Rafael Nadal defeats Stan Wawrinka 6-2, 6-3, 6-1
Rafael Nadal had not won a major in three years. In the previous two years, it was doubtful whether he would ever regain his form. Shockingly, both he and Roger Federer overcame serious injuries they suffered in 2016 and delayed Father Time’s inevitable victory to meet in an epic 2017 Australian Open Final that Federer won in a classic 5-set match. In 2017, both men have dominated the sport again. Federer and Nadal have shown that the Australian Open was not a final gasp at the end of their careers. Both men played well on the hard courts after the Australian Open with Federer winning two more big titles, Indian Wells and Miami Open. Of course, Nadal is the King of Clay. With his resurgence on the hard courts, the tennis world braced for his impending dominance on clay. He did not disappoint. He won the Monte-Carlo Masters, Barcelona Open, and Madrid Open. On the other hand, he lost in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open to David Thiem to show some signs of mortality. Nevertheless, he was fittingly the favorite to win the French Open and capture an unprecedented 10th title at Roland Garros. He upped his game even more and cruised to the Final without dropping a set. He also breezed through a rematch with David Thiem in the semifinals.
Obviously, Nadal was the overwhelming favorite going into the Finals. However, Stan Wawrinka was a formidable opponent. He has been a giant killer since 2014. Going into the French Open Final, he had already beaten Nadal in a Grand Slam Final at the Australian Open in 2014. In 2015, he delayed Novak Djokovic’s quest for his first French Open title till 2016 when he beat him in the 2015 French Open Final. Of course, it was extremely impressive because Djokovic was at the height of his greatness at that time. He also achieved a great upset against Djokovic in last year’s US Open. In both finals, he lost the first set against Djokovic before rallying to win the next three sets. Wawrinka has been fearless and relentless in Grand Slam Finals. He is a big hitter who keeps on smashing the tennis ball back at his opponents. He has stepped out of the shadow of his countryman, Roger Federer, to make his own mark in tennis. He is a 3 Time Major winner, former French Open Champion, and unburdened by the impossible expectations that Federer or Djokovic would have in a Final against Nadal. Going into the 2017 French Open Final, Wawrinka appeared to at least provide Nadal some competition and resistance.
Nadal did not leave the outcome of the match in doubt for long. In Wawrinka’s first service game, he held it easily and flashed his elite power as a hitter. He even blasted an ace, which is extremely difficult to do on the slower clay surface and Nadal standing so far behind the line. Nevertheless, hope of an actual match did not last long. Wawrinka held his second service game too but it was a struggle. It was vintage Rafael Nadal afterwards. Again, the clay surface slows down the ball and makes it extremely difficult to hit it past him. As he usually appears on clay, he was everywhere returning balls. He had Wawrinka moving and in disarray all over the court. Nadal was ripping his forehand and the resulting high ball with a lot of spin is always a challenge to handle. It dominated the match. Wawrinka looked especially powerless when Nadal was pounding the forehand into his backhand. Wawrinka desperately struggled to hit the ball back. It was the same script we have seen from Nadal over and over again at the French Open. I have seen him break Federer’s will to compete in French Open Finals with that game plan. Wawrinka was kept off balance the entire match. As such, he was completely denied an opportunity to utilize his great power to play an offensive game. Wawrinka’s frustration exploded at the end of the second set. When he missed a forehand during a point in Nadal’s service game for the set, he slammed and broke his racket against the court then snapped it on his knee for good measure to make sure it was broken. Once Nadal begun to roll, it was an avalanche that Wawrinka had no chance of stopping.
The victory might have been Nadal’s most dominant performance at a French Open. He did not drop a set, made it through the tournament with the second least amount of games lost in a Major, and beat a recent French Open Champion. Nadal was already the Greatest Clay tennis player of all-time. Consequently, winning the 2017 Open only added another exclamation point. The tenth French Open, “La Decimal” in Spanish, is unprecedented. No man or woman has woman a Major ten times. He is almost unbeatable at the French Open. He has only lost two matches at Roland Garros. In 2009, he lost in the fourth round to Robin Soderling in four sets. However, he was clearly hurt at that time and missed Wimbledon a couple weeks later. In 2015, Djokovic crushed him in the Quarterfinals in straight sets, including a 6-1 beating in the third set. Djokovic stunningly broke Nadal’s will to fight at the French Open. Nevertheless, Nadal’s game seemed to be waning by that time. He lost in the second round of Wimbledon then the third round of the US Open later that year. Then, he went on to lose in the first round of the Australian Open the following year. As impressive as Djokovic’s victory was, it is unclear how close to his best Nadal was in that tournament. There was no question that he turned back the clock in 2017 and the total domination in the French Open showed it. When he is playing his best at Roland Garros, a Djokovic at his peak may be the only player who could stay with Nadal because he is arguably the greatest returner in the history of tennis and thrives in the long rallies typical on clay courts.
