FOXSports.com national columnist Greg Couch digs into 10 questions that get to the heart of the French Open, which starts Sunday at Roland Garros in France.
Q. It’s Nadal, Djokovic and … ummm … can anyone else on the men’s side win this thing?
A. Only Federer. And even he doesn’t have much of a shot, especially with his back and knee problems. The thing is, with Nadal out so long last year and into this year with worn-out knees, his ranking has dropped. Also, he and Djokovic are on the same side of the draw and may have to play each other before the final. It is the perfect storm of a draw for Federer. That’s sort of the equivalent of the SEC Championship Game — with the two best teams — deciding who gets to play in the BCS title game. Then, the rest of the country, basically the minor leagues, gets to fill the other spot. Federer is able to beat Djokovic on the right day, and Nadal’s knees might blow up at any time.
You can’t force history to happen. But you sure can stop it with greed, stupidity, recklessness. Tennis ruined a great moment Sunday, just sold it out to broadcasters, to NBC.
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, two all-time greats, were both going for historic heights in the French Open final. It was a dream buildup in a great, new rivalry for a sport that needs as many big moments as it can find. But it rained the whole match, and officials, trying to keep broadcasters happy, kept letting the match go on and on, anyway.
What happened? Not historic greatness, that’s for sure. The showcase was ruined. Everyone lost. Fans saw a crummy match, and it never even finished. Nadal led two sets to one, and trailed 2-1 in the fourth when the match was finally stopped because, well, it’s hard to say why it was stopped, really.
Nothing had changed over the final hour of the match. It just kept drizzling. Maybe officials realized that their greed over TV money, their desperation to make broadcasters happy, had stolen Nadal’s magic and was turning their party into a disaster.
Well, the match is supposed to start up again at 7 a.m. (ET) Monday. But the forecast in Paris calls for more rain. This could drag on for a while.
It comes down to this: They never should have played that match Sunday.
Maria Sharapova could be Danica Patrick now. She surely could have been a Go Daddy girl while dabbling in sports on the side. It would have been so easy.
Instead, with her win Thursday in the semifinals at the French Open, Sharapova will move to No. 1 in the world. She came back from career-threatening shoulder surgery. She still fights the yips on her serve at times. And a win in the final Saturday against Sara Errani will give her a career Grand Slam — at least one title in every major.
Sharapova would be just the 10th female tennis player in history to have done that. Even Venus Williams hasn’t done it.
“It’s a pretty nice feeling,’’ she told reporters as she left the court after her 6-3, 6-3 victory over Petra Kvitova. “I did not know that that (No. 1 ranking) would happen again a few years ago. So I’m just happy to be in this position.’’
When you think of Sharapova, do you think of one of the most focused, determined athletes in the world?
She is. She is Killer Barbie.
And this is just to give people a better feel for what they’re looking at. Or, as Nike is already putting it in an ad: “THOSE WHO BELONG AT THE TOP NEVER FORGET THEIR WAY BACK.’’
The balance of sex appeal and athleticism is always a factor in women’s sports. To be honest, plenty of men are watching women’s tennis for the sex-appeal side of the equation. And there’s always a debate about whether selling sex appeal cheapens the women’s sport or just celebrates athletic bodies. So when someone like Patrick, or Anna Kournikova a few years back, makes huge sponsor dollars without winning anything, it just doesn’t look good. You can’t really expect them to pass up golden opportunities, but it’s hard to say they send the right message to your daughters.
This is what makes a champion in tennis, one who can last through history. It wasn’t just that Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer were both about to lose, and made great escapes at the same time Tuesday in the quarterfinals of the French Open.
It was that they both won marathons that weren’t about endurance or fitness.
Frankly, as US tennis players once again just sit and watch the world’s best fight it out for a major championship, Federer and Djokovic won because of things that American tennis coaches don’t teach.
It was doubly enforced because you could see it in stereo.
Late in a five-set match that came after another five-set marathon in his previous match, wasn’t Djokovic exhausted?
