The French Open finally got over on last Sunday. The thick red fog, which covered Roland Garros, is slowly setting down to offer a better view of what happened over the last clay court Grand Slam of the first decade of the millennium.
The tournament has now completed the transition from an era of specialists in the 90's, to an era of all court players. This began sometime after 1995, when Wimbledon decided to slow down the grass after those serve-exhibition contests between Sampras and Ivanisevic. The process continued in the early part of the decade to adjust to the advent of new racket technology and Luxilon strings. This tournament added the finishing touches.
Never had the big serve and huge forehand combination been more deadly at Roland Garros. Gone are the days of "moonballers" who patiently grinded from way behind the courts playing high percentage tennis.
This tournament was dominated by players who served huge, went for the lines, and were courageous enough to venture the net even on this slower surface.
Specialist "clay-courters" like Ferrer and Davydenko struggled against these exquisite shot-makers and suffered disappointing defeats in a tournament ideally suited for them.
These were only the minor disappointments, however...
The bigger ones came on the first weekend when the two best "clay-courters" coming into the Open, crashed out with heartbreaking losses.
Novak Djokovic had finally came close to solving the Rafa Nadal puzzle on clay, continuously improving his performance throughout the season. He produced one of the best contestsof the year at Madrid, and fans were expectanty awaiting the prospect of having a semi-final between him and Federer.
This is why Djokovic’s shock exit was equally disappointing as Rafa’s. It was painful to see him not standing at his usual place on the baseline, but giving away that extra time to the opponent, while Rafa Nadal never really looked at home at Paris.
If anything, this tournament has been a blessing in disguise for both: Nadal and Djokovic.
They burned themselves out with a jam packed schedule—couldn’t they have missed one tournament out of Monte Carlo, Madrid or Barecelona/Serbian Open?—and with the injury problems now shaping up for Rafa, his scheduling would only improve in future.
One’s loss is other’s gain, as there were many who would take out more out of Paris this year.
Gael Monfils and Tsonga shrugged out their injuries with decent performances, Andy Roddick surprised himself—and fans—producing his career best performance at Roland Garros, while Andy Murray proved that he could be a much more dominating force in the next clay court season.
Juan Martin Del Potro inspired everybody with a dazzling tournament, and his nail biting five-set semi-final against Federer was one of the highlights. Coming into the tournament, there was a huge gap between the top-four and the rest, but the Argentine is slowly converting the fantastic four into a famous five.
There was finally a cheer from the Swedish camp as Robin Soderling pulled out one of the biggest upsets in the history of Roland Garros.
Starting off in villainous fashion with his upset over Nadal, Soderling has quietly managed to win many hearts with his changed character.
It was a bliss to see him immerse in his towels during the changeovers, while the memory of his wrists pushed firmly over his eyes, and a slow—but firm—fist pointed towards his camp after the tough semi-final will remain etched for a long time.
The tournament, however, belonged to the one and only Swiss Master.
One can go ad infinitum about the changed history, his career Slam, justification as the G.O.A.T. but what stood out in this tournament was his tenacity, undying will to win the French and versatility—that not many people can boast off.
He himself admitted that he was not at best during the tournament, and in the third phase of his career, when he may no longer dominate the tennis world as he used to, it is his tenacity and willpower that will help him.
He has started winning “ugly”, just like Sampras did in his later parts, and this is not good news for the emerging generation.
Not many champions can boast the way he routinely manages to come out of deep holes, and ends up defeating the opponent mentally. After all, who can hit that inside out forehand barely clipping the line at virtually a match point down against Tommy Haas?
If anything, it just shows why he still remains the man to be beaten at Slams, despite his relatively poor performances at Masters.
And of course, his versatility. Soderling said after the final that Roger taught him a lesson on tennis. Indeed!
The champion relentlessly attacked his serve right from the baseline—something which none of the other six did). Federer hit deep low bouncing sliced returns to not allow Soderling hit the violent open chest heavy forehand, dumbfounded him with disguised drop shots—is he the best player to produce these stunning droppers?
What more, Federer produced some ridiculous backhand flicks from the baseline—you need to pull such stunners if you are going to stand at the baseline—and played a perfect tie-breaker in the second set.
Federer has sent a strong signal with his camaraderie. If this is how he is serving on clay, all the very best to those competing two weeks later at Wimbledon!
So, now that Roger fully immerses himself in the joy which eluded him for so long (he has announced his withdrawal from Halle as I write this), the fans will be left with more questions unanswered than they would have hoped for.
Will Rafa come out full strength at Wimbledon?
Will Djokovic fully recuperate himself from the two emotional losses at Madrid and Roland Garros?
What about Murray's chances at Wimbledon?
And Soderling? Will he remain a one-slam finalist like his coach Magnus Norman?
With these questions, we bid a goodbye to Roland Garros, and wipe off our red hands to gear up for the classic whites at the All England Lawn Tennis Club!