King of Clay

Tennis – French Open – Roland Garros, Paris, France – October 11, 2020 Spain’s Rafael Nadal celebrates after winning the French Open final against Serbia’s Novak Djokovic REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

One is the “King of Clay” and the other is termed simply, “King James.” Last week, Rafael Nadal and LeBron James trounced their assailants. 

For the 34-year-old Spaniard, the hippodrome was in Paris and the tournament was the French Open. The doubters were plenty. They said Nadal was sluggish and rusty. The week before, in the only event that he joined since March, Nadal lost to a player that he had never lost to before: Diego Schwartzman. In that loss, the 5-foot-7 Argentine drubbed and clobbered the Spaniard.

Nadal, never mind if he won the Roland Garros trophy a mind-boggling 12 times, was not the favorite to win in Paris.

Standing in his way in the final was a player that he had lost to 14 of the last 18 times that they played. 

Novak Djokovic was undefeated this 2020. Well, the record stated “37-1” but that single blemish was not because he lost in the normal sense; he got disqualified for hitting a linesperson in the U.S. Open. The Serb, 33, possessed the game to outplay Rafa. As he uncorks his two-fisted backhand, the ball would zip past Rafa in a cross-court exchange. Novak’s forehand would force Rafa to play defense as he’d whack that Wilson ball down-the-line.

At the 2020 Australian Open, the rivals played in the finals. Novak bulldozed his way to trounce the embarrassed Rafa, who won a mere eight games.

Would Paris be a repeat of Melbourne?

Goran Ivanisevic, who’s part of Novak’s coaching staff, said this before the final: “Nadal has no chance in these conditions, on this clay and with Novak, who has got into his head.”

Est-ce vrai? (Is this true?) The Djokovic-Nadal final seven days ago was like a heavyweight championship fight. Pundits termed it as the most consequential bout between the two. We expected a five-setter that would exceed 309 minutes. We expected sweat to ooze and drench Nadal’s light blue Nike; for winners to zip past Djokovic’s Head Graphene 360+. We expected Nadal to pulverize “le terre battue” (red clay) and Djokovic to dribble a dozen times before serving a 190-kph serve to outwit and vanquish his tormentor.

We saw the opposite. Instead of a shootout, where one rifles an ace and the other wallops a smash, we saw a demolition job.

First set, six-love. Second set, six-two.

I have watched hundreds of Nadal matches — including, in person, his 2008 Beijing Olympics gold medal win — and I must conclude that those were two of his most confident and dominant sets.

He zoomed to retrieve a Novak drop shot. He hustled and charged at every short ball. He backpedaled to strike an inside-out forehand with 4,291 topspin revolutions. He accelerated while Novak looked despondent and morose.

In the 3rd set, we envisioned a further drubbing when Nadal broke to lead, 3-2. But the warrior in Djokovic arose to resurrect his game. It was soon extinguished. The final score: 6-0, 6-2, 7-5.

Less than 12 hours later, after the King of Clay demonstrated his supremacy in Paris, it was the triumph in Orlando of another King: LeBron James. (To be continued.)

Hollywood Ending

From the King of Clay to King James: Unbeknonwst to either legend, less than 12 hours after Rafael Nadal won the French Open trophy, it was the turn of LeBron James to win the NBA title for the L.A. Lakers.

From Paris to Orlando, from the small yellow fluffy Wilson ball to the Spalding orange leather ball (coincidentlly, by the 2021 season, the NBA will also be using Wilson), it was a championship trophy from the King to the King.

Tennis and Basketball are opposites. One is one-on-one (without a coach) and the other is five-on-one with Frank Vogel and Fil-Am Erik Spoelstra sitting beside their players. 

On Sunday night, Rafael Nadal stood victorious. By Sunday night in the U.S., LeBron James did the same.

For the team representing Hollywood, what a real life 2020 that will rival a reel movie. The shocking death of Kobe Bryant last January 26 — the day after LeBron overtook him in the NBA all-time scoring list — plus the COVID-19 pandemic which has plunged the world into a tailspin, this meant that the Hollywood ending would have to be the victory of the Lakers.

