June 6, 2011

The Good Ol' Days

It's kind of been a weird year for Rafael Nadal -- and tennis, in general.

Despite the fact that, even before the French Open began, he was the reigning champion at three Grand Slams and had played six straight final matches, he was dangerously close to losing his spot at the top of the tennis rankings, one he has held now for fifty-three consecutive weeks. It isn't completely secure for much longer -- even though Novak Djokovic's amazing run, one which, for a time, called into question Nadal's dominance on the dirt, came to an end in the Roland Garros semis, as of Monday's tally he's just forty-five ranking points behind Rafa.

But one more time at least, we were treated to the consummate match-up that's been the highlight of tennis courts for the better part of the last decade.

Prior to yesterday's final Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer had met each other twenty-four times -- eight of those at Majors, and seven with championships on the line. The Spaniard had ruled those meetings, leading Roger 6-2 overall, 4-0 on clay. But they hadn't met at a Slam since Australia 2009, and as others began creeping in as more-than-legitimate contenders for the big titles, I began to feel that the possibility of another Rafa/Roger battle was growing slimmer and slimmer.

So I was appreciably excited when the French Open championship came down to these two heavyweights. Nadal, the defender going after a record-tying sixth crown in Paris, had been tested early, getting down two sets to one against John Isner in his opening match, and was pushed by Casablanca winner Pablo Andujar a few days later. Roger had sailed through his early rounds without dropping a set, and was ultimately -- and so appropriately -- the man to end Novak Djokovic's historic streak on Friday. It was his first Grand Slam final since he won in Melbourne last year.

And happily the legends did not disappoint.

Roger broke Nadal in the second game of the match and ran off to a 5-2 lead with set points. He tried to serve out the set a game later, but Rafa produced the spectacular shot-making that's helped him win this event five times. As Federer's serve began to falter, the twenty-five year old rattled off one game after another and built up a set-and-break lead. After a short rain delay, he eventually took the hour-plus set in a tiebreak and built up another lead in the third. But this time it was the Swiss's turn to shine -- seemingly down-and-out, Federer's improved serve and soft drop shots all found their marks, and he was able to push the match to a fourth set.

It was quick work from there, though. Nadal saved three straight break points in the first game of the fourth set, and seemed to be a changed man. He held his opponent to just fifty percent on his first serve, broke him in the fourth game and then once more for good measure, and after over three and a half hours, Rafael Nadal was once again holding the Roland Garros trophy.

The win solidified Nadal as the King of Clay -- his record at this event now stands at a staggering 45-1 -- but more importantly reminded us of just how great things were not that long ago. It seems inevitable Djokovic will catch up to Rafa in the next few months and break the stranglehold he and Federer have had on the top spot in the sport for over seven years. But for now, we can take comfort in the familiarity of having watched those two phenomenal players present their best stuff for us one more time.

Will they do it again? Who knows. But it sure will be fun watching them try.

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