RG: The A-List
Posted 06/08/2009 @ 6 :11 PM
If tennis is a sport of emotion, the French Open is its annual soul-venting outburst. Roland Garros makes and breaks players. Here is where Ivan Lendl became a man, Michael Chang became possessed, John McEnroe was brought to his knees, Rafael Nadal and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario announced themselves in a blaze of teenage glory, Ana Ivanovic choked and then beat the choke, Natasha Zvereva was forever humiliated, and Guillermo Coria lost it all. Whatever it is about Roland Garros—I suspect it's some combination of seeing red and hearing French—that pushes players to their emotional limits was in evidence again in 2009. Coming into the final weekend, we knew only one thing: There would be tears. Let’s see whose were for the better, and whose were for the worse. I’ll start today with the better.
Can the first point of a match win the whole thing for a player? That’s what I wondered when Federer went up 0-15 on Robin Soderling’s serve in the opening game of the final. They engaged in a sharp rally in which neither player backed too far behind the baseline. Soderling took the same full-blooded cuts from both sides that he’d been taking all tournament, but Federer snapped them back without giving ground—he even took them early. Finally, Soderling, unable to find a hole, shanked a backhand wide. The ball kerranged off his racquet and hung in the air like a misplayed note. It was the sound of Robin Soderling becoming Robin Soderling again. He would lose his serve immediately and never seriously challenge Federer.
While the final was routine—the Spanish freak who jumped onto the court was a lot more menacing than Le Sod on Sunday—Federer’s 14th Slam was his most arduous, and for that it was his most memorable. I wrote after his U.S. Open win last fall, in which he’d survived a five-set scare against Igor Andreev, that Federer, who had shown us how good tennis could look when winning was easy, might end up showing us how good it could look when winning was hard. While he didn’t do that at the Australian Open—if anything, Federer showed us how hard losing can look in Melbourne—he came through in Paris.
Federer didn’t soar over the field this time. Clay-court tennis is about persevering more than anything else, and Federer spent the tournament finding ways to win. He dared to add a shot, the forehand drop. He outlasted a man seven years his junior, Juan Martin del Potro, over five sets. He belted aces, Sampras-style, to survive the tight second set against Soderling. He won key points at the net in the decisive first-set tiebreaker against Monfils. He threw caution to the wind and belted an unlikely winner when everything looked lost against Haas. He made Acasuso hit one more shot, which he couldn’t.
The Goat debate aside, what’s most impressive—incredible, really—to me is that Federer has matched the very different signature achievements of the two best players of the previous era: Sampras’ 14 majors and Agassi’s career Slam. Does it matter that he didn’t play Rafael Nadal to do it? No. He’ll be measured, as Sampras and Laver have been, on whether he won the French Open, not whether the draw worked out so that he could beat a certain player at the French Open. Still, it should be acknowledged that the stars did some aligning for Sire Jacket over the last two weeks. Coming into the French, he was 1-11 in his last 12 matches against the combined triumvirate of Murray, Nadal, and Djokovic; all three of those guys fell like dominoes before he had to face them in Paris. But to begrudge him that good fortune would be the same as begrudging him the good fortune that made him Roger Federer in the first place.
I’ve always liked and admired Federer, and I love what's he's done for the sport, but I've never been a full-on devotee. As with Sampras in his prime, I’ve found it hard to root all-out for a player who's winning all the time. Most of the time, my professional world is more interesting when these kinds of guys lose. (Though when I watch old clips of Pistol Pete, what seemed like slump-shouldered dullness back in the day now strikes me as a meticulously professional mindset that’s much more enjoyable to watch.) I appreciate Federer's smoothness and elegance, but unlike his more aesthetically minded fans, I don’t believe that beauty is truth, at least not the only truth, and certainly not the only truth in athletics.
Instead, Federer’s game proves something simpler but no less exciting to anyone who plays the sport. I know you’ve seen it before, but watch him watch the ball so carefully onto his strings. Watch him nod his head into his slice to make sure his body is fully coordinated for—fully into—the shot. Watch him extend his swing as far as possible without letting any other part of his body come out of its stance. Watch him make a transition forward without stopping to set up for the ball, yet without running through it, either. Federer makes elegance, which in tennis is another word for doing things extremely correctly, a formula for dominance. In the past, this formula didn’t apply to the down and dirty clay game at Roland Garros, which has always been the province of grinders, not high-flying shot-makers. Now that Federer has conquered Paris and owns every Slam, he’s shown that while beauty may not be truth, in tennis it can be universal. In other words, it can kick ass all over the world. A+
Kuzzie is always in the shadows. That’s understandable, because she usually hangs around and loses just before the final. This time she made it all the way to the winner’s circle and was only pushed farther from the cameras than ever. Not only was she overshadowed by the Week of Federer, she was upstaged by her tearful losing opponent in the final, Dinara Safina.
