Rafael Nadal: The Master of Clay

Written by  on June 6, 2011

By TOM PERROTTA

ReutersRafael Nadal’s four-set victory over Roger Federer on Sunday in Paris gave him his sixth French Open championship.

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PARIS—Wasn’t this the French Open that was supposed to be different? Well, so much for that.

It’s early June here and, as ever, Rafael Nadal is the French Open champion after a 7-5, 7-6(3), 5-7, 6-1 victory over Roger Federer. This was Nadal’s sixth title, a feat that puts him alongside Bjorn Borg, the only other man to win six times here, and above everyone else who has mastered the crushed red brick of Roland Garros. And there’s a strong case to be made that he has left Borg behind, too: Nadal has now beaten Federer, a winner of a record 16 Grand Slam titles, four times in the French Open final and once in a semifinal. No one has had such strong competition year after year at this tournament and won so often.

Nadal Wins French Open

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“It’s something very special equal the six titles of Bjorn, for sure,” Nadal said. “Is very difficult.”

Nadal fell behind early in the match and came within a clump of tennis ball fuzz from losing the first set. As he served at 2-5, with set point for Federer, Federer carved a drop shot that floated over the net, spinning sideways as it headed toward the ground. Nadal couldn’t get there, but the ball landed out by the tiniest of margins. Nadal won the next seven games but Federer, who thrilled fans here when he beat Novak Djokovic in four sets Friday, wasn’t quite finished. He gave Nadal a scare in the second set after a brief rain delay when he broke serve and pushed the set to a tiebreak. Then he recovered from a 4-2 deficit in the third set, won it and put Nadal in a 0-40 hole on his opening service game of the fourth set.

“All of a sudden, it almost looked like he was going to miss the beginning of the fourth set, and I could maybe run away with that,” Federer said.

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Getty ImagesRafael Nadal won his sixth French Open in seven years Sunday.

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Almost is the eternal story of Nadal. He’s a battler who often plays on the brink—and just when you think there’s no way he can recover, he does. Nadal held that game, and he was off. He closed out the match with five straight games. After the final point, he fell to his knees and dropped his head low and stayed there for a few seconds, relieved to have won the most difficult French Open of his career. Nadal, who has twice won this tournament without losing a set, said it was different—and yes, probably better—to win it after two weeks of tribulations.

“Sometimes, when you fight a lot to win, when you try your best in every moment to change the situation, it makes the title more special,” he said.

As much of a struggle as this match might have been, it was one of many, and not the most trying, during his two weeks in Paris this year. He came here not a broken man, but a badly bruised one. Djokovic had beaten him in four straight finals, two of them on clay. Nadal couldn’t get a feel for the tournament’s new balls, which many players said were harder and faster. He needed five sets to win a first-round match against John Isner, who had won two matches in his career at Roland Garros. He had never played a five-set match here. Nadal, 25, said he wasn’t confident and felt like he had been “playing for 100 years here on the tour.” His uncle and coach, Toni, was worried.

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Getty ImagesRafael Nadal took a two-set lead en route to his win over Roger Federer.

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“It was the first time that we come here and we have the feeling that we are not the best on clay,” he said. “Rafael came here with many doubts.”

The doubts began to fade in the quarterfinals, when Nadal played Robin Soderling, the only man who has ever beaten him here (Nadal’s record at Roland Garros is now 45-1). And then he received a bit of luck that, for anyone else on the tour, would be as pleasant as being struck by lightning. Federer, playing his best tennis in more than a year, upset Djokovic, who had won 43 straight, in the semifinal.

Federer can do more on a tennis court than any player in history. Yet for all his versatility, he can’t solve the singular strength of Nadal: the forehand that hooks and bounces high, especially to the backhand. Federer tries to finish points and Nadal tries to prolong them. Usually, he succeeds. The essence of their long rivalry is easily summed up, and Toni Nadal did it nicely: “The game of Rafael is not too good for Roger.”

Nadal has now won 10 Grand Slam titles and he’ll arrive at Wimbledon as the defending champion and a favorite to win again. “This win give to us big tranquility for the rest of the season,” Toni Nadal said. “We never thought that Rafael could win 10 Grand Slams. And now we have 10. It’s unbelievable for us.”

Even though he lost, Federer left here with a victory of another kind. He’s playing well again and confident that his days of winning Grand Slams are not in the past.

“I told people that we should wait six months after the Australian Open when people thought Rafa and me were done,” Federer said. In two weeks, he, Nadal and Djokovic—the three current kings of tennis—will be back, and it’ll be anyone’s title to take.

Copyright ©2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

 

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News Hub: What’s Causing These Tornadoes?

Written by  on June 6, 2011

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5/24/2011 9:41:14 AM

WSJ science reporter Lee Hotz joins the News Hub to explain the formation of tornadoes and causes of this year’s violent weather outbreak. (REUTERS/Eric Thayer)

 

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