"There is nobody who even plays remotely close to him. I don’t even know who I need to go search for to go practice with for somebody who plays like him.” — Roger Federer, after Rafael Nadal trounced him.
They said it couldn’t be done. And they were right. Defeating Rafael Nadal in a best-of-five-set duel on clay remains the ultimate challenge in tennis. Maybe in any sport.
With the same boundless energy he showed in 2005 when he won his first French Open as a long-haired 19-year-old wearing pirate pants and a sleeveless shirt, Nadal captured his record-extending 12th French title over his latest foil, Dominic Thiem.
They say records are made to be broken, but it’s implausible this one will ever be equalled. Nadal surpassed the record of 11 he shared with Margaret Court at the Australian Open for the most titles at the same Grand Slam event. Next comes Martina Navratilova with nine Wimbledons. And consider this: Nadal’s dozen doubles the six of Bjorn Borg, the Roland Garros record-holder before the swashbuckling Spaniard arrived.
“I never thought I’d see anyone be better on clay than Borg, and I never thought I’d see anyone try harder than (Jimmy) Connors,” said 1980s star John McEnroe. “And we have both in Nadal.”
Even if seemingly ageless Nadal never wins another French Open — and it’s unwise to bet against that — his 12 titles clearly rank in the pantheon of individual records sports fans treasure and debate.
Which record is most important? Most amazing? Most unbreakable? Track superstar Edwin Moses went unbeaten in the 400m hurdles for nine years, nine months and nine days. Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points a game during the 1961-62 NBA season. Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky notched an astronomical 2,857 career points. Michael Phelps racked up 28 Olympic swimming medals. And the immortal Pele scored 1,281 soccer goals.
The modest Nadal, not given to superlatives about himself, had to admit his achievement was “incredible” and “amazing.” Just a month ago, sceptics wondered whether injuries and age had finally caught up with Nadal. He was upset in three straight semifinals — to Fabio Fognini in Monte Carlo, Thiem in Barcelona and 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas in Madrid. Order was restored, however, when Nadal beat Tsitsipas and Novak Djokovic to capture his record ninth Italian Open.
When McEnroe asked if this French Open title was the most emotional, Nadal replied, “Every title has been so emotional. I have the passion for what I’m doing. I’ve been going through some very tough moments, lots of injuries. After Indian Wells when I had to retire in that semifinal against Roger, I went down mentally. [So] I’m even more proud than winning the trophy [here] that with the help of my family and team, I was able to keep working and accepting the challenge to improve small things to be here with the trophy.”
Blessed with an extremely easy draw, including qualifiers in the first two rounds and undersized seeds in No. 27 David Goffin and No. 7 Kei Nishikori, Nadal streaked to the semis. There, it seemed like the old days with his longtime rivals Federer and Djokovic, plus the newest member of the Big Four, Thiem. Once again, Nadal got a lucky draw, with Djokovic and 2018 Roland Garros finalist Thiem facing each other in the other half. While Federer had defeated Nadal in their last five matches, all on hard courts, the far more important stat was Rafa’s five straight wins over Fed on clay.
Indeed, the King of Clay had dominated Federer 13-2 on clay. Even more daunting, Nadal was a perfect 11-0 in French Open semifinals and finals and a mind-blowing 116-2 in best-of-5-set matches on clay.
Federer, who was going for his 21st major title, had “09” written on his tennis shoes to remind him of the year he won his only French Open title. Not that Nadal needed reminding, but he had “11” written on his shoes.
It didn’t take long for the heavy favourite to pull away from the sentimental favourite. With the wind gusting more than 50 miles an hour and Nadal’s vicious topspin forehand bounding an average of 4’1” high at its apex, Federer often couldn’t generate much power or control it when he did.
“There’s a repetitive brutality to the way Nadal plays tennis,” former world No. 1 Jim Courier remarked during the second set of Nadal’s 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 demolition of the 37-year-old Swiss maestro. Even when Federer flashed the brilliance that beat compatriot Stan Wawrinka in a four-set semifinal, the nearly impregnable defence and relentless competitive drive of Nadal often stymied the Swiss. With Fed serving at 5-4, 40-love, Nadal grabbed the last five points for a service break, the last two coming on forehand and volley winners.
“He has incredible abilities on clay,” said an admiring Federer afterwards. “I knew that ahead of time. I don’t look like I fight, but I do, and I tried to believe in it. I tried to turn the match around until the end. But the longer the match went on, the better he seemed to feel in the wind.”
Like Nadal, Djokovic was trying to rewrite the history books. After he outclassed No. 5 Alexander Zverev 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 in the quarters, Djoker said, “The longer I play in my career or the further I go, the sense of history-making is only getting stronger. That’s one of the greatest motivations I have, obviously. I think there is no better way to make history of the sport than to win Slams and play your best in the biggest events, and obviously try to stay No. 1 as long as you can.”