Still, the Russian might be walking away a new woman. She beat Safina and Serena with superior shot-making and clay instincts. While she suffered her usual catastrophic lapses—how about going up 5-2 in the second-set tiebreaker in the semis before losing five straight points?—she always rebounded. She was disciplined in the final, where she put Safina on a string at the baseline without indulging her taste for the low-percentage. Plus, Safina’s depressingly anti-climactic double-fault aside, Kuz closed the match with confidence. She also showed a lot of down-to-earth class with her muted celebration and sincere trophy speech. A Kuznetsova without all the flaky baggage? That could be something to watch. A+
Soderling reminded us that impossible upsets are still possible on the men's side. Will we see more of the Sod in the near future? Grass is his friend, and indoor grass would seem to be an even better fit. Do we want to see more of the Sod? I’ll say yes, though I know I should be careful what I wish for. By the final, I enjoyed his sonic serve, which he seemed to use a step ladder to pummel from 10 feet above the court, as well as the highly unsubtle roundhouse bombs he threw from both ground-stroke wings. There’s not a lot to love about the guy—he’s the opposite of elegant, or even pleasant—but seeing him crush a tennis ball does have its vulgar satisfaction. A
She looked so ready. Then it all came undone over the course of 20 minutes. We’re back to Serena’s “real” question. Did Safina lose because she choked, or is she just not good enough to win a major? It always seemed odd that such an ungainly player would have her biggest success on clay, and now know that it really was unlikely. I loved seeing her calm ambition during the tournament, her willingness to shoulder the burden of being the favorite. And I’m a bigger fan than ever after seeing her painfully naked meltdown in front of the world in the final. But I thought she came out with too much intensity in the first game—Mary Carillo rightly said that her eyes looked like they were on stems—and that she needs to put some distance between her and her coach on the court. But more than anything, Safina ran into an athletic opponent who was firing her best stuff. Losing in that situation doesn’t make you a chicken. A-
She was at her empathetic—no, that isn’t a dirty word—best in the women’s final, when she brought us closer to Safina in her sad closing moments. A-
The Tennis Channel
Lots of tennis, lots of variety, not much studio nonsense, slicker production. McEnroe, Navratilova, Lief, Gimel, Ian Eagle, Corina, all of them likeable. The bio films on the young and semi-obscure foreign players such as Wozniacki and the Radwanskas that brought us pretty far into their lives. It was a high-water mark for the network. A-
The Men's Trophy Ceremony
Soderling smiles and speaks! Too much, unfortunately (like I said, be careful what you wish for). As for Federer, this was the anti-Melbourne speech. It all came flooding out again, this time in a torrent of words—"my lovely wife, she's pregnant!—instead of tears. A-
"They say it themselves and it's true, the Parisian crowd is pretty stupid. I think the French don't like it when a Spaniard wins," he said. "Wanting someone to lose is a slightly conceited way of amusing yourself.” Good line. A-
Juan Martin del Potro
He could have beaten Federer, but that doesn’t mean this patient power-hitter isn’t still climbing the ladder. Now he’s reached a Slam semi. We haven’t seen a sign of his ceiling yet. A-
Just when you think everyone on the women’s tour is going to be cloned in the future—big return, bloodcurdling screech, shaky serve, low visor, stir and simmer—Stosur showed them what a really good serve can look like. Even more so than the Sod, this was the most improbable run in recent tennis history. A-
The hair flip, the string gaze, the clutch backhand, the scary focus—I enjoyed La Shriek’s suitably dramatic return. She’ still tough, and she can still go completely off the rails, as she did against Cibulkova. But that was kind of fun to watch, too. A-
Michelle Larcher de Brito
I don’t know how long I'll be able to take it, but the 15 minutes I saw of this Portuguese-via-Bradenton wild child were pretty exciting. She throws her body and then some into every ball—I’m amazed they have any kind of accuracy at all—and she’s still screaming when her opponent hits her shot. What’s the big deal, at least she’s not yelling “Noonan!” A-
The Linebacking Security Guard/John McEnroe
They missed the Freaky Intruder over on Federer’s side, but it was a textbook tackle that took him down in a cloud of dust. Football on clay, anyone? It also gave Johnny Mac his best line: “They should pop that guy.” He really is from New York, isn’t he? A-
Tomorrow: The worst of the rest and the rest of the worst http://tennisworld.typepad.com/thewrap/2009/06/rg-the-alist.html