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Thursday, June 05, 2008

French Open Tennis

Roger vs Rafa: Tennis' great rivarly may come to a head

June and July are without doubt the peak of the sporting year (well, if you don't count three weeks in August that promise to be pretty spectacular!), because they bring the start of the European track and field season, the major soccer championships (Euro 2008 in this particular year), a great deal of top cycling in the build-up to the Tour de France, and of course, the French Open and Wimbledon.

And it's the French Open that I thought I'd look at briefly today. Over the past few months, The Science of Sport has become much more like the Science of Running! Apologies for that (to all those interested in the other sports, anyway), I guess it just evolves that way out of our interests, time, and readership! But today, a change of tactic, as we switch the running shoes and roads for the racquets and red clay of Roland Garros, for the year's second Grand Slam.

Roger vs Rafa: The great rivalry to continue?

OK, I'm counting my chickens here, because Roger Federer has to overcome the challenge of Gael Monfils (which I don't see posing too many problems), while Raphael Nadal has the slightly trickier prospect of getting past Novak Djokovic.

But if they do (I hope they do), then the final on Sunday should deliver (again) one of the great match-ups of tennis. Last year, Nadal beat Federer in a 4-set final, denying Federer the chance to win the Grand Slam at only the second hurdle. That possibility is already gone this year, for it was Novak Djokovic who took out the Aussie Open in January this year, and so Federer's quest for the French Open takes on a slightly different meaning. It's still the title he desperately needs to win - the "most difficult" one of all to claim, they say. And certainly, if you look at the typical line-up of entrants in the French Open, there are probably about 10 guys who could, in their year, win the French Open, versus perhaps 3 or 4 in all the other Grand Slams.

Until, that is, Raphael Nadal came on the scene. The greatest claycourt player, by a long way, of the current era, and probably the greatest ever, Nadal is the gladiator on the clay courts. His record at Roland Garros is incredible - never been beaten, some 26 games later. On the clay, even better - he was on a record winning streak of 81 matches before it was Federer who beat him in 2007. Since then, he's lost 1 more match in perhaps the last 30. Remarkable dominance, and which Federer will likely have to overcome (again, if they both overcome their semifinal opponents).

Last year's final: Strategic blowouts and ?

Last year's French Open Final between the two delivered one of the more bizarre matches of the year. The hype was certainly not over the top, it was by no means an anticlimax, but it was a peculiar match, for a number of reasons. It seemed at the time (as I wrote in a post the day after, all of one year ago), that Federer had been sucked into playing the Nadal claycourt game.

His tactical strategy was perhaps the most amazing aspect. The absolutely magnificent commentators we have been getting on the SA Supersport feed (take note Supersport - that's what commentary is supposed to be like) noted that it seemed that Federer was hell-bent on proving to the world that he could outhit Nadal from the baseline. In that 4-set match, Federer made 60 unforced errors (to Nadal's 20), and his first serve percentage was down to 30%. He had 20 break-points in the match, converted only one! Raphael Nadal at one point looked as though he might be injured, because he simply stopped chasing down balls, and he didn't play his best game, but Federer kept spraying his forehand long, wide and into the net.

Perhaps that is symptomatic of the pressure playing Nadal creates. The onus to pull of shots that are just that little bit deeper, wider and harder is bound to exact a toll on performance. But Federer, who is the most beautifully elegant player, in terms of his movement, in the game, failed last year to rise to the challenge. Perhaps this time around, it will be different?

The dark horse Djokovic

Of course, the dark horse in all this is Djokovic, a man who, in theory anyway, could win the Grand Slam before Federer (barring that tournament at Wimbledon, which will be a little tricky to win!) He's the "floating" seed in the draw, and the way the French Open draw worked out this year, he actually helps Federer, by virtue of the fact that he takes Nadal in the semi-final. That means not only that Federer's passage to the final is easier, but that Nadal and Djokovic get to slug it out with each other before moving onto the inevitable meeting with Federer. Fortunately, a two day break in the Slams means fatigue is not a major concern, but still, the mental and physical effort of playing two huge matches to win must count against one of these two.

I know I'm hoping for a Nadal-Federer final, just to see a repeat of last year's match, and maybe, a change of strategy that challenges the Spaniard's dominance.

Of course, now that I've written all this, any bets that Monfils beats Federer, and Djokovic beats Nadal, and neither of the big two are even playing Sunday! Regardless, I'll give my two cents' worth on Monday!



Trooper said...

Nice article there..
A few points I'd like to add..
Rafa has been absolutely monstrous so far this year. It's like he's on a vengeance trail, and he looks like a man possessed right now. After beating Almagro in the most lop sided quarterfinal match of the Open Era, I think he will manage to get past Djokovic in 4 if not 3 sets, though it will be tougher than anyone he's faced so far. Federer on the other hand, has what you might call the easier semi, but I'm not so sure. Monfils will have the entire crowd behind him, and on his day, he's quite a handful. If he can get the first set, I think it'll be quite interesting. All in all, I'm hoping for a Rafa-Fed final again, and it will be great to see Rafa win his fourth straight French Open title, equalling the legend Borg's record. In fact, let me go a step further. If he can keep this pace up, I think he might pip Fed to Wimbledon this year as well. I know I'm really sticking my neck out there, but hey, let's see!


The Sports Scientists said...

Hi Trooper, and thanks for joining us here at The Science of Sport.

You sound like quite a tennis fundi and serious fan, and I hope your man wins on the day. Federer will go down in history for his achievements so far, but it would be fantastic for Rafa to carry on with his string of French wins to make his mark as well.

We welcome bold predictions here on the Science of Sport! Wimbledon is just around the corner so we will not have to wait that long to see if you are right.

Kind Regards,