History beckons Nadal

There is little doubt that Rafael Nadal has it in him to match Bjorn Borg’s record in Paris (six titles, four of them in a row from 1978-81).-There is little doubt that Rafael Nadal has it in him to match Bjorn Borg’s record in Paris (six titles, four of them in a row from 1978-81).

Rafael Nadal’s manic energy and focus have helped him run up a 21-0 record in the clay court Grand Slam event and, no matter a rare defeat on his favourite surface against Juan Carlos Ferrero in Rome — Nadal was suffering from severe blisters in his right leg — the champion will start a clear favourite at the French Open, writes Nirmal Shekar.

Few Grand Slam events in recent times might have been as mouth-wateringly invested with significance as this year’s French Open championship. Come May 25, as the world’s best tennis players slide and sweat and toil on the unforgiving clay courts, setting off puffs of crushed red brick dust at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, quite a few intriguing questions will await resolution.

At the end of the 2007 season, dominated by Roger Federer and Justine Henin, few might have imagined that we’d be wrestling with the sort of questions that happen to face us ahead of the second Grand Slam championship of the year.

While the No. 1 player in the women’s game chose to call it quits two weeks before the start of a tournament that she had won the last three years, the sport’s leading man may find himself facing the first real threat to his pre-eminent position in the next three or four months.

If Henin’s sudden retirement announcement took many by surprise, then so has Federer’s decline even if there is no suggestion that the process is irreversible.

At the beginning of the year, it appeared certain that the Swiss maestro would successfully tie Pete Sampras’ record (14 Grand Slam titles) — if not surpass it — at some point during the season. Now, what looked like a romp in the park a few months ago appears as formidable as a north-face ascent of K2.

Since failing to make a Grand Slam final for the first time in over two and a half years — losing to Novak Djokovic — at the Australian Open last January, Federer has appeared more vulnerable than he has ever been during his reign at the top.

With the icy Sampras Summit beckoning alluringly, Federer, merely two giant steps away, seems to have run out of breath. Yet, given the measure of his greatness, the diagnosis can hardly be altitude sickness; more likely, it is a temporary loss of form.

“I don’t feel more vulnerable. I haven’t been all that bad this year. The others still have to beat me,” said Federer last fortnight, suggesting that the poor results of the year so far have done little to dent his confidence as the game’s numero uno.

Yet, Federer himself will acknowledge that the man to beat in Paris is his arch-rival and world No. 2, Rafael Nadal, who is yet to lose a match in the main draw of the French Open.

The muscular Spaniard’s manic energy and focus have helped him run up a 21-0 record in the clay court Grand Slam event and, no matter a rare defeat on his favourite surface against Juan Carlos Ferrero in Rome — Nadal was suffering from severe blisters in his right leg — the champion will start a clear favourite.

As well as Federer played in Hamburg, in defence of a title that he won last year, defeating Nadal for the first time on clay, the Spaniard had his revenge on May 18 with a three-set victory that might have been perfect preparation for the French Open.

Already there are comparisons between Nadal and the last man to win the French Open four times in a row, Bjorn Borg.

While Nadal might never come close to emulating the great Swede in London, SW 19, a few weeks after the French Open, there is little doubt that the Spaniard has it in him to match Borg’s record in Paris (six titles, four of them in a row from 1978-81).

Surely, Nadal, who will turn 22 on June 3, will enhance his status as a clay court all-time-great should he win a fourth time five days past his birthday.

But then, it may not be the usual script in Paris this time. For, the emergence of Novak Djokovic as a big league champion has made sure that the men’s championship will not be a mere two-horse race.

The Australian Open champion insists that he is in no great hurry to get to the top. “I turn 21 soon. I am still young and don’t have to push myself to the limit. I will take it step by step,” he said in Hamburg recently.

One step at a time is a good approach but when you are two steps from the summit, every step is a giant leap. And it may not be a huge surprise if the popular, charismatic Serb authors a dramatic change in the pecking order before the end of the year.

Then again, right now, it may be unwise to look that far ahead. For, the celebrated clay courts of Roland Garros may very well throw up a few surprises during the fortnight.

For, this is a Slam that has eluded some of the greatest names in the game, including Pete Sampras, John McEnroe and Boris Becker, to name only three.

For, it takes more than just shotmaking genius to win on terre battue, as the French call it. You need enormous patience, incredible stamina and a bit of luck too.

They might have perfected the use of the guillotine but the French don’t like to watch swift executions on a tennis court. To triumph, a player has to advance inch by excruciating inch, with a nick here and a cut there. The opponent dies an agonisingly slow death.

The French, you know, like subtlety. Nothing like sitting up there in the stands with an ice cream cone in hand pondering eternity as two lion-hearted players belt the ball 100 times apiece over the net to settle a solitary point.

If every major tennis tournament acquires a good part of its character from the city in which it is played, then the French Open seems to have more of Paris to it than Wimbledon has of London or the Australian Open has of Melbourne. Tres Classique, as the natives might say — it is a wonderful mix of style and substance.

If you have visited Roland Garros on a beautiful late afternoon in May during the Open and walked along the lovely pathways, along banks of pansies, daisies and begonias and signs saying Soyez hean joueur – n’y touchez (Be a good sport… do not touch), and then climbed to the top tier of Court Central which offers a great view of Paris, including the Eiffel Tower, as an orange sun stands between night and day, you will realise why many great players who have never won in Paris still keep going back to watch the French Open. Then again, it depends on your taste. The French Open is certainly not for those looking for instant gratification, no matter whether you are a contestant or a spectator. It is certainly not for men in a hurry.

For the players, it is an intriguing chess game of changing patterns vis-a-vis attack and defence; for the fans, it is an event meant to be enjoyed leisurely like a four-course Gourmet French dinner in the finest of restaurants in Paris.