“I guess at that stage,’’ he said in an on-court interview with the Tennis Channel, “you’re not really thinking if your body is tired or not.’’
Serena Williams doesn’t crumble. She intimidates, she bullies, she rages. But she doesn’t act the way she did Tuesday in the first round of the French Open. After choking away the second set against a no-name player ranked out of the top 100, Williams sat on her chair before the final set and started sobbing.
Right there in the middle of the match. Williams was crying. She covered her face with a towel. She grabbed tissue and blew her nose.
Who was that, anyway? Williams went on to lose a three-hour match, a marathon where guts usually wins. Williams, two points from winning, went on to lose to 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano, 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3.
In the 47th major championship of her career, Williams had lost in the first round for just the first time. It was also just the fourth time she had lost to a player out of the top 100.
“Yeah, it is disappointing, but it’s life,’’ Williams said. “Things could be a lot worse. I haven’t had the easiest past six months. Nothing I can’t deal with.’’
Perspective. In the past two years, Williams suffered with life-threatening blood clots in her lungs, and, she said, she also stepped on broken glass in a restaurant, leading to foot surgery.
So, yes, losing a tennis match isn’t the worst thing in the world. But Williams said she had to look back, figure out what she did wrong Tuesday and make sure it doesn’t happen again. It sounded like a simple mathematical formula. Maybe it is. Maybe it was just one bad day. But it looked just too different, too inexplicable. It looked like the start of Williams getting old.
At some point, routines just become ruts. And while watching Andy Roddick in the first round of the French Open Sunday, you might have gotten annoyed at him. Irritated. Frustrated. You were in the rut.
It has been years of feeling that way about Roddick, especially at Roland Garros. But the truth is, it’s time to get off Andy Roddick’s back.
He’s not the present anymore. He’s the past. And it’s not his fault that no other American player has been good enough to move into the present and take the torch of U.S. tennis from him. Roddick, aging, stands there holding it, judged by it.
He lost 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 to Nicolas Mahut, the guy known for losing the marathon 2010 Wimbledon match to John Isner, 70-68 in the fifth set. Mahut is 30, and a journeyman. Before Sunday, in his long career, he had won just one match in the main draw of the French Open.
Great sports arguments work backward through history, step by step, impossible to resolve.
Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus? Jack Nicklaus or Ben Hogan? Muhammad Ali or Joe Louis? Joe Louis or Jack Dempsey? John Elway or Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas?
Somehow, we’ve all been convinced by opinion makers and SportsCenter, who can only sell the Greatest Of All-Time (GOAT), that what we’re seeing now is better than what we saw before. The only way to prove it, of course, would be to get those people through history together in their prime.
That’s what’s different about the place men’s tennis is in now.
“A very special time,’’ Roger Federer said.
Unless opinion-makers are just at it again, working their magic, this might be the moment when the three all-time best meet. Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer go into the French Open this weekend aiming for a different and defining spot in history.
Take all the people who watched Game 5 of the NBA Finals with LeBron and Dwyane and Dirk, and add to that the people who watched the NCAA Championship Game between Butler and UConn.
From there, add everyone who watched The Decision. Plus Kobe Bryant and the Lakers playing Game 7 in the NBA Finals last year against Boston. Plus all of the first four games in the Stanley Cup finals this year. Heck, throw in everyone who watched the American Idol finale.
You know what it adds up to? (Warning: This will not connect well with the American sports psyche.)
It adds up to fewer people than watched the French Open women’s singles tennis final last Saturday.
No, not in the U.S., where just under two million watched the match. In China, 116 million people watched Li Na become the first Chinese major singles champ, beating Francesca Schiavone. But this isn’t to report the ratings, which came out a week ago. Instead it’s about what these numbers mean to American sensibilities. Be honest: We think of ourselves as the center of the sports world.
But Game 5 of this year’s NBA Finals drew 12.9 million viewers. Nine times that many people watched Li in China.
