What’s wrong with Rafa?

He’s slipped to No. 7. He lost to Andy Murray, whom he’s never lost to before on clay, in Madrid. He’s on a four-loss record on clay (the worst since he was a teenager). Heading into Rome, this is the worst preparation he’s encountered so far.

His reply? Classic Nadal. “I cannot leave Madrid not happy. I have to leave happy and just delete what happened today. I will just stay with the good things that happened this week, and there are a lot of them, more good than bad. I will try to recover the good feelings in Rome.”

Champions, they say, need to have both long and short memories. Long memories to remember how good they are (Nadal’s a 14-time Grand Slam champ) and short enough to forget the most recent loss.

With the major prize coming up in Paris in two weeks, I can’t wait. First-hand, I’ll watch if Rafa can win his 10th French Open trophy.

Red Clay Meets Red Clay in Paris

Published in June of 2007, here’s a flashback of our unforgettable experience….

GOLFERS dream of smelling the grass and catching a Tiger lurking behind the woods at Augusta National, home of The Masters. Hoop fans envy fellow columnist Homer Sayson, who owns NBA Finals reserved seats in San Antonio and Cleveland. The feet of soccer fans get ticklish with the words “Germany World Cup.” We all have dreams. I own one. No, four. To watch all the tennis grand slams: Wimbledon, the Australian Open, Roland Garros, and the US Open. The US Open? That dream became reality eight years ago when I spent four straight weeks with my dad Bunny in New York. Seeing Andre Agassi and Serena Williams hold aloft those trophies sent shivers up my spine. I had to pinch myself and slap my face left and right to ensure I was awake.

Wimbledon? The Australian Open? Dreams, yes. Roland Garros?

Six years ago, my father-in-law Jack Mendez gathered the family and announced: “We’re going to Europe!” Three months later, we’re aboard Galaxy, the Princess Cruises ship that’s seven stories tall complete with theaters, a casino, restaurants, and Broadway musicals. By boat, we hopped from city to city. The place I loved the most? Paris.

Imagine the Eiffel Tower, Nortre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre Museum, Versailles Palace. Touring those sites, it felt like watching a movie. Only this time, the screen was “live,” right before your eyes. The place I loved the most? Roland Garros.

We arrived late in the afternoon. As our van stopped at the entrance, I gripped my fingers, smiled and screamed, “This is it!” To our surprise, no guards manned the gate. We entered. Our first stop was to the right as we walked inside a side court. There it was, before our bare eyes, the red clay, or le terre battue, as the French call it. I stepped on it, bent down and felt the dirt rub against my fingers. Almost like our courts here in Cebu, only thicker and red.

We moved to the open air pavilion. This is the area, I imagined, where spectators relaxed, dined and chatted between matches. We mimicked the statues of the Four Musketeers, some of the best French netters in history: Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet, and the clothing wear founder, René Lacoste.

Finally, we entered the main stadium, Court Philippe Chatrier (named after the former head of the French Tennis Federation). We absorbed every detail and gazed around. Compared to the US Open’s Arthur Ashe Center Court, this is intimate, I told my wife Jasmin. With us were my daughter Jana, Jasmin’s sisters Michelle and Monette, and brother Jake. It was just us inside, the court laid bare all to ourselves.

We snapped photos, took videos, and lingered wondering how it must feel when the court is jam-packed and inhabited by warriors with rackets. All of a sudden, as we marveled around and chatted, my daughter blurted out, “I want to make poo-poo!” Poo-poo? My two-year-old Jana? At the center court? Was this possible? Will we be caught? Jailed?

As parents all know: When a child has to go, she has to go. And so Jana, with her diapers on and standing on Court Philippe Chatrier, dropped a bombshell that rocked Paris. POOOOT! POOOOT! POOOOT!

We shook our heads. Laughed. Who would have believed such a sight. That was our family’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not episode. On center court, dozens have been crowned champions, knelt down and wiped tears after victory—the Bjorn Borgs, the Michael Changs, and, this Sunday, Rafael Nadal will win his third straight—but how many can claim they dropped red clay on the red clay of the French Open?

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)