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Richard Evans Leaves No Stone Unturned In His Book “The History Of Tennis”

With impeccable research, Evans covers it all, from Tilden to Federer, Lenglen to Serena Williams in his latest book.

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Bill Tilden

Esteemed British tennis historian Richard Evans has been the author of no fewer than 22 books across his remarkable lifetime. He is one of the deans of tennis journalism, as well as an unimpeachable authority on the evolution of tennis and all of the great players who have most vividly captured the imagination of the public. Evans has been an outstanding journalist over the course of more than six decades, writing for newspapers and magazines in both Great Britain and the United States, authoring his books. Moreover, he even served a couple of stints inside the corridors of political power working for the ATP at different junctures in the 1970’s and 1990’s.

 

In many ways, through so many eras in an abundance of capacities, Evans has been synonymous with tennis, living it and breathing it from his youth into his eighties, witnessing all of the sea changes, writing about the game with both exuberance and sagacity. Evans has traveled as widely as anyone in his profession and, with urbanity and sophistication, has played a role in boosting the popularity of the game with his astute reporting and unbridled enthusiasm for where he believes tennis fits into the fabric of society.

Considering his stature as a reporter, it is fitting that Evans has released a new book entitled “The History of Tennis”. This must be considered his most important work yet. To be sure, there have been other authors who have written voluminously on essentially the same topic and contributed mightily to the literature of tennis. The lyrical Italian Gianni Clerici put out a highly regarded and perhaps definitive book on tennis history in the 1970’s. Bud Collins wrote his first encyclopedia more than forty years ago and later put out several versions of “The Bud Collins History of Tennis”. The last edition came out after Collins passed away in 2016. Others have thrown their hats into the ring of tennis history with similar pieces of scholarly work.

Evans does a fine job in his book of combining statistical analysis of the game with a lofty overview of the most prominent champions and personalities, along with isolating landmark developments in the shaping of the sport including the quest for Open Tennis in 1968, the crucial 1970 formation of the “Original Nine” in women’s tennis, the men’s ATP boycott of Wimbledon in 1973, and a number of other things.

It is in clarifying some of the overarching issues in tennis that Evans is at his best. Having covered some U.S. Presidential campaigns and conventions in the 1960’s and seventies, he has always had an agile mind, a sharp eye and quite a good ear for politics in both the world at large and the universe of tennis.

This journey through the heart of tennis history is thoroughly encompassing. Evans wisely elects to devote a limited amount of space to the evolution of tennis in its embryonic stages. Nevertheless, his grasp of what matters is unassailable. Evans crystallizes the origins of the game, tracing the sport from the 16th Century all the way up to 1874 and the official birth of the game invented by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield.

Wingfield may have had different motives in his quest for recognition, but, as Evans writes, “There is no question that Wingfield was in this for profit—the family having fallen upon hard times—and he was anxious to get the patent for his invention, which he finally received in February 1874, despite some people coming forward to claim they had been playing something similar for years.”

Evans moves on in his manuscript to the formation of the game in England and the United States, as Wimbledon commenced competition in 1877 with a 22 player men’s field, followed by the U.S. Championships four years later. He also masterfully describes the start of the Davis Cup in 1900 and how the prestigious international team competition got off the ground, enhanced the tennis landscape and widened the lanes of interest worldwide.

But it took some time. Describing the first Davis Cup tie between the British Isles and the United States at the Longwood Cricket Club in Massachusetts which commenced on August 7, 1900, Evans writes, “All things considered, it was not an auspicious start. Conflicts in South Africa, where the Boer War was at its height, and Cuba, where Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders had been fully engaged, depleted both teams. The two top Americans, William Larned and Robert Wrenn, had both been in Cuba while Britain’s Dr. W. V. Eves was involved with the Boer War. And although the British brothers Reggie and Laurie Doherty were not in the army, both found an excuse to decline the [Davis Cup] invitation.”

Dwight Davis and the trophy cup that bears his name, 1924

The story of an incomparable sport keeps unfolding spectacularly through the eyes of Evans in this overarching view of tennis history. The way he structured the book made it easy for the reader to follow and not difficult to comprehend. After he comprehensively examines the game’s infancy and ensuing decades, Evans devotes chapters to the period following World War 1 and the 1920’s; The Thirties; The Forties and Fifties; the Sixties; the Seventies; The Eighties; The Nineties; and the 21st Century.

Determined to put the women on the same platform as the men, he devotes a chapter to the birth of the women’s tour and the WTA. This kind of compartmentalizing is a highly successful formula for sweeping seamlessly through the decades and making it all enjoyable to digest. He leaves no stone unturned. Doubles is featured. The Olympics is covered. Snappy sidebars enhance the book. It’s all there.

