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Match Point

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 US 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)


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