Federer made the decision to forego the clay season and the French Open in order to be stronger for the rest of the year. It is obvious that he has a much better chance at winning Wimbledon or the US Open to add to his 18 career Grand Slam titles. He is at an advanced age and exerting himself on clay courts and the resulting long rallies did not make much sense. Consequently, it is totally sound for him to rest and be fresher for the rest of the year. In addition, he may have realized that beating Nadal was virtually impossible with the way he had been playing during the clay season. Moreover, Federer has won their last 4 matches, which includes three in 2017 and the Australian Open Final. Does he really want to get annihilated on clay to give Nadal back some of the psychological edge? I do not know for sure if that was a consideration but it would have been very wise if he factored it into his decision. In terms of the greatest player of all-time, the Australian Open was supposed to decide it. However, they are both playing great. As such, the window is still open to settle the argument. Federer is at 18 but Nadal’s victory at the French Open has Federer has closed the gap again: 18-15. Federer has the current edge but I will wait to write the final story until they both retire.
Djokovic has been in a complete slump since winning the French Open a year ago. Except for the US Open Final, he has not even come close to winning another Grand Slam. Winning the French Open completed his Career Grand Slam. Naturally, his motivation and intensity to win dipped afterwards. Pursuing Nadal and Federer for the most career Grand Slams may not mean enough to him. He might be content to just be one of the top 5 players ever. In addition, age might be an issue too. We have seem steep declines for tennis players around or after turning 30. Nadal and Federer had to adjust their games to contend again. Djokovic will need to do the same. In my opinion, Andre Agassi was a great choice as his coach. He was also a great returner and aged amazingly well. Djokovic can definitely resurge to win more Majors but it is no longer a given.
Feels So Empty Without Serena Williams
After Serena broke the Open Era record for Grand Slams, Stefi Graf’s 22, by winning her 23rd at the Australian Open, she subsequently announced her pregnancy. It was amazing that she won a Major pregnant. On the other hand, I felt a little selfish lamenting that we could not watch her play anymore this year. Of course, Serena owes the tennis world nothing. She has accomplished everything she could have ever dreamed of and would leave as the greatest player of all-time. Nevertheless, she has already stated she will return in 2018. Obviously, I have no idea how she will perform when she returns. She has already cheated Father Time for a long time. Will the layoff have adverse effects? On the other hand, the time away might help her. Michael Jordan stepped away for almost 2 seasons in the middle of his prime. While some fans assumed the Bulls would have won two more championships, 8 in a row, if he did not step away; he was tired and mentally drained after his first three consecutive titles. The time away from the game probably recharged and hardened his will and desire to win. It may do the same for Serena. I am done trying to guess what she will do. She has continually redefined the possible and I will just sit back and enjoy every moment she has left for us. She will let us know when she is done.
With Serena Williams absent from the tournament, I did not watch any of the women’s matches. Obviously, the sport still needs Serena Williams. The young stars have yet to seize the moment. Eugenie Bouchard made it to the Wimbledon Finals in 2014 and has not been close to another Grand Slam final since. Americans Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens have not emerged yet. Garbiñe Muguruza faced Serena in the 2015 Wimbledon Final then beat her in the 2016 French Final. Since winning a year ago, she has been inconsistent and not sniffed another Grand Slam Final. Until one of these or another player becomes the next face of tennis, the women’s draw just does not have much hype.
Jelena Ostapenko defeats Simona Halep 4-6, 6-4, 6-3
I did not watch the Final but I was not overly stunned by the result. Simona Halep is a solid player. She is a top 5 player. She has been in contention in recent Majors. With Serena absent from the draw, the field is wide open and it is a prime opportunity for a good player like Halep to win her first Major. She won the first set and was up 3-0 in the second set with a chance to go up a commanding 4-0 if she held serve against the unseeded Jelena Ostapenko. Halep will never have a better chance to win her first Grand Slam. Instead, she got overpowered. The weakness in her game is that she just does not have the power to consistently challenge the harder hitters in the women’s draw. She is a defensive, conservative player. Her strategy is to just return it back. Her offensive game is sparse. Ostapenko just had more power. Even though she did not play great [almost the same amount of unforced errors as winners], it was still too much for Halep to handle. As for Ostapenko, I have no idea if it is a fluke or an emergence. It is a great story because she is unseeded and only 20. With the recent disappointments of the other up and coming players, I will wait to see if she can win another Grand Slam or at least make it deep into another Major.