Sunday, June 11, 2017

French Open Final Wrap-Up: Nadal is King of Clay Once Again

Rolland Garros/ The French Open

Rafael Nadal

Photo courtesy of Yann Caradec's Flickr Page - Rafael Nadal:

Rafael Nadal was in his second consecutive Grand Slam final of the year, but he was on his best playing service this time around. Nadal lost the Australian Open final earlier in the year to arguably his top rival, Roger Federer, but he enjoyed an incredible run once again at Roland-Garros in Paris. He already is considered by almost everyone to be the greatest clay court player in the history of the game, having compiled some almost unthinkable numbers on the clay during his career. Case in point, he was going for this 10th overall French Open title earlier today.

His opponent, Swiss great Stan Wawrinka, has had a tremendously successful career as well, although his best has come late in his career, as he began winning Grand Slams just a few years ago. He came in having won the French Open two years ago, coming back from a set down to stun then number one ranked player Novak Djokovic, who himself entered this tournament as the defending champion. Wawrinka had a tougher time of it in reaching the men's final on Sunday, but he made it. Still, despite his impressive credentials, it really was no surprise that he came into the match as the underdog. After all, Nadal really has been the greatest clay court player in tennis history.

Jelena Ostapenko, meanwhile, was almost the complete opposite of Nadal. She entered this tournament unseeded, and it is extremely rare for an unseeded player to go all the way to a Grand Slam final, let alone to win it. Yet, that is exactly what the 20-year-old Latvian managed to do, coming back from far behind after dropping the first set and trailing in the second set to favorite Simona Halep of Romania, and still managing to pull off one of the most improbable wins in recent memory.

Yes, Halep, won the first set, and was winning big in the second set, 3-0, when it all suddenly unraveled for her. She was favored because she had more experience, and in fact, was in the French Open final just three years ago, falling to eventual champion Maria Sharapova. Her career has been a bit up and down, going from tremendous promise to disappointments to earning the Most Improved Player Award and back down to disappointments. Yet, here she was, in the French Open final and coming in as the favorite, and she looked like she deserved to be favored through the first half of the match, when she seemed to be dominating, and on her way to a relatively easy championship match. With a win here, Halep would have secured the number one ranking among women for the first time in her career.

Instead, Ostapenko took enormous chances, which is her style, and his some incredible shots that Halep was helpless against. Halep at one point said that she felt like a spectator herself in the match, but that is a testament to how strongly Ostapenko played. She really was incredible, and when she was hitting the points, she was on fire and, frankly, unstoppable. And she is only 20, which means that we may be able to look forward to considerable future success for the Latvian.

Ultimately, Ostapenko beat all of the odds and deficits to come from behind and win her first ever career Grand Slam final here at Roland-Garros, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.

Then, on Sunday, it was time for the big showdown between Nadal and Wawrinka. Wawrinka entered this match just like he had his three prior appearances at Grand Slam finals, as the heavy underdog. But he won all three of those prior matches, so he probably was feeling fairly comfortable.

At least, that is, until play actually began. The first set started off tight between the two competitors, but then Nadal managed to break Wawrinka surprisingly easily while leading the set at 3-2. From that point onward, it was all Nadal, as he cruised through the remainder of the first set to win it, 6-2. Then, he followed it up by winning the third set quite convincingly, 6-3.

Yes, Nadal was on fire. He continued his bruising style of play, frustrating Wawrinka, who at one point, threw his racket and then finished the job in breaking it over his knees, unable to contain his frustration, as Nadal broke Wawrinka to open up the third set, as well.

The match was surprisingly one-sided. While most people believed that Nadal would win, few likely would have expected him to make as short work of Wawrinka as he managed to do. Wawrinka is one of the toughest and most physical men's players out there, but looked completely rocked and out of his element today.

With this win, Nadal not only won a record tenth French Open title, but broke the tie with Pete Sampras for second most Grand Slam championships ever. Nadal won his 15th Grand Slam, and now trails only Roger Federer, the man who defeated him and denied his 15th Grand Slam title back in Australia earlier this year. But by bouncing back from that disappointment and winning this one, Nadal further established himself as not only the greatest clay court player in history, but also as more dominant on clay courts than any other men's player is on any surface, period. He has won 53 titles overall on clay, and his overall clay court record is 383-35. He won 81 consecutive matches on clay from 2005 to 2007, which is the longest winning streak for any player on any playing surface. Now with this championship run at Roland-Garros, he owns a 79-2 record overall at the French Open, dating back to his first tournament there in 2005, which he won at the ripe age of 19.

Yet, for all this dominance, this particular tournament might have established still a new level of dominance for Nadal. Through seven rounds, he lost a total of 35 games, which means that his opponents averaged five games per match against him. No opponent was able to get any more than four games in a given set, which of course means that Nadal did not drop a set, or even come close to it. This was a straight set sweep of the tournament for the undisputed King of Clay.

Indeed, his list of accomplishments was already incredible, even breathtaking, before this match. He is one of a very few men who have won Grand Slam tournaments in his teens, in his 20's, and now in his 30's. He is also one of only two men in history to have won the career Golden Slam championship (the other being Andre Agassi), and the only man who won the career Golden Slam championship as well as an Olympic Gold medal in both singles and doubles play.

Now, he adds his tenth title at Roland-Garros, and he won this one with an incredible level of dominance. His already hugely impressive list of accomplishments during a legendary tennis career are boosted still more with this latest championship, as he obviously reestablished himself as the premiere clay court player once again. As he was prior to the Australian Open showdown against Federer, he only trails Federer by three overall Grand Slam championships now, and if the way that he played today was any indication, Nadal is far from finished winning these kinds of championships!

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