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Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Feats on clay: On Rafael Nadal, Jeļena Ostapenko's French Open wins (The Hindu - 13 June 2017)

    While Nadal sealed his greatness at the French Open, Ostapenko announced her promise

    In sport, there aren’t many tests tougher than playing Rafael Nadal on Parisian clay. For over a decade, the Spaniard has reduced nearly every player, regardless of reputation, Roger Federer included, to an unrecognisable heap of dust. On Sunday, when he did the same to Swiss Stan Wawrinka to win an unprecedented 10th French Open title and his 15th major overall, it was just a reiteration of the same. Nadal lost only 35 games all tournament, a number second only to Bjorn Borg’s 32 in the 1978 French Open, and did not concede more than four games in any set he played. Coming as it did after two years of under-performance, troubled by a creaky wrist and stripped of his aura, it might well be his most significant title. This does not mean that Nadal’s status as the greatest of all clay-courters was ever in doubt. As the 31-year-old himself said after thrashing Dominic Thiem in the semi-final, “I think I don’t need to make more history. It’s enough. Nine are more than good.” Rather it should highlight, more vividly than ever before, that Nadal is no ordinary dirt-baller. When he won for the first time at Roland Garros in 2005, he was seen as yet another of those cautious, risk-averse, immovable objects the clay-court specialists were. Through 15 Grand Slam titles, including two Wimbledon titles, he has proved that his tactical nous and regenerative powers are second to none. The last fortnight perhaps offered a glimpse of what a devastating blend a happily married offence and defence is.

     On the women’s side Jeļena Ostapenko, the 20-year-old Latvian, sent out the same vibes with her triumph as a teenaged Nadal had done in 2005. If Nadal had won his maiden title in his first attempt in Paris, for Ostapenko the 2017 win was the first trophy of any kind and helped her become the first unseeded woman to win at Roland Garros since 1933. Like when Maria Sharapova, all of 17, mowed down Serena Williams at Wimbledon in 2004, Ostapenko played with a panache that belied her experience. She was up against Simona Halep, the favourite, in the final but so nerveless was her performance that even being a set and 0-3 down did not affect her poise. She lived by the sword, making 54 winners and as many errors in the final. It’s a tactic that does not always fetch the right dividend on clay but credit should go to Ostapenko for persisting with her attacking mindset. Admittedly, the women’s draw was shorn of stars with Williams, Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka all absent, Petra Kvitova just about recovering from a knife attack, and World No.1 Angelique Kerber anything but that. Regardless, the competitive quality on the women’s side was a notch above the men’s, and Ostapenko, playing five thrilling three-set matches out of her seven, was a testament to this.

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