A strange thing has happened to the game of professional tennis lately – they’ve slowed the damn courts down again. But this isn’t the first time this has happened. Years ago, apparently the powers-that-be felt the game of tennis was becoming too boring. It first happened around the time Pete Sampras won the US Open in 1990 and fired aces left and right at Andre Agassi to win the trophy at the age of nineteen. The courts were playing too fast and there weren’t enough rallies going on to keep the paying public interested in filling stadiums to watch tennis matches. So the tournaments made the conscious effort to slow the game down to make it more exciting, presumably. This has made the Grand Slam campaigns very interesting year after year. Every slam except for the French Open has had its surface tampered with one way or another over the years, which has definitely separated the men from the boys.
It has been very noticeable at Wimbledon the last couple of years. The grass courts have been playing like a clay court! With the naked eye, it looks like the players are in slow motion finishing off rallies. Since Stefan Edberg and John McEnroe retired, players haveabandoned a serve and volley style of play and are slugging it out from the baseline. Roger Federer has won nearly all of his slams from the baseline. The counter punchers like Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and in a small way Rafael Nadal are ecstatic.
I include Rafa in the company of Murray and Djokovic reluctantly because Rafa’s game did not start out as a counter puncher. He developed his game to turn defense into offense so that he could adapt to the grass courts of Wimbledon and the hard courts of the Australian and US Open. Roger has only himself to blame for losing so many finals to Nadal and his number one ranking. Rafa looked for ways to improve after so many years being the number two player. Roger threw down the gauntlet and told players for years he was the man to beat and Rafa got the memo. Rafa studied both his game and Federer’s game so that he could make the improvements necessary to win over Federer not only on clay, but grass and hard courts as well. In the process he has become a formidable opponent and is giving everyone, including Federer fits.
But I digress – the title of this article is which is most likely to happen – Rafa win the US Open or Roger win the French Open?
Roger is most likely of the two to triumph because he has the game for clay – he just gets stopped in his tracks by Rafa who is arguably the best clay court player to come along in a long time. But Roger has the game, the tools and the savvy to win on clay. If he has just a little luck and a favorable draw, I would give him an outside chance to win in Paris if he launches a smart campaign to take the title.
But that is a big IF; I would hope that Roger has learned something from his four previous attempts to beat Rafa in Paris and will put what he has learned to good use. Stay out of rallies, practice patience and end points quickly – if he puts all of these tactics to good use, he may have a chance to wrest the Roland Garros trophy from Rafa. I say this again for emphasis – stay out of rallies, Roger! Rafael Nadal is NOT going to be beat from the baseline.
Rafa’s road to the US Open final will be a little harder. While Rafa clearly has the game and the competitive fire necessary to win Grand Slams (he has six so far and counting…), the US Open unfortunately falls at the time of the year when Rafa is winding down. Rafa expends so much energy during the clay court season, he has little juice left as the grand slam year (between January for the Australian and August for the US Open) comes to an end. The big IF for Rafa is if he tempers his energy and leaves some reserves in the tank for the end of the year, he may be able to finally make it to the final of the US Open and lift the trophy.
The caveat for 2008 is that it was an Olympic year and Rafa did have a successful campaign, winning the gold medal in singles. He came awfully close in New York last year if he had been able to make it to the final of the US Open. He also has spoken out publicly about the length of the tennis year and the scheduling which does not seem to favor the players at all, so hopefully the management will listen. It would be a shame to see a player lose out on a chance for history in a slam final because the scheduling was unkind to the players. Scheduling is a two way street, however – Rafa needs to look at his own schedule and practice some restraint.
Time will tell which player will be the victor at the only slam to elude them. It will be interesting to see who comes out on top.