The spirit of the champions

Ana Ivanovic.-AP

For Rafael Nadal the French Open triumph was steeped in history, a confirmation of what was already known, a reinforcement of his stature on clay, while for Ana Ivanovic, who at 20 is World No. 1, the journey has just begun, writes Nandita Sridhar.

Set apart from the stakes and the contest, the Rafael Nadal machinery — a trite usage but not without reason — functioned to near perfection for two weeks at Roland Garros. Watching a game so co-ordinated towards achieving a purpose so singular over the course of seven matches was elevating. Despite operating in a hyperbole-driven world, it might not sound misplaced to hail Nadal — who equalled Bjorn Borg’s record of four consecutive French Open cro wns — as the game’s finest on clay.

The four-time Roland Garros winner has busted myths on the one-dimensional excellence sufficient for succeeding on clay. Aware enough to understand his clay-court game could evolve, Nadal’s backhand slice and his much improved offensive tactics were the features of his 2008 campaign. These worked in perfect congruence to his speed and retrieval skills and the ability to engineer escapes with a backhand effort down the line that nearly always fell an inch within — not by chance.

The Spaniard’s aura on this surface built itself on facing Federer in three consecutive finals, and one semifinal. Federer’s tactical stubbornness offered itself to Nadal. It was painful, yet strangely fascinating, that the very same gifts bestowed on the Swiss genius were being clinically nullified.

Having despatched the world No.1 and one of the game’s greatest in three successive finals has only added lustre to Nadal’s achievements.

Nadal’s efficient game on clay is nearly an antipode of human error. On court, the license to err, to experiment in pursuit of bigger rewards is left unused, as the 22-year-old Nadal makes his opponent play that extra shot, attempt that extra winner. As the World No. 1 has repeatedly done on other surfaces, Nadal on clay makes the opponent contend with his skills and the repeated fear of underrating them.

Surprising as it was to see Federer not trying, Nadal realistically offered him no chance. Cramped for space, the top seed overcompensated for retrievals with volleys that had too much angle and not enough height. Again, Federer’s reverence for Nadal’s speed manifested itself in every attempt that found the net.

The disintegration of the opponent’s will, of the confidence in his gameplan and his inability to sneak in a winner completes the execution. Gentleman Nadal allows his opposition the choice of self-inflicted demise. It is only when cornered that he uncorks a shot of malice — unintentional or otherwise.

The skills of a specialist clay-court player, the pressures of finalists, the previous meetings between the two and the sheer magnitude of the occasion defined the match.

Twenty-four hours before Nadal’s triumph was complete, a French Open Saturday routine had unfolded. In yet another underwhelming women’s final Ana Ivanovic won her first Grand Slam in her third attempt.

The 20-year-old Serb hasn’t managed “nice” as masterfully as Kim Clijsters, but the giggling fits and an underlying self-consciousness while at it had started a trend. Mercifully, Ivanovic put to rest misplaced notions of on-court benevolence (the bizarre practice of labelling someone “too nice to win” continues to this day) with a comprehensive display of clay-court tennis.

The Serb hits a heavy ball that often loses dimension when viewed on television. But one could understand the threat it posed while watching opponents struggle in coping with the heft of her strokes.

The movement that often betrayed gracelessness had improved. Her credentials were unquestionable, but one had yet to see her not combusting in a final.

With top seed Maria Sharapova’s exit, the French Open was Ivanovic’s to lose. Spoken of in constant reference to empty swimming pools, sultry good looks and a war-torn nation, World No. 1 and Grand Slam champion are less familiar and more welcome.

Notwithstanding the nature of the finals, Roland Garros crowned deserving champions. Times’ Simon Barnes wrote of a champion, “Can he seize the occasion and can he shape it with his will, can he make it his own?”

In their own ways, both Nadal and Ivanovic seized the occasion. Federer’s desperation for winning the French Open was nearly matched by Nadal’s desire for the same. Clay season has been his stage, his platform and his reward for ruthless professionalism. It has in the past been his best chance at protecting ATP points to stay at No. 2 while having enough insurance to make up for a below-par second half of the season. Despite questions raised on his fitness after the build-up events, the champion made the Slam his own.

Ivanovic sensed this was as good a chance as ever for a maiden Slam. Up against a feisty, yet unseasoned finalist in Dinara Safina, the nerves evened out before the Serb’s confident ground-strokes found their range.

For Nadal, the triumph was steeped in history, a confirmation of what was already known, a reinforcement of his stature on this surface, yet a reminder of what he needed to achieve on the sport’s other big stages. For Ivanovic — World No. 1 at 20 — the journey has just begun.