Well I love to say I told you so…. A strange French Open was lit up by two absorbing finals this past weekend, and whilst there is no end in sight to Rafael Nadal’s dominance of Paris, it was pleasing to also see Maria Sharapova excelling on the surface on which she once felt like a cow on ice. The finals were both full of drama, but one far outweighed the other in terms of consistent quality.
Rafael Nadal won his ninth French Open crown. Did anybody ever seriously doubt it? I joked watching the presentations that Bjorn Borg must feel like a chump stood next to him, but seriously Borg must never have imagined that one day somebody would better his Roland Garros tally by 50%! The final was not a classic for the ages, in terms of quality it did not come close to some of their previous encounters. For a set and a half it did, but then for some reason both men’s level fell off and Novak’s level went down a notch or two further. What it didn’t do was take away any of the intrigue. The men’s draw at the French Open has now simply become a spellbinding subplot centring on who can dethrone King Rafa. His run now is up there with the greatest runs in the history of sport. He has won that thing nine times for goodness sake. Over ten years, he has amassed 66 victories and suffered a solitary defeat. This has not been a period of dominance in an era without great players. He’s beaten Roger Federer in four of the finals and now Novak Djokovic in a further two, players with 23 Grand Slam titles between them. I’m so happy for Federer that he capitalised on Nadal’s one slip in Paris to capture the career grand slam because it now looks like it will elude Djokovic.
The post-match tears from Djokovic were real – this is a man who has his place in tennis history, but he wants more. He wants to be one of those men who win majors on all four surfaces; the career grand slam list is a lot shorter when you take out the men who won it when majors were all played on the same surface. He wants desperately to win the French Open for this very reason, but he sees his chances slipping. If we’re brutally honest, he is no closer to beating Nadal in Paris than he has ever been – in fact, he is getting further away. I’ve written before how there is no reason why Rafa can’t go on to ten Roland Garros; it seems absurd right now to see him stopping there.
“A satisfied customer – we should have him stuffed” – a classic line from the 1970s sitcom Fawlty Towers, and it’s what sprung to my mind when watching the women’s final. A classic Roland Garros women’s final, we should have it stuffed. The first time a ladies’ singles final has gone the distance at Roland Garros since 2001. 12 disappointing finals were quickly forgotten as Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep delivered a classic. We’ve sat through one-sided all-Russian, all-Belgian, all-Williams finals, we’ve winced as the then-number one Dinara Safina disintegrated into the red dust and we’ve seen nerves get the better of the likes of Sam Stosur and Sara Errani. This was different, a fitting end to a terrific women’s draw. I never doubted that Sharapova would being her A-game but what a pleasing surprise it was to see the young Romanian live with her at every stage of the three-set tussle, and tussle is the word for it.
I’ve followed Halep’s rise in the rankings from a distance, having not seen her play much recently. Other commitments meant I missed most of her Roland Garros run but boy was I impressed with what I did see. She has developed her game in so many areas over the past 18 months and her mental strength means she stands a chance to win majors – I predicted she would crumble under the weight of pre-tournament expectation, having seen it so many times before, but she delivered in spectacular fashion. Look for her to go close in New York later in the summer.
What is left to say about Maria Sharapova? Well, quite a lot I think. So much has been said in the past about her fighting qualities, her maximising of her talent. However, I think it’s time to recognise just how good that talent is. Her victory here was her finest Grand Slam final performance since she lifted the Wimbledon title in 2004 as a 17-year-old. Yes, that was ten years ago. She has been at the top of the game ever since. Not number one, but pretty much top 5 consistently, save for injury absences. In that time, she had major shoulder surgery and reconstructed her service action (admittedly still her bête noire). Ask other champions how difficult it is to play a full schedule at the top of the modern game for a decade. Ask Justine Henin how difficult it is, ask Kim Clijsters, ask Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport. All great champions who couldn’t do it for ten consecutive years. It’s tough, and yet she does all this amongst a volley of cat-calls, bitchiness and mockery. “She takes way too long between points”. “Her shrieks are intolerable”. Twitter bordered on bullying during the final. These statements flew her as accusations of cheating. Like these things were suddenly new. Who calls Djokovic out on his time-wasting? Who has a go at the ridiculous noises Sara Errani or Francesca Schiavone have always made? It’s 2014 but targeting the pretty blonde girl who is successful is still one of the easiest things to do in sport and in life. As for Maria, she’ll carry on shrieking (yes it’s annoying) and she’ll carry on taking an eternity to prepare for points (not the only one – blame the umpires) but she’ll smile every night as she looks at each one of her five major titles. Not bad for “the new Kournikova”.