Sunday, May 24, 2009

What Time is It?

It's French Open Time. For all you tennis fans out there, the French Open kicks off tonight. It looks like an intriging two weeks up ahead as the French Open is billed as the most challenging among all the grand slams. Why most challenging, you may ask? Well, it's a time when the ubiquitous power games on both the men's ATP and women's WTA tour take a back seat to strategy, guile and court craft. The rallies are long, matches longer and only the mentally tough can win the utimate prize. Hosted in Paris at the Stade de Roland Garros, one of the most romantic cities in the world, the French Open runs from 24th May to 7th June this year.

I'd still say the big favorite for the French Open remains Rafael Nadal. How can you pick against arguably the greatest clay court player in the history of tennis who'll be gunning for a record setting 5th consecutive title (to overtake Bjorn Borg).

Well, there's Roger, some will no doubt say. Roger Federer accomplished what no other player this year has, he played spectacularly to beat Nadal in straight sets last Sunday to win the ATP Masters Madrid Open (see photo above). For Federer to beat Nadal is rare enough as he'd lost their previous five finals (previously all matches head to head is 13-6, in Nadal's favor, 9-1 on clay, including 11-4 in finals). But to do so on clay is an enormous achievement for Federer.

However, before you start to think that the tide has turned and that Federer has regained his status as the man to beat, it must be pointed out that the last time Nadal lost a final on clay, it was also to Federer, in Hamburg 2007, and only a few weeks later, he went on to beat Federer in the final of the French Open. Moreover, at this Madrid Open which is a new clay court event on the calender this year, it obviously has a faster surface than Paris (which suits Federer's game more) and cannot be compared with the French Open.

Nadal came into last Sunday’s final less than 24 hours after spending a record- breaking 4 hours 3 minutes on court in the semis against Novak Djokovic. The match is believed to be the longest best-of-three sets singles match on the ATP World Tour in the Open Era (since 1968). Not to take anything away from Federer, who played an excellent clay match against his fiercest rival. He was able to take advantage of Nadal’s heavy legs and prolific unforced errors. He kept a cool head, which has not always been the case for the Swiss maestro recently. He truly earned the win and will now head into the French Open next week with buckets of confidence.

Nadal mostly staggered through that match. His legendary focus on big points was absent. He went 0/4 on break points against Federer in the match and saved neither of the two break points Federer had against him. Nadal's backhand was often short and tired looking and he could not find his range on the forehand wing. Federer, who obviously noticed that Nadal was struggling with his movement, used the drop shot to great effect. His tactics were simply exceptional throughout the match. Besides these two great players, other challengers in the men's field will include Novak Djokovic, David Ferrer and maybe Andy Murray.

For the ladies, the draw looks wide open with a few likely ones challenging for the honors. Svetlana Kuznetsova, Jelena Jankovic, Elena Dementieva and Ana Ivanovic are the usual suspects though the latter and who is a former World No 1 and defending champion hasn't been playing well recently. After losing in the 3rd round at the Australian Open, Ana has managed only 2 quarterfinal appearances to date so far and pulled out of the Madrid Open last week with a knee injury. The Williams sisters Venus and Serena haven't done so well in Paris recently, but you can never count them out especially in grand slam events. My guess for the win? Dinara Safina, yes Marat's little sister, who is having a super stellar season so far. The current World No. 1 was runners-up at this year's Australian Open (and also last year's French Open). She's the one in ominous form recently and has won back to back clay court titles in Rome and Madrid.

Who will I be rooting for? Rafa of course. I had the honor of taking a picture with him at the Beijing Olympics last year and he was really humble and obliging. But, here's the clincher, Rafa has never lost in Paris, going 28-0 in Paris since first winning there in 2005. He has never even been pushed to a 5th set there so far. In fact, he didn't lose a single set in last's year's run to the title. This year will will be tougher though given he has a tough draw. But in Paris, he's still the man to beat.

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