Rafael Nadal just can't stop sticking it to Roger Federer.
Usually it's by winning, but now the obnoxiously talented Spaniard has done both Roger and the rest of the world a disservice by losing his first ever match at Roland Garros. Nadal not only deprived us of yet another electrical final, but if Federer does win the French this year, there will undoubtedly be legions of writers and fans who are ready to throw up an asterisk next to the victory because he didn't have to beat Nadal to do it.
Of course, any even casual tennis fan looks forward to Federer-Nadal finals, but this year and this Slam are of particular interest to me. There are several reasons for this.
1. The French Open is probably my favorite tennis event. I studied in Paris and am an unapolegetic Francophile. As cliched as it is, nothing beats Paris in the spring. I always picture Parisiens eating their bread and coffee in cafes and enduring the familiar yet alien smell of the festering Metro to ride to the stadium to cheer on their favorite players (including Andy Roddick?!). The trees are blooming and they're probably eating a lot better than me*.
There's also something about Roland Garros. Maybe it's because the clay is so bright and red and different from the other surfaces, and it's fun to watch the players get dirt all over themselves when they're sliding around for balls. Maybe it's because there's some connection to the soil that is evoked and that clay--like grass--takes so much care that it's almost like agriculture, that it generates something more visceral in us than watching sports on concrete. Maybe it's the knowledgable and undeniably French crowd that makes the event so fun. I really don't know what it is, but I love the goddamn French Open.
2. Federer is my favorite tennis player. I share David Foster Wallace's obsession with seeing him hit shots that are seemingly impossible, doing so with grace and class and what looks like little effort.
Federer has also never won a French Open.
He certainly is talented enough and has pretty much dominated every other event in tennis. But right when he had tuned his game enough to win one in Paris (and potentially all four Grand Slams in one year), a young, butt-picking Spaniard wearing a tank top and capri pants emerged on the scene and dominated the event with Federer-esque ease. Nadal had not lost even one match at Rolan Garros until now.
So whenever the French Open comes around, I get excited for Roger to get the final feather in his cap and cement his legacy as not just another Pete Sampras, who can dominate on grass and concrete so easily that it's almost to the detriment of the sport but can't get it done on the trickiest surface in the sport. Federer may indeed get it down this year, but his naysayers will always point to the fact that he never had to beat the surface's arguably best player of all time to do it.
3. Ever since I read this article about how Federer owes Nadal a debt, I have become obsessed not only with Federer eventually beating the younger and stronger Nadal, but doing it at the French Open in dramatic fashion. To sum up the article, the writer makes the point that every great individual sport athlete needed a foil. Fans don't like watching coronations and choreography; they prefer struggle and drama.
Without his struggles later in his career, Ali might never have become the beloved champion that he is. Without Frazier, Ali would not be Ali. The same could eventually hold true for Federer if he manages to eventually get the best of Nadal. Rafa will have pushed him to places he never would have gone when he was mowing over opponents without dropping a set, which he did at the 2007 Australian Open. Sure, Roger has beaten Nadal before, but recently it has looked like Rafa was destined to cruelly rip the Slam record from Roger's grasp and brutally relegating him to second banana status. People would say, "Federer was pretty good for a while, but only because it was before Nadal came around."
I openly cried right along with Roger at the Australian Open when it seemed that he might have nothing in the tank and that he might never win another Major. That article made me realize that Nadal's claiming of the number one ranking wasn't the end. It was just the beginning.**
For whatever reason, I just had a feeling about this year. I had the whole thing scripted out in my mind. Roger would dry his tears and hunker down after the Australian Open. He would rethink his strategy and push himself harder than he ever has before, maybe even hire a coach to help him. Nadal--better than ever--would seem unbeatable. Every major writer and expert would say that Federer had no shot at all at beating Nadal. They would point to the beatdown from last year's French Open Final and the Australian Open and say that Federer just couldn't beat Nadal anymore and that he should probably just retire. Federer and Nadal would both oblige and cruise through the tournament to meet in final. Roger would then come out and struggle in the beginning of the final and dig himself into a two-set whole, setting off one of the greatest and most improbable comebacks in tennis history. Federer would finally cement his legacy by tying Sampras's record at the event Sampras could never win, beating the one oponent he couldn't beat, all while finding value in adversity and winning over the last few people who don't love him.
Great story, but alas, Nadal has left us wondering what could have been. Maybe he lost his Samsonian power by taking off his manpris or he got too complacent or he just had a bad day, or...whatever, he blew it and couldn't get past Robin freaking Soderling.
I'm sure there will be lots of speculation about would have happened in the Finals. As for me, if Roger does win it, I'll be thinking a lot about what happened two weeks ago in Madrid, when Federer beat Nadal. On clay. In Rafa's home country.
*The French, not the trees.
**I also just realized from typing that paragraph that I need to turn in my man card for crying at tennis.