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!

Djoker, Covid-19 is no joke

By now, you’ve read about the disastrous Adria Tour organized by world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Scheduled to be played in four European cities, the tennis exhibition matches brought together Sascha Zverez, Dominic Thiem, Grigor Dimitrov and Djokovic, among others. 

Tennis (unlike basketball and football) is contact-less. Your opponent stands 78 feet away. In rankings of the “least contagious sports,” tennis ranks at the top. But what Djokovic did was mind-boggling. He allowed the players to shake hands, hug, and party to end the tournament. He allowed spectators, over 4,000 in Belgrade, to sit side-by-side. The result: after a couple of weeks, Djokovic, Dimitrov and several of his tennis-mates got Covid-19.

Nicknamed “Djoker,” Covid-19 is no joke, he realized. Djokovic has since apologized and been lambasted by sports fans around the world.

The US Open is scheduled next month, on August 24. Given the catastrophe that happened to Novak’s event, I’m sure the officials will be strict, more so because the site is in New York City, previously the epicenter of this pandemic.

No fans. Testing for all. No shaking of hands, only the crossing of swords (rackets) between opponents. 

London calling! It’s Nadal v. Djokovic for No. 1

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If you follow the ATP Tour of men’s tennis, then you’ll know that this week is important. The venue is England. The players number only eight. It’s the season-ending finale called the ATP World Tour Finals. Many refer to this as the “fifth Grand Slam of tennis” that’s played indoors. It’s being held at the 02 Arena in London — one of the world’s busiest where concerts rock audiences and sporting events thrill spectators.

By-invitation-only, the world’s top eight are joining. Minus hometown boy Andy Murray, who’s recovering from back surgery, the likes of Wawrinka, Gasquet, Ferrer and Berdych join the popular names of Del Potro, Federer, Djokovic and Nadal.

Instead of a knock-out format like in all others (you lose one and you’re out), this week it’s round-robin play. Two groups of four are divided; the top two of each bracket advance to the semifinals.

One million six hundred thousand dollars awaits the undefeated champion. And, for the non-winners, even if you lose every single match, you’re still richer, just by showing up, by $120,000. Not bad.

The sub-plot of this mega-event is the battle for the title, “2013 World Tennis Champion.” Will it be Rafa or Novak? Last night at 10 p.m. (Phil. time), Rafa played Stan Wawrinka. If the Spaniard won, he would have clinched the year-end No. 1 spot. If he lost, Novak still has a chance.

images-1For Roger Federer fans, it’s not game-over yet for the 32-year-old Dubai resident. Though he’s amassed nearly $80 million in prize money and owns most of tennis’ records (17 slams and 302 weeks as No. 1), he’s only been victorious in one tournament this entire 2013 (Halle, on grass, in June). This is embarrassing for The Great One who’s garnered 77 total tournament career wins. Can he win one more Grand Slam title? I’m unsure. His best prospect is Wimbledon, where he’s won seven, but basing on his result this year (he crashed out in the second round), it doesn’t look good for RF.

What’s working for Federer is his good health. Unlike the injury-plagued (and five years younger) Nadal, the Swiss has hardly ever been injured. He stretches. He doesn’t grunt and grind and exert as much physically as Rafa. And as long as the cute twin girls, Myla Rose and Charlene Riva, don’t pester their dad too much, Roger is expected to play for three or more Novembers.

With Nadal, what a comeback year. Out for seven months under rehabilitation, his rejuvenated and second-hand/good-as-new body wins 10 tournaments this 2013, including the French Open (which he forever owns) and the U.S. Open. Can he add the only missing piece in his storied life story, the ATP World Tour Finals, which he’s never won before?

406068Xisca Perello with Rafa

“Last year was a big miss for me,” Nadal said. “Even if I was not able to play my best a lot of times here, I really have great feelings every time I have the chance to play in this stadium.”

Will he emerge as champion this Sunday? We’ll see. But the way Djokovic has been playing of late — winning Beijing, Shanghai and Paris; 18 undefeated matches so far — I’m rooting for (though I’ve never been a huge fan of) the Serb.

On the topic of indoor tennis, I like it. If you watched the Paris Indoors last week, you’ll see the difference. Lights are dimmed. Loud music pumps the hearts of the fans. Smoke machines fumigate harmless excitement. Laser lights dance as the players prance. Unlike the sunny/sweaty drip of the outdoors, indoor tennis is cool, concert-like, captivating.

urlSpeaking of ticket prices, I checked the website and they range from P1,600 to P4,800. In the finals, it shoots up to P7,000 — but they’re sold out. That’s in London.

To us here in Cebu, the best thing is called HD TV. That’s High Definition. If you’re subsribed to it (mine’s on SkyCable; channel 702), then I need not explain further. As the saying goes, “It’s best seen, not explained.” If you love sports and can spend a little bit more on home entertainment, go HD.

Can David beat Goliath in Paris?

It’s David vs. Goliath in today’s Men’s Final of the French Open.

