At Roland G., it’s Robin versus Rafa minus Roger

Only four men are left in the men’s draw of the 2010 French Open. Robin Soderling and Thomas Berdych occupy the upper half; if the odds are followed, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who brawled against opposing players last night, will meet in the other semifinals. Looking ahead to this Sunday, it’s expected to be another R & R finale. Only this time, the reigning Roland Garros winner codenamed “FED” will be missing.

(AP Photo/Michel Euler)

What a match the duo played two nights ago. I hope you saw it. In the first set, Federer was impeccable. He won 6-3. In Set 2, he was broken in his first service game, trailed 2-0, then promptly lost 3-6 to Mr. Soderling. In the third set, Roger owned a set point against Robin with the score, 5-4, but—in what turned out to be the point of the match—his opponent saved that game. At 5-all, it rained in Paris. I slept in Cebu. It was nearly midnight. Then, my text-mate that evening, Sun.Star’s Executive Editor Michelle So, sent me a message that my phone captured at 1:48 a.m. Reading it when I awoke at 5:37 yesterday morning, the message was succinct: “RF lost. 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 4-6.” My guess is, Michelle, the leader of the RF Fans Club of Cebu, if ever there was a group, had trouble sleeping after RF’s exit in France.

But what a performance by this Swede nicknamed Soderking. (True: He sawed-off ‘d King.) Robin slammed the ball from his slingshot forehand to Roger’s backhand, drilled a down-the-line backhand, served a 240-kph ace, he played fearless, never, for a moment, intimidated thinking that across the net was The Greatest Of All Time.

Soderling’s offensive gunfire against Federer was the same Robin Hood-like barrage of arrows he unleashed on Nadal last year. Both victories were monumental, said top tennis scribe Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated: “I can’t think of two bigger clay-court upsets in the last, say, 20 years. Those are two just massive wins, but you have to follow it up. We’ll hold off on the Hall of Fame plaques until he wins a major, but those are just two monstrous wins on clay in back-to-back years.”

(AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Peter Bodo, in his blog at Tennis.Com and a story he titled, “K.I.S.S. Revised” (the KISS stands for Keep It Simple, Soderling), added:  “The main difference, in the big picture, was that Soderling reached out aggressively to take the match, and he did that from start to finish. Meanwhile, Federer did a fair impersonation of Hamlet, his game fading in and out like the signal from a distant radio. More and more, it looks as if Federer is not really playing to win, the way a Soderling is in these upward arcing days of his career.

“It seems that Federer is playing not to lose. He’s doing a fair job of that, hanging in, fending off, snarling and snapping like a captive wolf in a cage. But Federer doesn’t seem to seek the freedom represented by victory, or triumph over his captors and adversaries. He doesn’t appear to want to attack, break through, run like the wind and distance himself from his tormentors.

“The question, going into this event, was whether Federer would muster the focus, hunger, and determination that seems to have been in remission since he won the Australian Open. Did he have a stock game for most tournaments and a custom one for majors? Unfortunately for Federer, Soderling was the most dangerous of opponents to entrust with those questions. He asked them all, and we all saw the answers.”

The final question, of course, is this: Who will win on Sunday? If Robin meets Rafa, can last year’s tormentor, who inflicted RN’s first-ever loss at the French Open, win again? Given his thrashing of Roger, will Soderling’s all-power assault once more punish Nadal? Consider that the 6-foot-4 Robin is at his all-time peak in world ranking (No.7) and confidence. Or will Rafa, now fully-healed of injuries and having won three Masters Series clay-court events leading to Paris, avenge his 2009 loss to Robin?

The answer—like the Lakers vs. Celtics dispute—is coming soon.

(AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Boston versus Los Angeles: This is it!

Kobe Bryant is not Michael Jordan. But he’s getting close. With Kobe’s fifth NBA ring just four games away, he’s nearing MJ’s record of six NBA crowns. And, in the much-debated Kobe vs. LeBron contest, we know who’s the true season MVP. One is at home wearing pajamas; the other is playing on Friday.

“Kobe is so good, he makes incredible normal for us [and] those that are around him,” said Lamar Odom. “He spins away from a double team, leans back and hits those medium range jumpers. He uses his footwork to free himself while he’s double-teamed. There aren’t too many players in the history of the NBA that can make those plays. I always commend Kobe for his competitiveness, his preciseness, the way he studies the game and his goal as far as being the best player ever.”

Incredible made Normal. Opposite words turned into synonyms by Mr. Bryant. This series, he’s been Jordanesque; making 52.1 percent of all his shots, and averaging 33.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 8.3 assists. Don’t those numbers remind us of MJ? Here’s more: He scored 30 or more points in 10 of his team’s last 11 games. Plus, if you watched Game 6 two days ago, you will never forget the one shot that caught us in disbelief: Facing Grant Hall on the three-point-line with 34 seconds left, he fired a jaw-dropping shot that blackened the sun of Phoenix.

Incredible is Normal. “He’s one of the very few guys that I have seen play that literally can will the ball in the basket,” said Derek Fisher. “He has the ability to lock in on the rim.”

Like an F-16 jet with laser-guided missiles that “locks-in” and rarely misses the target, so is Kobe. When the ball leaves his fingers, there’s a magnet attached to it that forces the object to swoosh inside the ring’s middle.

“Hey, I’ve known him all his life, since he was about 16,’’ said Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry. “I’ve always been a big fan of his. He knows that. He probably solidified my thought process as to he’s the best basketball player right now.’’

Ouch, LeBron. Beware, MJ. Which brings us to The Finals. It’s the Rivalry of Rivalries. It’s the Yankees vs. the Red Sox, Ali fighting Frazier, Borg-McEnroe, Prost vs. Senna. For no two NBA teams have won more, loath each other more… than Gold vs. Green. The NBA Finals have been contested 63 times and, on 32 occasions, either Boston or L.A. has triumphed.

Starting 1959, they’ve met 12 times in The Finals. In that era, the Celtics beat the Minneapolis Lakers for the first of their eight straight NBA crowns. Those were the 1960s when Jerry West guarded Bob Cousy.

In the 1980s, we remember what transpired: Magic Johnson faced Larry Bird three times, with his Lakers victorious twice. That last game was in 1987. Then, 21 years after, the courtship happened again. This time, in 2008, it was the league’s MVP in Kobe vs. The Big Three of Boston. Against an impenetrable defense, Green beat Gold, 4-2.

And, now. This. Friday, 9 a.m., Cebu time. The Rematch. The Revenge. The Rebirth of a Rivalry. Call it what you may, but KB24 calls it by another name. “It’s a sexy matchup,” he said.

Sexy? Ha-ha. I hope he’s not reminding us all of his past “sins.” But Kobe’s telling the truth: In Los Angeles, it’s a world of glamour, glitz, Greta Garbo. It’s Hollywood. In Boston, it’s cold and hostile territory for the Californians.

What does Phil Jackson have to say? “We remember more than anything losing on our home court, a situation where we had some defensive lapses and they took advantage of it,” he said. “This year we have home-court advantage, and we look forward to the rematch with great intensity.”

Home court advantage, in politics or sport, is an advantage. This time, the Lakers want to score early. And, with the 2-3-2 format, those first two games are at the Staples Center. If LA wins those, they’ve got momentum. If Boston steals one in The City of Freddie Roach, it’s Advantage, Celtics.

Like you, I can’t wait for Friday.

Categorized as NBA