that dreaded time in a tennis player's (not named Agassi, Connors or McEnroe) life: the past-your-prime stage. He doesn't realize that the only way he got his hands on a Master's trophy was because he got the easiest of draws (Soderling, Blake and Recently Married Roddick), and Djokovic and Nadal battled to the death for four hours while he did some target practice with Del Potro. It was a perfect storm in his favor, and he took advantage of it. You'd think he'd notice the obvious, but, his discourse after the final made me think that he's still in denial. He failed to acknowledge the titanic struggle that took place the day before, when in reality he should have written Djokovic a check for around 450 000 dollars of his title prize money. He says that Nadal wasn't slow, and that if you're fit to play, you play. The last part is true (although he is the same guy who brought us “mono”), but the first one, come on. Like he wouldn't know how it feels when you're trying to move less than 24 hours after pushing your body to limits it probably didn't know. He praised his own aggressive game instead of questioning why he was having an easy time hitting sitters inside the court.

My dad didn't watch the match. However, I asked him: “Dad, you've watched enough tennis. If I told you that someone beat Nadal on clay in straight sets, in about an hour and a half, would you believe me?”. He said “no”. The thing is, it actually happened, but it happened because an obvious reason that only one person failed to notice.

Now here's where ignorance could be bliss for him: this perfect storm could very well happen again. Say Federer gets a draw filled with hardcourt specialists (who at this point are more of a reality than the famed claydogs), and Nadal and Djokovic clash in the opposite semi, while he deals with Davydenko, Wawrinka, Del Potro or even Murray. Let's say he plays the first semi on Friday, gets it done in straights and in under two hours, and then it rains. And it rains some more. So much that the other semi between Nadal and Djokovic have to play on Saturday. And they do, for about 6 hours, in a match that forces Djokovic into professional skiing. Nadal is half-dead on Sunday, and Federer is fresh and rested. The way I see it (and barring a serious Nadal injury), that's the only way he wins the French Open this year.

This could happen again, but the tennis gods are not that generous. Especially to those who fail to acknowledge their gifts in the first place.

Lucy: The thing is, JJ, Federer has been burnt before under similar circumstances, and recently: the Australian Open final, in which everyone agreed that Nadal SHOULD be tired (having played an intensely physical, five-hour semi in the middle of the night against Verdasco) but which Nadal nevertheless managed to win. I think after that match, it seemed to Federer that Nadal just simply doesn't tire, which, while objectively untrue, is certainly how the great majority of players would experience matches against Rafa.

I agree with you that, barring a Nadal injury or some sort of force majeure event, Federer doesn't stand much of a chance of winning this year's French Open. Nor, I would add, do any of the men ranked beneath him. The mythology surrounding Federer's quest for a Roland Garros title obscures, to an extent, the prosaic fact that nobody else has won Roland Garros since Nadal set up camp there in 2005, either. Djokovic might be your best bet – he combines technical solidity with an intensely competitive will, but I can imagine every disadvantage he suffered against Nadal in Madrid (including, yes, the choking) being multiplied over five sets, particularly given that Nadal is greatly his superior, conditioning-wise. Murray is no also-ran, even on clay, but as you both point out, he doesn't seem nearly as comfortable on the surface as Nadal or Djokovic. Besides, when it comes to Grand Slams, experience and fortitude both count; that was made abundantly obvious in Australia, when betting favourite Murray flamed out to an admittedly zoning Verdasco in the round of 16.

As for the non-Big Four, I can see potential spoilers, people you would rather not see in your draw, but no title contenders. What about you guys, who are we watching? Juan Martin Del Potro, Gilles Simon, Nikolay Davydenko, David Ferrer? Or someone more dashing and unlikely? Maybe a retro pick? I am feeling nostalgic for the era of David Nalbandian's eternal semifinal greatness.

