Greats of the game

King of clay

There was a moment late on Thursday, June 6th that divides opinion in tennis fans. It came in the 47th minute of a Grand Slam semi-final as Serena Williams powered another winner past last year’s runner-up Sara Errani to complete a 6-0 6-1 demolition job. “Lack of depth” screamed one set of voices; “a class of her own” countered the others. Where is the truth? As in all the best differences of opinion, I would argue that it is somewhere between the two. Sometimes, and this goes for both the male and female winners of the 2013 edition of Roland Garros, somebody is just too good.

Serena remarked this week that when she plays at her best level, she is difficult to beat. For once, this was unequivocal modesty from the dominant force in the women’s game. The truth is that when she plays at her best level, nobody on the tour can beat her. I have written before about how determined Victoria Azarenka is to push herself to Serena’s level but the truth is that at this moment in the former’s career, clay and to a lesser extent grass are not conducive to that chase. Vika’s best chance of upsetting Serena will always come on the harder surfaces of New York and Melbourne. Sharapova gave it her best shot but is simply incapable of living with a 100% Williams. It is a fact that Serena is a marvel, a sporting freak of her generation and fitter than ever before.

But away from her, there is depth. Witness Azarenka’s three set struggle against 31st seed Alize Cornet, unseeded Svetlana Kuznetsova’s surge to a classic quarter-final with Serena, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic’s rediscovered confidence, and then the Americans are coming again. Strong showings from Sloane Stephens (to back up her Australian Open achievements) and Jamie Hampton suggest that the women’s game is in fine nick. A word for Sara Errani too – She is too good a player to be remembered for that semi-final disaster. She was simply the perfect opponent for Serena. Let’s instead remember her run to the final last year and her first five matches this.

Queen of WTA

The men’s tournament also had a predictable ending, and in this assertion lays the sheer enormity of Rafael Nadal’s greatness. The final was not played on Court Philippe Chatrier, it was played on Court Rafa Nadal. He owns that place. This is the man, lest we forget, who missed seven of the last 11 months through injury. Whilst not one of their finest encounters, his semi-final victory over Novak Djokovic is still an all-time classic. His destruction of his good friend David Ferrer in the final cemented his place in tennis history. Forever. Eight championships from his nine appearances in Paris. 59 victories to one defeat. The first to win one of the major tournaments on eight occasions. The man is not of this world. And yet it is still his humility that sets him apart from the rest. He said after the final that of course he has doubts and that a man without doubts is an arrogant man. Well call me arrogant, because I have no doubt that he is the greatest clay court player who has ever played and who will ever play this sport. The word champion was invented for Rafael Nadal.

The word perseverance could have been invented to describe beaten finalist David Ferrer’s career. I previously thought that he had maximised his talent but I was clearly wrong. His career, despite him being in his 32nd year, is still on an upwards trajectory. What a tournament for the 30-somethings. Federer reaching his 36th consecutive major quarter-final barely raised an eyebrow and that in itself is testament to his greatness. In addition to this, the two Tommies rolled back the years. Haas solidified his excellent 2013 by reaching the last eight after outlasting everybody’s favourite marathon man John Isner in a 4th round five-setter, and that at the age of 35. Robredo became the first man in 85 years to come back to win from two sets down in three consecutive matches.

These stories, along with Tsonga’s run to the semis and the single-handed showdown between Wawrinka and Gasquet in the last 16 meant that this was an excellent Slam. The only shame was that both finals were won in straight sets, but that statistic only serves to underline the greatness (and that word is overused in sport but not in these examples) of our two French Open champions. Predictable, but unforgettable.

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