Random tennis musings

So I watched Rafael Nadal dispatch Robin Soderling in the French Open final this afternoon. It was a bit one-sided, sadly. Soderling beat Nadal last year, and can play better—after all, he knocked Roger Federer out in the quarter finals pretty handily. But his first serves just weren’t working today, sadly, and Nadal was about as good as he can get, which is good indeed. So Nadal has now won this tournament five times—if he wins again, he’ll match Bjorn Borg’s record six titles here. This is clearly Nadal’s tournament—he hasn’t won anywhere else with anything like the regularity with which he wins here. He didn’t drop a set the whole tournament.

The French Open has always been the odd one out of the four major tournaments, especially since the open era began in 1968. Consider this list:

John Newcombe
Arthur Ashe
Pete Sampras
Jimmy Connors
John McEnroe
Stefan Edberg
Boris Becker
Venus Williams
Lindsay Davenport
Martina Hingis
Maria Sharapova

This is a list of some pretty good tennis players. But all failed to win the French Open. It included Federer until last year, when he finally won with Nadal out of the tournament. No Australian man has won here since 1969—and that was Laver, who won it twice (and the Grand Slam twice, for that matter, the only man to do that). On the other hand, a whole lot of people won here who never one anywhere else. Yannick Noah. Michael Chang. Thomas Muster. But there are people who clearly thrive here. Borg. Nadal. Chris Evert won the title here six times.

Bjorn Borg won it six times, which always astonished other players, apparently, because the also won Wimbledon (where the courts are super fast) five straight times—a record only broken by Federer last year. The courts at Roland Garros are clay, and therefore very slow—except when there’s a drought, which there occasionally is, like the year that Sampras managed to make it as far as the semifinals (he never even made the finals). So it’s just different tennis. The other two majors—the Australian Open and the US Open—are hardcourts, and both, like Wimbledon, are considerably faster courts than the clay at Rolan Garros.

Which just shows how difficult it is to achieve a genuine grand slam—all four majors—over one’s career, let alone in one year. Federer accomplished this when he won at Roland Garros last year, but it’s a pretty short list, still. Among men in the modern open era, only Laver, Andre Agassi and Federer have won all four tournaments. In the pre-open era, Fred Perry, Don Budge and Roy Emerson also accomplished it. And only Budge and Laver won them all the same year. Among women, it’s a comparably small list—Billie Jean King, Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Martina Navratalova, Steffi Graf, and Serena Williams. And only Court and Graf won them all the same year. If we go by winning on the three major court surfaces, only five men have won on all three—Connors, Agassi, Mats Wilander, Federer and Nadal (this is because the Australian Open used to be played on grass courts—Wilander never won Wimbledon, but he won Australia twice when it was played on grass).

Nadal is a gifted player, who has won all the majors except for the US Open. But lots of people never won some tournament or other—look at how short the list of Grand Slam winners actually is. Borg never won the US or Australian Opens. McEnroe never won the French or Australian. Venus has not yet won either the French or the Australian Opens. The list of players to have never won at Wimbledon is impressive—Ken Rosewall, Ivan Lendl, and Wilander among the men (although Wilander won a doubles title there), and Monica Seles and Justine Henin among the women. But Nadal is clearly at the peak of his game right now—with Wimbledon coming up pretty soon, Federer should be a bit concerned. And now that we have Sonderling, the only man on the tour to have beaten both Federer and Nadal, hanging around on the wings, and hopefully serving better than he did today, Wimbledon could be a lot of fun this year.

The above stamp was issued by the Royal Mail in 1994 to celebrate various summer events in England. The Royal Mail clearly has a sense of humour, given what passes for summer here.

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