June 10, 2013

On Fire

Here's an interesting fact -- at this moment in time Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams both have the exact same record on the year. 43-2. A total of thirteen titles, two Slams, between them.

And it's only June.

This weekend both champions accomplished something amazing. Serena, who'd never been the strongest clay court player out there, rebounded from a shockingly early exit at last year's Roland Garros in dominating style. Riding a twenty-four match win streak on her way to Paris, and toting a #1 ranking to a Major for the first time since Wimbledon 2010, she averaged just over an hour on court in each of her first four matches. She needed just forty-six minutes to dismiss last year's breakout finalist Sara Errani in the semis and, despite getting down an early break to last year's winner Maria Sharapova in Saturday's title match, Williams came back strong and polished off her long-time rival in a quick 6-4, 6-4 victory.

It was not Serena's first win at the French Open, of course -- in fact, both she and Sharapova were playing in just their second Paris final -- but with a full eleven years since her only other trophy here, it underscores her dominance in this sport for more than a decade. With sixteen Grand Slam titles to her name, the first dating back to 1999, she's shown time and again that she always delivers on the biggest of stages -- since breaking the seal she's only gone five years without winning a Major, and in the years she's played all four tournaments she's won at least one in all but two. And though Roland Garros has always been her "worst" event -- she'd only made the semis once since capturing her "Serena Slam" -- her win this weekend puts her well on course to putting together another one. And the way she's going, it doesn't seem like anyone can stop her.

Rafael Nadal's dominance on this court has been a little more consistent, and could be even more impressive. Since first coming to Roland Garros in 2005, Rafa had won a record-breaking seven crowns here, losing just one match in eight appearances. But his fate here was far from certain -- after suffering his own shocking early-round loss almost a year ago at Wimbledon, he hadn't had to endure a five set match yet. Yes, he'd added six titles to his mantle since returning to play this past February, including wins in Rome and Madrid, but he'd also been upset by then-#73 Horacio Zeballos in ViƱa del Mar and lost his stranglehold in Monte Carlo to his recent arch-nemesis. He was tested from the start in Paris too, dropping the first set he played to big-hitting Daniel Brands and needing nearly another three hours to oust Martin Klizan a round later.

The biggest challenge, clearly, came in the semifinals where he once again ran into world #1 Novak Djokovic. Nadal had lost the only match they'd played since last year's final, and, having also come out on the wrong end of their only previous five-setter, things didn't look good when he found himself down a break in the decider on Friday. But after surviving the four-and-a-half hour drama-filled battle, he was able to make relatively quick work in the final of countryman David Ferrer, who was incidentally playing his very first Grand Slam final after twelve years as a pro. His efforts which had been, somewhat complementarily to Serena's, concentrated on proving he could win elsewhere, had now shifted to reminding us he should never be counted out. And by reminding us he could win even under the most frustrating circumstances he will ever see at Roland Garros, he's let us know he's not going to let any other opportunities slip by him either.

It was a long road for this weekend's champions, and they certainly faced more than a few challenges during the fortnight -- rough weather, wily opponents, bizarre protesters. But with the streaks these two are running, it's going to be tough for anything or anyone to derail them. And as hot as they are right now, perhaps the only flame that will be put out was this guy's:

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