Asad: You guys are showing me up with your long, amazingly thoughtful answers. Lemme try to pull the rug out this way: what do you have to say about the women's tourney? To me, women's tennis is in a big lull after a thirty-year run run of great champions: King, Evert, Navratilova, Graf, Seles, Hingis, Serena, Venus, Henin. These days it seems so postmodern: a player who never won a tournament (Kournikova) still has a bigger mainstream U.S. profile than any of the new inconsistent generation of current stars–Ivanovic, Jankovic, uh, Dinara Safina?

Lucy: Oh man, I hate it when you make me talk about the women's game! You're right, it has been much harder to follow women's tennis in the last few years; the dynamic era of Hingis/Venus/Serena/Capriati/(Kournikova?) is over, and none of the current crop has the dominance or the star power of former eras. So, um, yeah. I watch very little women's tennis, and I have even less feel for the state of the game.

With that caveat out of the way, it seems like Dinara Safina is the player to beat going into this year's French Open. She's ranked #1 in the world, she's coming off a hot streak, having won both Madrid and Rome, and she is in exceptional physical condition. Safina's main disability is that she seems to flake out in Grand Slam finals – both in last year's French Open final against Ivanovic and against Serena Williams in the horrible Australian Open final earlier this year. Neither of those performances give me great confidence that Safina is capable of competing well in a high-stakes final.

On the other hand, nobody else seems to have a clear case for favouritism. Serena Williams, having posted unremarkable results this clay season, just retired in Madrid with a leg injury. Lack of matchplay never seems to be a problem for Serena, but she hasn't done great in the last few years at Roland Garros, and at the moment she hasn't confirmed that she will play Roland Garros, so Safina (and the rest of us) might escape a repeat of Australia.

The defending champion, Ana Ivanovic, hasn't had the ideal preparation, either, having withdrawn from Madrid just last week with a knee injury. Her compatriot Jelena Jankovic, whom she defeated in a choky semifinal last year, is an accomplished claycourter, and she seems to be healthy. Her results lately haven't been fantastic, but she would be right to look at this year's French Open as a genuine opportunity for a breakthrough.

Then you have your usual pack of Russian contenders – Kuznetsova, Zvonereva, Dementieva, Petrova, who had their halcyon days in the middle of the decade, but are still competitive. Then there are youngsters like Radwanska and Azarenka and Wozniaki. Some of them were born in the 1990s. This is both shocking and appalling and I have nothing more to say about them.

Juan José: Err….sorry about the delay, but this household has been quite busy recently. Two thoughts that lingered from the men's discussion:

– I saw that Federer made the case that Madrid was the same as the Australian Open for Nadal, in terms of recovering from a tough semi (tough being the understatement of the year). Does he not remember that in Melbourne Nadal finished his semi around midnight on Friday, and the final was at night on Sunday? That's plenty of time for a sore body to loosen. In Madrid he finishes at around 8:30 pm, and he has to play the next day at 4 pm. That's not enough time for anyone, even Nadal.

– I think I've seen all 18 Nadal-Djokovics. Djokovic definitely gagged in a couple (the Olympics, Queens), but on Saturday, he really didn't. The reason he broke down at his press conference is because it was clear to him that his best only brings out the best of Nadal. His absolute best, which was higher than he actually thought it was, wasn't enough. That's a hard pill to swallow.

Now, onto the women.

I guess it's the polar opposite from the men's side. You could make a case for an entire group of players. I think I'll just go with scattered thoughts here:

– I will be rooting hard for the “Actual” world no.1. I love Dinara Safina, the person, but her tennis is only interesting to me when she is fully aggressive. That cross-court backhand of hers is a sweet shot, and I still feel she doesn't use it as often as she should to take control of a point. I've been pleasantly surprised of how she's handled the no.1 ranking, despite the predictable outrage that a Slamless player has to fend off. She's made three finals, and won two of them. I think clay is where she's at her best, and she has good memories of last year's run. She should be the favorite, and if form holds, she should win it. I really hope she ends up with more Slams than her brother.

– It would be a complete surprise if Ivanovic defends her title. I cannot say this saddens me. The less of her “fistpumps” I see, the better.

