Last Sunday was a watershed moment in tennis history. No, you didn't hear about it, because it happened in a "minor" ATP Masters' Series tournament in Hamburg, Germany. The world only watches the 4 Grand Slams, the second of which starts in Paris at Roland Garros in just as hours as I write this.
I don't like the French Open. I don't like it because my players don't do well there. If you look at a list of my favorite players, and a list of French Open champions, you will not find a single name on both lists.
My players don't do well in France because the courts there are tuned for defense, and all my favorite players attack. In Roland Garros, on the terre bateau (the courts are of red clay), the player who risks making errors to gain the advantage gains nothing. The red clay slows the ball, blunts the attack, and still counts every error the same. The upshot is that Sampras needed to hit 4 winners to win a point, when on grass he only needed to hit 1. The rub is that Sampras hit errors on about 1 out 4 shots. I'm sure you see the problem.
Roger Federer is one of my favorite players. Last year he tied John McEnroe's high-water mark of losing at Roland Garros in the final. He did well, but he ran into a defensive genius named Rafael Nadal.
Federer understands that his game must adapt to the red clay. He must be more patient. He must hit deeper. And when he goes for winners, he must not go for broke. He has succeeded masterfully on clay for two years now. He has reached the finals of several clay tournaments, and continued to set his course forward to being known as the GOAT - the Greatest Of All Time.
One thing, one insurmountable obstacle has barred his course. Rafael Nadal has stymied Federer to a degree hard to describe. Going into Sunday's match Nadal led their series of head-to-head matches by a score of 7-3. That's amazing. Against all of the top 10 players in the world, Federer holds a 70-12 record. Nadal accounts for 7 of those 12 defeats.
But it gets more amazing. Of the 6 times Federer has met Nadal on clay, he has won exactly 0. Not that Federer's alone, Nadal has been beaten by no one on clay in 81 straight matches, but to be so owned on one surface is a hard thing for the world's #1 tennis player to swallow.
But swallow he did. When Federer encounters Nadal on clay, his level of play plummets. Nadal has cracked Federer's confidence to the point that he no longer can even play at his own regular level, much less at the stratospheric level it would take to actually win. Nadal has cracked Federer's confidence to the point that his level play for the last 3 months has dropped until he is actually vulnerable to anyone. In Rome, Federer lost to the #76 or so in the world.
This past Sunday, none of that changed. In Hamburg, on the slowest of red clay, Federer went out and stunk the joint up. He lost the first set 2-6, in a flurry of errors and poor serving. Those of us who had gotten up early after a hard night of stressing out about things we cannot control felt the pain. Federer was not striking the ball, but pushing it. That's a bad thing. Soon it was 1-1 in the second set, and Federer was down 15-40 on his own serve. That's more than bad.
It was a moment of highest danger. Lose that game, and what little was left of Federer's wilting courage would leave the building and we would watch Nadal roll him like a cheap cigarette.
Instead Federer found his A game. He won the next two sets 6-2, 6-0. Yes, that was a bagel in the last set. We all saw Federer suddenly hitting like himself, and completely dominating the entire match. It was as magical a moment as tennis will ever know. The cowed lion was suddenly unleashed on the raging bull and tore him up. Federer faced the voices in his head, and turned them into a cheering section. He overcame himself.
It was also a bit of an ambush. Nadal could not have been prepared for THAT Federer to show up all the sudden like that. The look of the match was that Nadal was far too exhausted to deal with the surprise appearance of a Roger Federer with fire in his belly. Nadal rolled over, and gave the match up with hardly a whimper.
Which brings us to France.
The table is set for the greatest French Open of all time.
+ Should Nadal win, he will be the first 3-peat winner since the great Bjorn Borg.
+ Should Federer win, he will have a career grand slam and probably go down in most people's books as the GOAT. He will also be the first man to simultaneously hold all 4 slam titles in years. He will also have the first 2 titles in hand to win a calendar grand slam. Should he pull that off, even Rocket Rod Laver, the last man to do so, will stand in awe.
+ They both have to beat 6 of the world's best tennis players to even get to the final.
+ If it happens, Nadal won't be ambushed again. He now knows exactly what Federer will do to win, and he now knows that Federer *can*.
+ Federer won't come limping in with this tail between his legs, either. Now that he knows what it feels like to beat Nadal on clay, he'll be hungry for more.
Should you tune in to a little tennis over the next two weeks, know that you might be watching the most significant tennis tournament of all time - whatever that's worth.