The LeBron-Anthony Davis duo is the 3rd outstanding combination for the Lakers. First was Kareem-Magic then Shaq-Kobe.  

A year older than Rafa at 35 years old, LeBron James has been vindicated. A loser at the MVP awards, he claimed his own Finals MVP plum. Although regarded as No. 2 in the GOAT rankings to His Airness Michael Jordan, it’s LBJ who has more records than MJ. One statistic is the all-time playoff points. LeBron is top-ranked with 7,491 points vs. the second-ranked Jordan with 5,987.

For Lakers fans (including myself), this playoff season in the bubble felt like Christmas. It was a joyous and jubilant period. After the Bucks lost in the East and the shocking loss of the Clippers, there was no denying the Hollywood ending for the Lakers.

LeBron was unstoppable. When he 

Vindicated. Defense. Block. Intercept. Thwart. Stonewall. Charge. Close out. 

Bulldoze. Hustle. Force. Charge. Dart. excuse. Ooze. zip. Fly. dribble. Zoom. hotfoot. Accelerate. Propel. Motivate. Compel. Coerce. Animate. Clobber. Trounce. Outplay. Whomp. Whack. Pulverize. 

Nadal vs. Djokovic

Like Ali-Frazier or Navratilova vs. Evert or Prost-Senna or Nicklaus vs. Palmer, the rivalry between the Spaniard and the Serb is unparalleled. Well, okay, there’s Rafa and Roger but they’ve played “only” 40 times. 

Rafa and Novak are meeting for the 56th time when they collide today to contest the French Open final. 

Head to head, it’s Novak who leads 29-26 and 15-11 in the finals. He’s the world No. 1. This year, Novak is also “undefeated.” If not for the recent US Open embarrassment when he was defaulted, he’s won 37 of 37 matches this 2020.

Advantage, Novak, right? Wrong. Because on clay, Rafa leads 17-7 and, on the Roland Garros clay court, he has a 6-1 advantage. Rafa has reached the RG finals 12 times and has never lost (he’s a combined 25-0 in semis and finals). Of those 12 Finals, he won 36 sets and lost only 7 sets. This year, he has won all 15 sets that he’s played. 

Advantage, Rafa, right? Wrong. Because here’s the truth: having watched these two duel and spar the past 14 years (they first met in Roland Garros in 2006), they are dead even.

“He’s definitely my greatest rival,” said Djokovic. “Playing him in so many great matches, the past will have some effect in terms of respect towards each other and motivation to get out there and play your best.”

For Rafa, it’s obvious that against no other player is he more startled and anxious than Novak. Consider the Spaniard’s left-handed cross-court topsin forehand. Against every other player, when that high bouncing, side-spinning shot careens to the opponent’s backhand, it’s a missile. Not against Novak, whose backhand is arguably one of history’s best. Novak can pummel it back cross-court or wallop it down-the line. Or he can throw a featherly drop shot.

“The only thing I know is to play against Novak, I need to play my best,” said Rafa. “Without playing my best tennis, (the) situation is very difficult. I know that it’s a court that I have been playing well on for such a long time, so that helps. But at the same time, he has an amazing record here too. (He’s) one of the toughest opponents possible.”

Another area of strength for Rafa is his mental strength. But this, too, is an asset of Novak. They both enjoy grinding and wrestling. In every altercation between the duo, they brawl like prize-fighters. Their dispute mimics boxing. One smashes and the other flings a two-fisted winner. Sweat drenches their Nike and Lacoste tennis shirts.

History looms large today. If Novak wins, he’ll own 18 major trophies — against the 19 of Rafa. If Rafa wins, he’ll do a “20-20.” A 20th major this 2020 to tie Federer’s 20. Also, if the 34-year-old Rafa wins, he’ll notch his 100th French Open victory.

“It’s his ‘maison,’” Novak said of Rafa, using the French term for house. “I will have to be at my best. Playing Nadal at Roland Garros is the biggest challenge in our sport.”

If you have cable TV, watch this “King of Clay” final tonight at 9 p.m. (Phil. time) on Fox Sports. Espero que gane Rafa. Vamos!