French Open reflections: Rafa reigns supreme

Now that we’ve had a few days to reflect on the legend-affirming greatness that was the 2014 French Open, what have we learned? Here are a few tidbits to keep in mind as we build toward Wimbledon and the hard court season.

Bet on Rafael Nadal on clay until he’s proven that he literally can’t chase down a ball anymore. This clay court season saw him look shakier than normal, which is something to keep in mind going forward, though he silenced the doubters in Paris. He turned 28 during the tournament, and according to fivethirtyeight.com, is past his prime Grand Slam-winning age.

But he’s playing so well now and has recaptured the momentum from Novak Djokovic so convincingly (after the Serb had won four straight against him, no less), that he has to be among the favorites to reclaim his Wimbledon crown (last won in 2010) or retain his title in New York. He has no points to defend in London, having exited in the first round to a Belgian named Steve last year, so at the very least, expect him to convincingly retain his number one ranking.

Despite what the PTI guys said the other day debunking claims about Rafa being the greatest ever, his case continues to mount. He’s tied with Pete Sampras at 14 Slams right now. For argument’s sake, consider his résumé if it contained one more Wimbledon, another US, and another Australian title. That would give him at least two of all four Slams (something Federer hasn’t accomplished and isn’t likely to) as well as equaling Federer in total number of Grand Slam titles.

Add to that the fact that he holds a head-to-head edge over all of his contemporaries, and I can’t see how that doesn’t make him the greatest of the modern era, if not all time (Important note here: 13 of his 23 victories over Federer came on clay courts, where Federer was great but never better than Nadal, and the majority of their hard court meetings happened once Federer was already in decline. Just saying.) At that point, the argument will definitely be over. It might be over even if he gets two of those hypothetical titles.

And we haven’t even mentioned that he’s likely to win the French two or three more times. Everyone has a specialty; Rafa’s ability to dominate that specialty is greater than anyone else’s ever, by a seriously wide margin. I haven’t even mentioned that it’s possible that once his run of consecutive titles at Roland Garros ends, he might win one in the twilight of his career, like Fed did at Wimbledon in 2012. There really is no end to his greatness, as long as his body doesn’t betray him, which is unfortunately likely.

What Rafa does better than anyone else, and how he managed to beat a relentless fighter like Djokovic, comes down to one thing. Okay, several things. Firstly, better conditioning: Djokovic himself admitted that he was tired after his semifinal match and his unfortunate on-court reaction confirmed that he was somewhat unfit to play. We thought this had gone away with Djokovic’s diet change and devotion to conditioning, but as we saw with LeBron James, weakness shows up at inopportune times. Nadal is simply tougher.

Secondly, he is the best scrambler in the history of the sport, bar none. Watch the way he tracks down balls that are basically in the stands already. Instead of doing a Djokovic-like split with his legs all the time, if he can, he slides and sort of snaps his body into the shot (about 8:40 into this), leaving him looking like he’s doubled over, but I think it’s this little bit of extra pop that allows him to hit great shots out of bad positions and pull himself back into points that any normal player would be out of. Watch how it allowed him to pull Djokovic out a little too wide in the ad court, preventing him from charging the net directly, setting up the easy forehand winner. It’s astounding, is probably ruining his knees, and makes him the best player in the world.

I will argue forever that Federer was the more beautiful player to watch in his prime. I will argue that he dominated with grace like nobody else, that he looked better dismantling his opponents than any other player on tour. But at this point, the résumé battle between them is coming to a close. Rafa has won his ninth French Open, fifth straight and looks poised to bulldoze the competition for the rest of the year. I say he’s the greatest ever. Vamos, Rafa, back me up.

On the women’s side, we had what those who follow tennis like to call a “great match” between the reigning princess of grunts and mindgames, Maria Sharapova (Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka are the queens of these categories, respectively), and tremendously talented upstart Simona Halep. This was the first women’s final to go the full three sets since 2001. 2001!

As unpredictable as the French Open is, the women’s final nearly always left us with a post-match feeling akin to, “of course she was going to dominate, why did we doubt that,” especially in the cases of Justine Henin and Serena Williams. Halep and Sharapova provided over three hours of absolutely top-flight tennis.

Sharapova looked to be in control in the first set, and indeed nearly closed it out in straights. After trading of breaks in the second and a wacky set of games in which neither player held serve going into the tiebreaker, Halep found another gear and wrenched the set away from Sharapova, who was two points from the title at one point.

The French Open has been good to Sharapova, where she has won two of her five Grand Slams.

Maria Sharapova won her second French Open title in three years, beating Simona Halep in a taut three-set final.

In the third, Sharapova’s killer instincts took over, and Halep, despite her gritty style of play, just did not have the firepower to withstand the barrage. Despite accruing a better first-serve percentage than Sharapova, she only won half of those points, suggesting a certain inability to respond to a strong return. Sharapova won far more points on her opponent’s serve than can be said for Halep, who just ran out of gas a little toward the end, despite a great performance in an instant classic match.

Make no mistake, I was rooting hard for Halep. I love her style of play. I love that she’s small but doesn’t play like it. I love that she’s quick on her feet, has tremendous upside, great court sense, and knows where to place the ball to frustrate an opponent. The one thing she needs a little more of is velocity on her groundstrokes and serve so as to make players who have that power pay for not being able to track down her shots. Fortunately for her, that is one of the easiest things in tennis to acquire – easier to master than consistency, easier to teach than shotmaking and point construction.

Congratulations to Sharapova on winning her second French Open, but tennis fans, a star was born on Court Philippe Chatrier, who will carry the lengthy tradition on Romanian tennis into the future (more on this in a later post). Provided, of course, she doesn’t implode like so many other players who make finals and are never the same. But you heard it here first: Halep will win a Grand Slam title within a year. Let’s see what happens.

Sharapova was simply too much for the young Romanian down the stretch, though Halep kept it together really nicely despite Sharapova’s attempts to unnerve her by turning her back, disrupting the rhythm, grunting at a pitch that could shatter glass, and otherwise being unsportsmanlike. I’m all for doing what you need to keep yourself in a rhythm, and I’m not advocating for a rules change or anything like that, but I sincerely wish that she could do it without making me want to mute my TV or call an ear, nose, and throat doctor. I don’t understand how her throat isn’t raw after a match from so much screaming. Then again, I don’t really mind it when Serena Williams does it, so I suppose it’s the pitch she does it at and not that she does it in the first place.

I think it’s also worth noting that only in two of Sharapova’s five Grand Slam titles did she beat women who can legitimately be called champions or be counted among the 15 greatest players in the sport (Serena Williams, who hasn’t lost to her since, and Justine Henin). The others came against Ana Ivanovic, Sara Errani, and now Halep. I’m not trying to belittle the amazing fact that she is a Grand Slam champion, but she has a long way to go to be considered one of the best ever.

Keep it right here as we gear up for grass.

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