The 2012 French Open taught us that Rafael Nadal is still the king on clay. What else did we learn on this windy fortnight?
First, windy weather dampened the quality of the French Open semifinals on both the men's and women's sides of the draw. Then, rain dominated the plotline in the men's final. The conditions may have resulted in a less than exciting cap to the French Open, at least compared to what we got at the Australian Open in January, but there was still plenty of intrigue to go around.
As the game shifts from Paris to London, from clay to grass, let's take a look at some of the lessons we learned, or in this case, RE-learned, after two weeks at Roland Garros.
1. Nadal Is Still Nadal
As I wrote on Saturday, Novak Djokovic crafted himself into a Nadal killer.
To beat Nadal, one had to combine the best defense on the planet, not to mention a serious level of fitness, with the ability to flip the switch from defense to offense in an instant.
For years, Novak Djokovic had the defense and a solid all-around offensive game, but his fitness, both mental and physical, were not where they needed to be. But after falling to Nadal in four sets (6-2 in the fourth) at the 2010 U.S. Open, he went back to the drawing board. He gave up gluten. He started recovering in a hyperbaric chamber. He got really, really fit. He had enough natural ability that he was already regarded as the third-best player in the world; but once he added extreme fitness to his game, everything came together. He won over 40 straight matches to start 2011, he surged to No. 1, and he has won four of the last five slams. He has defeated Nadal in each of the last three finals. He is fearless, fit, and, even when he isn't at the top of his game (and he hasn't been for much of the French Open), he is impossible to take out. If you cut off his head, he would still save four match points.
In fighting through iffy form through much of two weeks, and in battling back against Nadal on Sunday as the weather worsened and the balls got heavier and sloppier, Djokovic further solidified his reputation as the game's best battler. But on clay, Rafael Nadal still holds the edge over everybody.
By the time Pete Sampras won his seventh Wimbledon title in 2000, the cracks and frays were beginning to show. He was not returning serve incredibly well, and he was getting taken to, and beaten in, tie-breakers a decent amount. He lucked into an easy draw in 2000; he did not face a single seeded player until the finals (and even then, it was No. 12 Patrick Rafter instead of No. 2 Andre Agassi), and he faced a qualifier (Vladimir Voltchkov) in the semifinals. Still, he was taken to four sets four times. It did not dampen the overall achievement -- seven titles is seven titles, and Sampras faced plenty of tough draws in his career -- but the timing helped. Sampras was 28 at the time, but he seemed much older. Nadal, on the other hand, still seems to be adding facets to his game at 26. He made certain adjustments based on flaws Djokovic exposed in 2011 (among other things, his backhand is quite a bit more potent at times now), but Nadal's dominance on clay comes down to one simple thing: Slower courts give him an extra step to track down even the strongest of shots, and the longer he can keep a point alive, the more advantage he begins to derive.
Nadal was so, so good over this fortnight. He dropped just 19 games in his first 12 sets, and after Nicolas Almagro took him to a tie-breaker in the opening set of their quarterfinal, he dropped only 10 games in the next five sets against two tremendous clay court players, Almagro and David Ferrer. As John McEnroe noted on Sunday, just three games into their finals matchup, Nadal was playing so well that he already had Djokovic second-guessing every shot he took. Nadal was hitting deep, and his defense was simply incredible. Yes, his game slipped a bit after that opening flurry of haymakers (after winning the first three games of the match, he dropped the next three and only won the first set, 6-4), and yes, his game slipped quite a bit when the rain made the balls heavier and harder to spin. But it is pretty clear that, to beat Nadal in a best-of-five match on clay, you need two different things going for you: You need him to lose his form for a few different stretches of the match, and you need to absolutely destroy the ball. Nadal's only French Open loss came against a smoking hot Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009. Soderling is one of the biggest hitters in the game, and against Nadal he played out of his mind. It was like the No. 1 team in college basketball losing to an underdog that makes 21 three-pointers. Nobody was beating Soderling that day, and nobody has beaten Nadal since. It takes a superhuman effort, and Djokovic didn't have that in him in the finals.
2. Clay Is Still Clay
The French Open has for so long been to tennis what the British Open is to golf: if you are going to have a funky, out-of-nowhere grand slam champion, it is probably going to come on the red clay. In 1990, 30-year old Andres Gomez came out of relatively nowhere to take the French crown. Sergi Bruguera won his only two slams there in 1993-94, and Thomas Muster won his only slam there in 1995. Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Gaston Gaudio each won their only slams there in respective years (2002-04). Gustavo Kuerten won the French three times but never advanced beyond the quarterfinals at any other slam.
In 2004, three of the four men's semifinalists were from Argentina, and only one was seeded higher than eighth. In 2003, 15 of the 32 men to make the third round were from either Spain or South America, where clay courts rule. While this analogy makes Rafael Nadal the greatest links course player tennis has ever seen, it hints at the simple fact that clay is different. Really, really different. Heading into this tournament, we heard about how the clay was starting to speed up a bit, and it was playing in such a way that the big hitters of today's men's game -- Soderling (who missed the tournament with mono), Jo-Wilifried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin Del Potro, John Isner -- might be able to make some noise. But Isner lost in the second round to a wildcard, and Berdych fell (granted, to Del Potro) in the fourth round. Young power hitters like Milos Raonic (third round) and Bernard Tomic (second) didn't make it to the second week, and aging American Andy Roddick didn't make it to the second round. Meanwhile, 10 of the 32 third-rounders were, again, from Spain or South America. That might be a sign that things are evening out a little bit on this surface (10 is, after all, less than 15), but with Nadal, Almagro and Ferrer filling out three-fourths of one side of the bracket in the quarterfinals, there were still reminders that clay is still clay.
3. This Is Still A Grown Man's Game
The average age of the players in the men's top 10 heading into the French Open was 26.9. The average age of the eight French Open quarterfinalists was 26.5.
Those of us who came of age watching tennis from about the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s developed certain preconceptions regarding what constitutes "old" in tennis. Pete Sampras won the 1990 U.S. Open at 19, and both Michael Chang (1989 French Open) and Boris Becker (1985 Wimbledon) won slams at 17. Andre Agassi was seen as an underachiever when he turned 22 without a slam title. (To say the least, he made up ground.) But today's game is just not built for a 17-year-old to make it very far. Through some combination of power saturation (a 17-year old Becker could not dominate a field with nothing but a big serve and decent forehand) and better recovery techniques, today's tennis players don't seem to age quite as quickly. Again, Sampras seemed quite old at 28, but the last top 10 had three different 30-year-olds (Roger Federer, David Ferrer, Mardy Fish), two of whom made the semifinals on the most grueling surface in the game.
Only one player under 25 made the French quarterfinals (Juan Martin Del Potro), and only two others (No. 18 Kei Nishikori and No. 19 Alexandr Dolgopolov) are in the top 20. For most of 2012, we have been told to keep an eye on a pair of exciting, precocious youngsters -- 19-year-old Bernard Tomic and 21-year-old Milos Raonic. Neither advanced to the second week of the French Open, however, and though Tomic is close, neither has cracked the top 20. You age differently in tennis these days, and while that can be a good thing (one's career arc can last quite a while), it takes a while to get used to it.