The 32-year-old Serb needed two more victories to complete his second “Djoker Slam” — four straight major titles — a feat achieved only by 1960s Australian champion Rod Laver.
Roland Garros plans to install a retractable roof over Court Philippe-Chatrier next year, and one wonders how a roof might have changed the Thiem-Djokovic semifinal. Storm Miguel battered Western Europe, and blustery winds, rain and unseasonably cold temperatures flustered Djokovic much more than it did the even-keeled, 25-year-old Thiem. Inexplicably, considering the inclement weather, the befuddled Djokovic charged the net, not his forte, 71 times and won only 35 of those points.
Although Djokovic had won nine of his last 10 matches going five sets and was a superb 29-9 overall, Thiem led 4-1, 40-all in the fifth set on the second day of the rain-interrupted match when play was suspended for 68 minutes. After play resumed, they exchanged service breaks and then Thiem served for the match at 5-4. But he choked on two match points, missing routine backhands and Djokovic broke serve. The powerful Austrian got another chance, though, with Djokovic serving at 5-6. When the Serb made an unforced forehand error at 40-all, he covered his face in disgust. On his third match point, Thiem belted a 93-mph forehand winner to give him the biggest win of his career, 6-2, 3-6, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5.
After playing four straight days, Thiem now had to take on the King of Clay who had rested on the day prior to the final and played just twice in the past five days. The Austrian’s second challenge was that no man had ever beaten Djokovic and Nadal back to back at a major. With some hyperbole, McEnroe said a Thiem victory in the final would be “the most monumental feat in sports,” even comparing Thiem’s challenge to a “free solo” where a climber ascends a rock alone without the use of a rope for protection.
Even so, Thiem could draw some confidence from his four victories on clay over Nadal. On the debit side, though, Nadal had hammered him in their three French Open encounters without dropping a set. Winning the first set was crucial because Nadal boasted a perfect 100-0 record when winning the opening set of best-of-five-set matches.
“He’s going to have to play a nearly flawless match because the next time you see Nadal play a bad match at Roland Garros will be the first time,” Courier wrote on ATP.com .
But what tactics should Thiem use? “Unless Dominic is doing something that gets him out of his patterns, which would be hitting the hard backhand crosscourt into Nadal’s forehand, it’s just [Rafa] playing into his patterns and forcing Dominic to do something that’s uncomfortable for him,” wrote Courier. “If Nadal plays his normal patterns on clay, best of five, it’s been proven that he’s virtually unbeatable. And that will hold tomorrow unless Thiem does something extraordinary.”
From the very first point, Thiem tried to do a lot extraordinary. He whacked shots with a ferocity rarely seen in a Grand Slam final. It was a veritable slugfest. With sweat pouring from Nadal’s face, Thiem broke his serve with a 97-mph forehand winner and a putaway overhead to draw first blood with a service break for 3-2. In the next game, Nadal seized his break-point chance by pounding six straight forehands crosscourt to Thiem’s backhand, the last producing a winner, for 3-all. The muscular Spaniard broke serve one more time and routinely served out the critical first set, 6-3.
Thiem amped up his average forehand speed from 81 mph in the first set to 85 mph in the second set and his average backhand speed from 77 mph to 79 mph. Nadal returned Thiem’s thunderous serve erratically. After the Austrian broke serve at 15 to claim the second set 7-5, he pumped his clenched fist to celebrate the first set he ever won against Nadal at Roland Garros. The crowd roared and gave the underdog a standing ovation.
The savvy Nadal changed tactics to reverse the momentum. As Brain Game analyst Craig O’Shannessy pointed out on ATP.com , Nadal won only 46 percent (16/35) of long rallies (nine or more shots) in the first two sets. So he abandoned his grinding strategy and switched to a more aggressive Plan B — short rallies (four or less shots) where he won 67 percent (29/43) of the points in the last two sets.
Nadal had virtually owned Court Philippe-Chatrier for the past 15 years, and it was almost as if the grunting Spaniard had barked “Not in my house, you don’t beat me!” He broke Thiem at love in the opening game of the third set when Thiem self-destructed with three unforced errors. Nadal reeled off 16 of the first 18 points of the set and never looked back. He took it 6-1.
“First Nadal breaks you physically and then he breaks you mentally,” said Tennis Channel analyst and former world No. 4 James Blake. Nadal also breaks you technically, especially if you’re right-handed and have one-handed backhands like Federer and Thiem.
When Nadal smacked a forehand winner to fight off a break point in the opening game of the fourth set, the frustrated Thiem stared at his Player Box and extended his arms with a “What can I do?” gesture of resignation.
