Thursday, May 24, 2007

Roland Garros: A Tale of Four Finalists

As we know, last year Justine Henin defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova in the Roland Garros final and Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer. This year, both two-time defending champions suffered their first defeat on clay to their runner-ups in their final claycourt events of the season before Roland Garros.

A nice bit of parallelism, no?

When Justine was recently asked who her biggest threat at Roland Garros would be this year, she said, "Clay is Svetlana's favourite surface. She has the potential to go all the way. How a player does at a grand slam depends on so many things. We have to look at the draw, the playing conditions or if somebody is sick or injured." [Src]

Surely, a determined Serena Williams or a fresh (wishful thinking!) Jelena Jankovic could challenge Justine on her beloved Court Philppe Chatrier, but Justine, at least in this interview, appeared only to mention Sveta. Tennisheads have suggested Justine, to her credit, is playing mindgames with the mentally fragile Russian, hoping to add more pressure to the slow cooker so if the two should contest another final (or semifinal, a possibility based upon their projected seedings), Justine will easily regain the edge and take down her "biggest threat."

Few doubted Justine chose her words ever so carefully.

Rafa, on the other hand, doesn't need to be asked who's his biggest threat. With Roger's comprehensive final two sets over the Claycourt Master in Hamburg this past Sunday, writers have spit out articles like extras proclaiming Roger's slump a thing of the past and predicting once again that this will be Roger's year to win his elusive Paris title and clench the crown of Greatest of All Time once and for all. However, when a fan wondered aloud if Nadal intended to lose in order to allow Roger to build up false hope (a "set up of arrogance," one tennishead put it), a throng of Federer fans squashed such a notion as the most absurb statement since my suggestion that Roger possesses an inconsistent forehand. Afterall, champions - male ones, anyway - don't play mind games. Uh huh.

While I don't think Nadal intended to lose, it will be interesting to see how each handles the result at Roland Garros where best-of-five set matches are more grueling than best-of-three. To Roger's credit, he doesn't appear to be reading more into the victory than necessary (the same can't be said for scores of pundits). Like the other World No. 1, Roger is cautious. "Everything starts again at zero at the French Open," he said. "I have to go step by step, it's best-of-five set matches, that's a big difference, and I have to check out the draw and see who I play." [Src]

If Rafa is playing any mind games with his words, you'd have to find them in these. "I lost against the number one and one of the best in history. He has unbelievable talent and he can come back at any time.

"I came here and played some of my best tennis and I can't be sad that I lose one match to the world's best player.

"I shall go to the French Open just as confident." [Src]

What has been missing from the hype for another potential Rafa/Raja final is that Nikolay Davydenko and Lleyton Hewitt showed how to take Rafa out of his comfort zone on his beloved surface. Juan Monaco, David Ferrer, and Carlos Moya all took a set from Roger. Filippo Volandri showed that pushing through till the end of the match can pay dividends against the Great One. And then there's that Guillermo Canas. One courageous victory by the FedGod over a mentally fried opponent doesn't erase what came before it, no matter how deafening the clamor.

Yes, Roger would want to check the draw.

If Justine or Rafa pull a hat-trick of titles at Roland Garros, more power to them. But unless you're fans....

If Sveta or Raja break through in Paris for the first time, one will shed her label as a One-Slam Wonder; the other will be crowned GOAT. I'm a fan of history, if not Sveta or Raja, but these labels mean absolutely nothing to me.

And I doubt any of these occurrences will make the sport any more attractive to the casual fan.

I, for one, wouldn't mind seeing four brand new finalists at Roland Garros this year. And if any of them is French, all the better. There's nothing like watching the home crowd at a Slam root for one of their own on the final weekend.

Now that would be good for the sport.


oddman said...

While I can agree with you that seeing some new names in the finals would be refreshing, I don't know if the casual fan would remain as interested. Depends on how you define 'casual fan' too. There's been so much media focus on Fed-Nadal and their rivalry, and on whether the world no. 1 can win all four slams. If I can use horse racing or golf as examples: I think there's more interest in the outcome when there's a chance for a triple crown winner, but not when two different horses win the first two races. Or golf, a lot of buzz going a couple of years ago when Mickelson and Woods were duking it out. People who may not usually pay attention to those sports may tune in and watch due to the media buzz. (eg. the casual hockey fan that only watches the Stanley Cup)
Even tho I'm a fan of Rafa, the extreme attention spent on these two players is getting a bit tiresome lately. I remember the year Gaudio and Coria played in the final, I thought it was a very dramatic match, with a fab surprise ending, but there wouldn't be a whole lot of name recognition going on there for the casual fan.

Craig Hickman said...

Casual fans like Cinderella stories as much as any other. The media knows how to promote just about anything.

oddman said...

Yup. I was once a casual fan too. Wanted to see what all the hubbub was with this bad boy John MacEnroe. And who was this Agassi with the long hair and 'tude. Once I started watching them, (and finally figured out how the scoring works! :D )I got hooked on the game. If some new fans tune in to watch (if it does turn out to be RF/RN) maybe they might catch the fever. Good for tennis.

MadProfessah said...

Craig I think you're absolutely wrong. The one pairing which maximizes coverage of tennis on the men's side is a Rafa/Raja final and on the women's side is a Williams/Sharapova final (which ain't gonna happen).

The media can "promote anything" but they can't put lipstick on a pig, and a Davydenko/Djokovik would be all-pork! :)

Craig Hickman said...

Okay, Mad. At least you made me laugh.

I wouldn't mind not seeing it. And I know I'm not the only one.

Bring on Paris!