Sunday, 9 June 2013

All Paths Lead to ...

With his arduous, but intriguing 5-set defeat of Novak Djokovic in the semi-final on Friday Rafael Nadal booked his place in his 8th Roland Garros final. This time, facing his compatriot David Ferrer who found life a whole lot easier on the way to his maiden Slam final, winning every set he played and blowing over the uninspired, featherweight challenge of his semi-finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

With all the talk at the quarter final stage of the prevalence of beauteous one-handed backhands, and the increased average age of the men making up the final eight, there was a desire to see new names and different faces in the final four.  But the unfamiliar challenges drifted away and a largely predictable set of players contested the semi-finals.  Indeed had Tsonga not pulled out the performance of his tournament to defeat Federer in the quarters the two semi-finals would have been made up of the same four as they were in 2012.  And without meaning to belittle Ferrer's achievements in reaching his first Slam final at the age of 31, but inescapably doing so, it seems almost inevitable that Nadal will make history by lifting the Coude de Musketeers for the 8th time - the only man ever to win 8 times at a single slam.  Such is his record at Roland Garros (58 matches won, and a solitary blip in 2009 when Robin Soderling became the first and only man to beat Nadal at the event) that Ferrer's chances are at best slim, and more realistically none.  Such is the dominance of Rafa in Paris.

It is not just a convergence of the draw that has brought to Nadal to this stage yet again, but also the coming together of a comeback plan forced upon him by a chronic knee complaint exacerbated by a second round Wimbledon defeat last year.  His four months back on tour, that began in South America in February has taken him to a 36-2 win/loss record for the year, 6 titles and now the French Open final.  A series of wins that has seen him defeat the majority of the top ten in the ATP rankings, breaking a multitude of tennis records along the way.

Yet, for large parts of the comeback trail, critics have looked for ways to suggest that Nadal would not be able to successfully defend his Roland Garros title.  The final loss to Horacio Zeballos in his opening tournament in Chile, the loss of sets to top 100 journeymen such as Carlos Berlocq and perhaps the most significant defeat of the spring, that by Djokovic on clay in the final of Monte Carlo in April.  Such were the signs that Nadal still had ground to make up to be the indomitable force of clay court tennis that he had been for the best part of a decade.

Indeed, the suppositions continued into the French Open itself, when a shaky start from the Spaniard saw first Daniel Brands (in Round 1) then Martin Klizan (Round 2) take their opening set from Nadal.  Yet Nadal knuckled through the rest of those matches, and the remainder of the draw before the contest with Djokovic.  That intriguing and thrilling five set contest could have graced the final round of any tournament, but coming at the semi-final stage, only increased the heartbreak for Djokovic as the sole Slam title he is missing slipped from his grasp once again.  For Nadal, the contest may have tired him out, but, unfortunately for his opponent, shouldn't scupper his chances in the all-Spaniard dogfight.

For the last four months, all paths have led to this point for Rafael Nadal.  And the unalterable course of those paths seem to an 8th Roland Garros title for the Spaniard.

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