David Ferrer, in his first-ever Grand Slam final, will be facing a fellow Spaniard who’s called the King of Paris. Rafael Nadal, since he started playing in Roland Garros, has amassed a record that screams, “That’s Impossible!”

Nadal has played 59 times on the red clay of the French Open and has a 58-1 record. ‘Unbelievable’ is an understatement. He’s won seven titles there (apart from similar crazy-to-believe records/titles: eight of nine in Barcelona, seven of nine in Rome and eight of 10 in Monte Carlo).

Sorry to all fans of the underdogs: this dogged retriever named David (Ferrer) won’t beat Nadal tonight in the final. (Head to head, Nadal has won 19 and lost only 4 to Ferrer.)

The semi-finals between Nadal and Novak Djokovic? Wow! From 7 P.M. until 12 midnight last Friday (PHL time), I hope you stayed home to watch it. (I’m in Bacolod and, despite the cravings of all the good eateries here, we sprinted back to watch it from our Sugarland Hotel room.)

To those of us who saw the game, it was one of the best ever matches our eyes have witnessed. It had everything. A 7-time champion versus a contender who had never before won the Grand Slam of France. It was Spain vs. Serbia. It was lefty against right-hander. It was between a bandana-wearing Nike endorser versus a white-cap-wearing of Uniqlo.

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(Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images)

For a set and a half, Nadal was unstoppable. He won the first set, 6-4, and led the second, up a break, 3-2. That’s when Djokovic — one of the most resilient fighters in sports today — would not give Nadal a straight-sets victory. He won the next four games to snatch the second set, 6-3. It was one-set apiece.

The third set was puzzling. After gaining the momentum with his 2nd set win, Novak collapsed. His body did. He was so tired that he committed error after easy error. For the fittest tennis player on earth, I couldn’t understand why he had gotten so tired. He almost lost 6-0 but salvaged a game to lose the third set, 6-1.
In the fourth set, everybody who watched thought the match was over. With Djokovic tired and Nadal still bouncing and sprinting and repeatedly scratching his behind, it would be a straightforward 4-set win for Spain. But, no; ever the combatant, Novak wouldn’t yield the fight. He wanted war.

At 5-all in the fourth set, Nadal broke Djokovic’s serve to lead 6-5. At that point, Balls TV started to show what was coming next: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and David Ferrer. They devoted footages on the two (next to play) semi-finalists. It was only a question of a few minutes left before they would be next.

But, wait. I’m the world No.1, Novak screamed. I won’t yield. Not yet! Despite a 30-15 lead, Nadal was broken. The match was 6-all and a tiebreaker ensued. Nadal lost.

This heightened the drama. Another epic, titanic, here-we-go-to-another-four-hour-long drama was unfolding. To Nadal fans, ouch! What another wasted moment. Was this to be another Australian Open heart-breaker, when Nadal was sure to win — only for Novak to win in five hours, 53 minutes?

And Djokovic — previously looking pale — he was back to life. He had his second, third, fourth wind. He was going for the win.

In the fifth set’s first game, Nadal lost. Djokovic moved ahead to 2-0. Oh no, Nadal fans — like Bobby Lozada and Ernie Delco — would cringe. Novak led, 3-1. Despite trying so hard, Rafa couldn’t break the serve. It moved on to 4-2, Novak leading in the fifth set, with only two more service games to go.

That’s when Rafa leveled the match and it continued on and on.. Serving first, Rafa had an advantage. He led, 5-4. Then, 6-5. Next, 7-6. At 8-7, that’s when Novak’s tired body — and Nadal’s winners — resurfaced.

Finally, after 4 hours and 37 minutes, Rafa won. The funny part is, that wasn’t it. That wasn’t the final yet. But, Rafa fans, don’t worry. The coronation was only delayed by 48 hours. Later tonight, the crowning of the trophy will transpire. A Spaniard from Mallorca will slay David and be crowned the King of France.

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Roland Garros

The French Open has started. The only Grand Slam event whose surface (clay-court) is similar to most of our tennis rectangles here in Cebu, this two-week-long sports meet in romantic Paris will be a business meeting between Novak and Nadal.

For with Rafa, he doesn’t call Roland Garros “my second home;” it’s his personal house. It’s where he lives. Out of the six years that he’s set foot on the red dirt, he’s won five trophies. That’s 38 of 39 matches won. He is so good, so unbeatable, so assured of victory that I declare… The 2011 winner is…

Djokovic!!! No joke. If the two meet next Sunday, I’d place my bet on the Serb. Why? Because, if he reaches the final, Djokovic will automatically become world No. 1. With that added confidence-booster (plus he’s beaten Nadal in the last four finals), he’ll win his first French crown.

If…. Yes. If… Novak does not succumb to the pressure. He’s 37-0 this 2011. “I’m really not trying to think about the run that I have,” he said. “Or I’m not trying to think about when this run will end, because that will mean that I’m thinking about losing.”