Doesn’t a sport have to do well in the U.S. to be popular and healthy? Honestly, I sort of think it does. How many Americans know that soccer is popular everywhere else, but won’t really make it big until it makes it in the U.S.? There is just too much money here, and such a celebrity culture. Continue reading
We are so used to Roger Federer’s greatness going on and on and on that we forget how quickly things can just go poof in tennis and disappear. I’m not talking about a Bjorn Borg-like disappearance, when he decided one day that it was time to go. More like Pete Sampras, who was great, was great, was great and then one day you looked up and didn’t realize how far he had dropped. Of course, then, at 31, he emerged from nowhere to win another U.S. Open. Then, he really did disappear.
The point is this: I wonder if we’ve seen the last of the great Rafael Nadal-Federer matches.
Maybe Nadal’s 7-5, 7-6 (7-3), 5-7, 6-1 win over Federer Sunday at the French Open will be the last time they’ll meet in a major final. Federer’s age, Nadal’s knees and the fantastic state of the top of men’s tennis make that a very real possibility.
Buzz Bissinger wrote today in the Daily Beast that Nadal vs. Federer “has become the Ali-Frazier of modern-day sports. And it is terribly needed. . .Every match they play, and they have fought it out 25 times, sizzles with that electric wattage that something incredible is about to happen.’’
Their contrasts have a way of attacking all senses. Lefty vs. righty. Classic vs. modern. Floating vs. storming. Rock vs. classic. It is the best individual rivalry in sports, which might explain why NBC’s overnight rating for the French final was up 63 percent in the U.S. over last year’s final.
Nadal is only 25, but has put hard miles on those knees with his style. He has missed long stretches because of them, undergone blood-spinning treatments. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic has climbed to Federer’s and Nadal’s level. Juan Martin del Potro, who beat Nadal and Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open, has just about fully recovered, and found his conditioning, after wrist surgeries. Andy Murray is lurking.
Without Nadal and Federer at No. 1 and No. 2, you can’t even count on them being on opposite sides of the draw, allowing them to meet in the final.
Already it had been more than two years since the last time they met in a major final. Two-plus more years and Federer will be pushing 32.
I have been chasing a Federer-Nadal match for a few years, with comically bad results. Incredibly, I’ve never seen them play each other live. The gods are conspiring against me.
This is the look of dominance. Roger Federer is not the best anymore. Novak Djokovic is not the best today. Juan Martin del Potro might be the best later. They are all great, but keep your focus on the right place and the right time.
Rafael Nadal beat Federer Sunday 7-5, 7-6 (7-3), 5-7, 6-1 to win the French Open. His sixth French Open title, tying Bjorn Borg’s record. Nadal holds on to his No. 1 ranking, goes into Wimbledon as the defending champ and favorite.
And, oh yeah, he also validated himself. Huh?
Two weeks ago, Sports Illustrated proclaimed Djokovic “The Most Dominant Athlete in the World.’’ Four days ago, Nadal previewed the Federer-Djokovic semifinal by calling it the greatest player of all time vs. the greatest player of today. Nobody blinked. On Sunday, Nadal won his fourth major in the past 12 months. He has won four of the past five majors.
Best today? Yes.
Best ever? “No. For sure, no,’’ he said. “What Roger did is almost impossible to improve. He is best player in history in my opinion. I am 25; this victory is very important for this year in my career.’’
Nadal has won 10 majors now, to Federer’s 16. But he has beaten Federer in 17 of their 25 matchups.
To me, Nadal is the best ever, as things stand. His best is better than Federer’s. But Nadal’s story is nowhere near fully played out. Federer’s greatness lasted much, much longer than Nadal’s has. Nadal has owned Federer, but what if, say, del Potro owns Nadal over the next four years? Or what if Djokovic does? Continue reading
Greg Couch is a national general columnist at FoxSports.com, and has traveled the world covering tennis. He is a member of the International Tennis Writers Association. A former sports columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, he is an award-winning journalist whose tennis writing has been anthologized in the book "The Best American Sportswriting."