– I really like Jankovic, but it seems like she can't get her old swagger back. By now it's clear that all that work she put on during the off-season actually hurt her, which is a shame. There seems to be this growing trend among the women that if you're not firing missiles, you're worthless, so you have to bulk up. Which is ridiculous for a player as gifted as Jankovic is at creating angles and mixing things up. If anything, she should be more aggressive with her variety, and not try to become someone she's not. It's all about playing your natural game in the best way you can.

– I like Wozniacki, but I fear that she might go through something like Jankovic's recent trajectory.

– I really like Venus, but clay isn't really where she's going to make some noise. I bet she's counting the days until Wimbledon.

– As for the “real” no.1, she's become one of my least favorite sports entities. She'll probably snap out of her recent 4 game losing streak, but I do hope Safina gets to play her and sends her on a new losing streak. Maybe then she'll start on that script she's been talking about.

– I'm completely certain that Svetlana Kuznetsova is the most talented female tennis player alive. You'd be hard pressed to believe she's not the best player in the world. But then again, she is Svetlana Kuznetsova, capable of anything and everything. The Mickelson of women's tennis.

– Carla Suarez Navarro is probably my favorite female tennis player. She's absolutely great: pretty backhand, decent forehand, doesn't grunt or fistpump or anything. She just plays ball. However, she's struggling to cope with the expectations and the exposure. It's clear that she'd gladly transfer the spotlight to someone else.

– Azarenka, or Viko, as C-Note calls her (by the way, Forty Deuce is how I keep up with the WTA. I think anyone who makes me read about the women's game should get kudos) has an amazing game, but I'm not sure how it translates to clay. That girl will dominate the tour one day, though.

– I wonder how Mauresmo does this time. Usually she crumbles early, but it seems that something has really changed in her attitude towards the game. So this might be the one time that she actually delivers at home.

– Zvonareva is flying under the radar, like her tennis twin, Nikolay Davydenko. And like Nicky D, she actually has a pretty nice game. I hope she does well.

– All I'll limit myself to ask Petrova is to avoid wearing those horrendous Ellese outfits she's had the audacity to play tennis in. I don't want to go blind.

Asad: Ha, JJ. Wow, this has been hardcore! One other thing I wanted to say is that the main difference going into this year's French is that Nadal is now number one. It's been a remarkably smooth conceptual transition–the guy wears the aura very well. Anyway, now I'm just gonna make my picks–Nadal, Safina–and get out of the way. Final thoughts? And dudes: thanks!

Lucy: No fair, Nadal and Safina were my highly radical picks! Fine, I'll take Jankovic. But backing anyone except Nadal is a fool's game, even if it looks cool while you do it.

Juan José: I really hope Safina wins it. Will she actually do it? Who knows. For some reason I have this feeling that Kuznetsova might actually do it. No evidence to back it up, no logical process behind it other than this: she's the most talented player out there, and clay seems to be her favorite surface. I'd also be immensely happy if Jankovic won it, but that one seems like a stretch even in a wide open year like this one. I do think whoever wins it should thank Henin in her victory speech for staying retired.

If I had a house, I'd bet it on Nadal. It's that simple, really. I only see a freak injury and/or the freakish-yet-feasible scenario I wrote about earlier as the only possible scenarios where the guy doesn't break Borg's record. The most interesting question on the men's side is, once again, where will Novak Djokovic land in the draw. I thought this same question had some merit last year, but there was evidence that undermined its importance (err…the Montecarlo sore throat fiasco). This year, it could have significant consequences, mostly in the rankings (if Djokovic draws Federer in the semis and beats him, there's a huge point swing, 980 points to be exact).

My last thought will predictably go to Djokovic. Once again, he became the master of the unexpected. There was no way to predict that he'd reach the level of play he has shown throughout the clay season, especially after that surreal 2 and 3 drubbing he suffered against Roddick at Indian Wells. If you had told me after that loss that Djokovic would hold three match points at the end of a four-hour match on clay against Nadal, I wouldn't have believed it. Never a dull moment with that dude.