Attacking as often as possible, and moving with the youthful exuberance of the teenage Rafa, the champion continued to pepper Thiem’s backhand and easily finished him off. Game, set and championship, Nadal 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1.
In addition to winning, another Nadal tradition at Roland Garros is his victory gesture. He fell on his back, splayed his feet, and covered his eyes. When Nadal stood up, he pulled his neon yellow shirt up over his face and seemed to weep briefly. Then he capped the celebration by raising his outstretched arms.
When Thiem was asked what it was like to beat No. 1 Djokovic and come back the next day only to lose to the greatest player on clay, he memorably said, “I just came from heaven to hell, I guess.” Then he waxed philosophical: “But it’s tough right now because you have to beat seven good players to win this tournament, and at the end you have to beat one or two legends with 15-plus Grand Slams. And if you’re not 100 percent in every department, you’re not going to make it.”
Thiem didn’t make it in the final for the second year in a row. And Nadal and Djokovic are still in their seemingly everlasting primes.
As Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo said, “Is it going to take Nadal to retire before anyone else wins this?”
"Anyone can win in women’s tennis right now. It is not like in the old days with Chris [Evert] and Martina [Navratilova], or like the top two or three men do right now.” — All-time great Billie Jean King.
Suzanne Lenglen, the game’s first female superstar and a French icon in the Roaring ’20s, would have relished watching Ashleigh Barty. While the charismatic Lenglen, who defied convention with everything from revealing attire to brandy-sipping during matches and diva behaviour toward officials, had little in common with the quiet, uncontroversial Barty, their playing styles were similarly dynamic and entertaining.
“The Goddess,” as the French press nicknamed Lenglen, was renowned for her balletic leaps at the net. More pragmatic but equally gifted, the Australian seldom leaves the ground for her perfectly executed volleys. Barty may lack Lenglen’s showmanship, but, just the same, she possesses a je ne sais quoi for performing just the same.
“That’s what champions do, they play well in their first chance on the big stage. They love it,” said the legendary Martina Navratilova after Barty rebounded from a 7-6, 3-0 deficit to overcome rising star Amanda Anisimova 6-7, 6-3, 6-3 in the French Open semifinals. “She’s very athletic and she has all the shots. That’s what makes her so much fun to watch.”
Lenglen would also have marvelled at the versatile aggression of the 23-year-old Australian who dons a tomboyish baseball cap, so unlike the trend-setting bandeau worn by “The Goddess.” Though two-handed backhands seem almost de rigueur on the women’s circuit today, Barty also bedevils opponents with a wickedly skidding slice one-hander. And Barty’s booming serve, which concedes nothing to her 5’5” stature, would have amazed and thrilled Lenglen, who wrote, “I try to hit the ball with all my force and send it where my opponent is not.”
In fact, that Lenglen credo, tempered with touch shots, epitomises the strategy of the canny Barty. She once dismissed clay tournaments as short and unwelcome way stations before the grass-court circuit. Indeed, in five previous French Opens, she had won just two matches on the terre battue . “Ash’s game is suited for fast courts — hard and grass — but she’s learned how to play on clay,” said Navratilova.
When asked whether she was shocked that her fast-court game had suddenly become so effective on clay, Barty modestly replied, “Yes, very much so. I’ve been learning every single day.”
Perhaps Barty was encouraged by the extreme parity in women’s tennis. Eleven women had won the 11 clay tournaments going into Roland Garros. Eight women had captured the last nine Grand Slam events. Even more importantly, 10 women had won the previous 12 French Open titles, the only double winners surprisingly being Serena Williams (2013, 2015) and Maria Sharapova (2012, 2014), both of whom, like Barty, were previously least successful on clay. And Barty boasts more finesse than Williams, more speed than Sharapova, and much better volleys than either champion.
After Barty notched a 6-3, 3-6, 6-0 fourth-round victory over 20-year-old American upstart Sofia Kenin — who had upset Williams 6-2, 7-5 — Arantxa Sanchez Vicario noted yet another Barty attribute. “I like her spirit,” two-time French titlist Sanchez Vicario told The Sydney Morning Herald . “She’s a big fighter, she never gives up. So I don’t think the players like playing her. She’s a big contender.”
These assets became more evident when Barty’s improvisational skills and variety defeated the predictable, one-dimensional power game of No. 14 Madison Keys, the only seeded player she faced, 6-3, 7-5 in the quarterfinals. The much-anticipated semifinal with 17-year-old phenom Anisimova, however, would prove far more complicated.
Tennis cognoscenti have touted Anisimova as a “can’t miss” prospect ever since she reached the 2016 French Open junior final at age 14. A tall (5’11”), slender blonde with Russian parents, like her idol Sharapova, the American-born Anisimova similarly blasts powerful groundstrokes and displays the cool poise of a veteran.
