Well, now things are getting interesting. The quest for an ever-elusive French Open title–which, in the minds of most, would elevate him to GOAT (Greatest of All Time) status–just got a little easier for Roger Federer, who today beat Rafael Nadal to win in Hamburg, ending Nadal’s ridiculous clay court match winning streak at 81 (the longest on any surface on the men’s side; Chris Evert owns the all-time record with 125 on clay). The past few months have been a little too human for the dominant Federer, who had not won a title in his last four tournaments, leading him to split from his coach Tony Roche before the start of the Hamburg tournament.
This has to bode well for his confidence; conversely, I wonder what it does to Nadal’s. He began the clay-court season in his generally dominant fashion, experienced a few tough matches recently, and then today, after handily winning the first set against Federer, gets whipped in the remaining two. One might worry that this would damage his pysche, send him into a bit of a tailspin. One might also see this as a wake-up call, and the chance for him to prove once again and that he’s king of the dirt, regardless of Federer’s recent breakthrough.
With the French Open starting in a week, Federer and Nadal are the frontrunners to take the crown. Upstart Novak Djokovic has posted some impressive results as of late, but has yet to really prove that he can step up with the big boys on the big stages on a consistent basis. And I think we can rely on the usual American crash-and-burn.
I’ll still take Nadal, but his all-but-forecasted showdown with Federer in the final will be an absolute can’t-miss.
Jelena Jankovic has emerged as a big threat on the women’s tour, and today she beat Svetlana Kuznetsova to take her third title of the year and second on clay. Kuznetsova falls to 0-4 in finals this year, including two in a row on the dirt. Kuznetsova has obvious talent, but I’ve never really been impressed with her mental fortitude when it comes to the big matches (she is the proud owner of a 2004 U.S. Open title, defeating fellow Russian Elena “How To Win Without A Serve” Dementieva). Jankovic has shown incredible strength in big situations, except for when she plays Justine Henin (three matches where she held sizeable leads, all of which she ended up losing, two of them in the past month).
Ah, Henin. The world’s number one, the current queen of the French Open (3 of the last 4), the tiny Belgian with the big game, erratic nerves, and almost-impossible-to-root-for personality. Her dominance on this surface makes her a clear favorite to win her third French Open in a row, except for one titanic roadblock: Serena Williams.
Williams has been the clear story of the year, tennis-wise. She showed up to the year’s first major, the Australian Open, at a lowly 81, criticized for her lack of match play and her lack of fitness. She then proceeded to barrel through the draw (not without some scares) and eventually dismantled top seed Maria Sharapova in possibly the most dominating performance I’ve ever witnessed on a tennis court. Sharapova might reluctantly agree, considering the tailspin she’s been in since, which includes another thrashing a few months later in Miami, where Williams reached the final against Henin, played terribly, was down two match points in what was looking like a rout, and then yet again summoned all her will and power to gut out a grueling, tense victory.
The big question for Williams again is her fitness; she suffered a groin injury in her first clay court tournament, which could hamper her movement–a big drawback on clay, and especially against a player like Henin. She posted some good wins at Rome, but somehow managed to fall victim to Patty Schnyder, one of my favorite headcases in all of sports (her coach dragged her into a cult, took her away from her family, convinced her that a diet of orange juice was sufficient for a world-class athlete. Oh, Patty! Good to see you’re still alive). Still, you’ve gotta love Serena’s chances on the big stage.
Her sister Venus has been inconsistent all year. Kuznetsova and fellow Russian Nadia Petrova are strong players with iffy constitutions. French hopeful Amelie Mauresmo has struggled since coming back from an appendectomy, and has always collapsed in front of her home country. Kim Clijsters has finally retreated to homemakerdom, and Maria Sharapova is doubtful due to an injury.
Though the draws aren’t out yet, I would imagine any possible clash between Henin and Serena Williams would produce a potential classic and the eventual winner of the title. Jankovic is an outside shot, but I don’t see her stepping up to take out either Henin or Williams. Reluctant pick: Williams.