La Undecima Beckons
With Roland Garros almost set to host its annual edition, pulses are racing ; though there are several who have a claim on the trophy, most believe legendary Rafael Nadal will reign over clay, again, writes Aditya K Halder.
Former greats such as Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Stefan Edberg have emanated their magic on a 78 x 27 feet court of lawn tennis. Combining the trophy cabinet of all these yesteryear paladins, the number stands at a staggering 35 Grand Slams.
However, the coveted La Coupe des Mousquetaires has eluded all these legends. To put it simply, winning the Roland Garros is not everyone's cup of tea.
The red dirt's slow pace has inevitably displayed a favouritism towards players who pack a strong baseline game. That's why Rafael Nadal, who played his entire childhood in the clay courts of Mallorca, mastered the art of baseline game and has bagged a sumptuous 10 slam titles on this surface.
A feat achieved by no other, Nadal's supremacy on the clay surface is hard to fully comprehend unless one has witnessed his flawless run to the Final at Stade Roland Garros. The 31-year-old overcame all his rivals with palpable ease before disposing of Stanislas Wawrinka 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 in the marquee clash.
The stage looks set for another such dominance by the Cassius of Clay as he has already left a mark on the season by winning three of the four clay court tournaments in the build-up to the Slam in Paris. In exception of a straight-set loss to Dominic Thiem in the quarter-finals of the Madrid Masters, Nadal stockpile three more titles – the Rome Masters, Monte-Carlo Masters and Barcelona Open – to his 75-strong silverware cabinet. Nadal is exuding the same finesses and flair that tennis followers were accustomed to before his prolonged battle with injuries. He is undoubtedly the overwhelming favourite to lift the Musketeer's Cup this spring for the 11th time.
"There is no doubt about it, he is the clear favourite to lift the French Open title," said Indian tennis legend Mahesh Bhupathi. "He is as good as he ever was. He has won three titles on his favourite surface this season. He has won the French open 10 times. Beating him will be a minor miracle."
The Mallorcan might have lost a few strands of hair on his scalp but the flair and finesse that his fans admired before his unfortunate battle with injury, are certainly back. Unleashing his powerful topspin forehand, playing aggressive backline rallies, using his quick footwork to cover ground; Nadal is doing it all to perfection yet again.
However, the road to Paris has had its fair share of hiccups; cautioning Nadal of a murky path to Undecima.
Nadal's familiar foe, Novak Djokovic, gave a scare to his Spanish colleague when he took the game to the tie-breaker during the semi-finals of the Rome Masters last week. Djoker eventually lost 7-6, 6-3 but not before he emanated glimpses of his old self.
Young Turks in Austrian Thiem and German Alexander Zverev have left the 16-time Grand Slam winner with a bitter taste in his mouth on more than one instance. World No 8 Thiem, who got better of his higher-ranked counterpart on three occasions, not only halted a 50-set winning spree of Nadal but also ended his reign on the top that had lasted for six weeks.
21-year-old Zverev, on the other hand, is still aiming for his maiden win over his 31-year-old rival and certainly upped the Ante by taking a set off from Nadal during his 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 loss at the Italian Open Final. Being seeded second, behind Nadal, for the French Open, a grand finale between them is arguably on the cards.
But former tennis ace Bhupathi is still confident that the title is for Nadal to take. "There is no competition for Nadal at the French Open. Those names (Zverev and Thiem) might beat him in a three-set match but Nadal is a completely different player in a five-set game," Bhupathi highlighted.