The 51st-ranked Anisimova doesn’t just upset seeds, she overwhelms them. For the second straight major, she whipped No. 11 Aryna Sabalenka, this time 6-4, 6-2. And in the quarterfinals, she pounded 25 winners to dethrone defending champion and No. 3 Simona Halep, 6-2, 6-4. “I just played the best tennis of my life,” said Anisimova afterwards. “I didn’t look nervous because I wasn’t.”
Anisimova, though, did succumb to nerves in the beginning of her semifinal against Barty, losing 17 of the first 18 points in only 12 minutes. Down 0-5, 15-40, she staved off two set points. And then, just as shockingly, Anisimova zoomed back to take the opening set in a 7-4 tiebreaker. Using that momentum, she reeled off the first 12 points of the second set. But the more experienced Australian reversed the momentum again, taking seven straight games. “It was an absolute roller-coaster,” Barty said afterwards. “I played some brilliant tennis and I played some awful tennis.”
The final pitted Barty against another unseeded teenager, 19-year-old Marketa Vondrousova. The Czech lefty had upset four seeds, but no top-tenners — No. 28 Carla Suarez Navarro, No. 12 Anastasija Sevastova, No. 31 Petra Martic and No. 26 Johanna Konta. Although Vondrousova hadn’t lost a set, she had to rally from 5-3 deficits in both sets to edge Konta 7-5, 7-6.
Neither Barty nor Vondousova had appeared in a major final, or even a semifinal, before. “Many players freeze in their first Grand Slam final,” noted 1980s champion John McEnroe, now an NBC analyst.
As it turned out, Vondrousova froze and never fully recovered in the anticlimactic final. Barty, who had won their two previous matches (on grass and hard courts), confidently took 12 of the opening 15 points.
It’s never a good sign when a player says her favourite shot is a drop shot — “It’s my thing,” said Vondrousova — because drop shots rarely, if ever, win tennis matches. While Barty combined effective aggression when she had the chance, and patience when she had to defend or rally, the timid Vondrousova frequently hit too softly and short. Her obsession with drop shots backfired more often than not and she never changed her losing tactics.
In short, Barty put on a 70-minute masterclass. Her 6-1, 6-3 tour de force featured 27 winners (compared to 10 to Vondrousova). Explosive serves, razor-sharp volleys, accurate approach shots and penetrating groundstrokes highlighted Barty’s complete arsenal of weapons. She always seemed to hit the right shot at the right time.
“You gave me a lesson today,” said the smiling Vondrousova, who sounded as much grateful as admiring in the trophy presentation.
“I played the perfect match today,” said Barty, who became the first Australian to win Roland Garros since Margaret Court in 1973. Ashleigh’s title run pushed her to a career-high No. 2, making her the highest-ranked Australian woman since Evonne Goolagong Cawley, her inspiration as another indigenous Aussie, in December 1976. She also ranks No. 8 in doubles, the only player in the top 10 in both singles and doubles.
Ironically, Barty might never have exploded to stardom had she not quit the pro tour after suffering burnout in 2014. She parlayed her athleticism in cricket when she played for the Brisbane Heat in the Big Bashers League for 18 months. She returned to tennis competition in 2016. She recalled: “I needed time to step away, to live a normal life because this tennis life certainly isn’t normal. I think I needed time to grow as a person, to mature.”
When asked why she came back, Barty said, “I missed the competition. I missed the one-on-one battle, the ebbs and the flows, the emotions you get from winning and losing matches. They are so unique, and you can only get them when you’re playing and when you put yourself out on the line and when you become vulnerable and try and do things that no one thinks of.”
After winning her first Grand Slam title, the ever-creative Barty thanked her team headed by coach Craig Tyzzer. “It’s been an incredible journey for us the last three years. This is just the start for us.”
Next on Barty’s journey is Wimbledon. There we’ll see how her all-court game stacks up against heavy-hitting No. 1 Naomi Osaka, the reigning U.S. and Australian champion. Osaka, impatient and error-prone, was upset by Katerina Siniakova in the fourth round at Roland Garros.
The prideful Australian also revels in representing her country, and this year became the first player in Fed Cup history to go undefeated in six matches in her first two ties in a season. When Barty led Australia to a 3-2 semifinal victory over formidable Belarus, beating Sabalenka and Victoria Azarenka, she said, “All Australian players want to show we are a powerhouse nation.”
Barty will likely see that happen in November when her Aussie team takes on France as it aims for its eighth Fed Cup title and first in 45 years.
How La Grande Suzanne would have enjoyed watching her modern-day doppelganger perform against her beloved countrywomen.
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