Through it all, Evans knows his priorities well. Writing on the post-World War 1 period that was so critical in the evolution of tennis in establishing enduring superstars who transformed the world of sports, Evans points out, “The decade following the First World War was dominated by seven extraordinary champions, five of whom were French. Bill Tilden, who was known for his towering personality as much as his brilliant game, was the American exception among the men, and Helen Wills, a beauty as well as a great tennis player, was among the women. Two of the seven players became the game’s first truly global stars: Tilden and Suzanne Lenglen, who swept all before her with a balletic style of tennis that proved invincible. The elegant, poker-faced Wills was the only player worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Lenglen.”

Evans brings in the “Four Musketeers” (Rene Lacoste, Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra and Jacques “Toto” Brugnon) as the “remaining quartet” in that scintillating cast of seven players he has singled out in capturing that critical era, perceptively putting them all in perspective. Shifting to the 1930’s and the importance of Don Budge (the first player ever to secure a Grand Slam in 1938), Fred Perry (the best British player of all time), Wills ( the winner of 19 majors in singles), Helen Jacobs (a four-time victor at the U.S. Championships) and the sometimes mysterious Alice Marble ( a five time major singles champion),  Evans is thoroughly immersed in the telling of the story.

As he writes about Marble in the late 1930’s, “By then, Marble’s lift had taken many a twist. She was always welcome at William Randolph Hearst’s California mansion, where she became good friends with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Soon she was taking lovers of both sexes. Drama was never far from her life. As they would say in Hollywood, Alice Marble was quite a gal.”

On we go. In his chapter on the forties and fifties, Evans brings to the forefront the likes of Jack Kramer and Lew Hoad. The author has long been in the camp of erudite observers who revere Hoad unabashedly. Evans recounts Hoad nearly winning the Grand Slam in 1956 before bowing against his buddy Ken Rosewall in the final of Forest Hills. Evans writes of the Hoad-Rosewall US Championships final, “Hoad seemed well on his way to the Grand Slam when he won the first set 6-4. Had Lew not relaxed or let his concentration slip a little, his name would have been forever etched in the pantheon of the game as one of the three greatest players of all time.”

Ken Rosewall

Evans does not clarify who would have joined Hoad in that elite territory if Hoad had indeed secured the Grand Slam, but one suspects Rod Laver and Roger Federer might be his choices. Be that as it may, as Evans recalls the 1960’s he weighs in on a narrowly failed attempt at the ITF General Meeting to usher in Open Tennis at the start of that decade rather than in 1968 when it officially came about at last.

The vote at that meeting failed because three delegates did not vote to ensure the necessary two-thirds majority. Evans writes, “The three culprits may have paid better attention had they realized that, in holding back this move toward progress for eight long years, they deprived Pancho Gonzalez and Ken Rosewall of their best chances of ever winning Wimbledon, which neither did. One can only surmise how many more Grand Slam titles Lew Hoad and Rod Laver would have won, but one thing is clear: the game’s record books are distorted as a result of carelessness and stupidity.”

Examining the 1970’s, Evans points to the rise of superstars Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg, and astutely analyzes the centerpiece match of the decade between the defending champion Connors and Arthur Ashe on the fabled Centre Court of Wimbledon in the 1975 final. Ashe toppled his heavily favored countryman 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6–4 in a career defining moment.

Evans writes of that Ashe tactical masterpiece, “It was a triumph that spread happiness and satisfaction throughout the sporting world, because it had been a triumph in which intellect and character had called the shots. Ashe had become the first black man to win Wimbledon. No one could have worn the crown with greater dignity.”

Through a large chunk of that important chapter, Evans informs the reader thoroughly and discernibly about the ATP Wimbledon boycott of 1973, when more than 80 of the leading players including John Newcombe, Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe and Rosewall removed their names from the original draw and withdrew from the world’s most prestigious tournament in a unified stand on behalf of Nikki Pilic, who was controversially barred from competing in the tournament. Evans gets to the heart of the boycott in one clarifying sentence among his many lucid paragraphs: “The immediate result of the boycott was to highlight a fact that reactionaries in the amateur establishment did not want to countenance—namely, that the players had to have a say in the running of the game.”

The women needed to carve out their own niche in that same era as the “Original Nine” signed professional contracts with World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys Heldman in 1970 which led to their own tour, and later with the establishment of the WTA in 1973. Billie Jean King, of course, was a central figure in both cases, settling herself apart as a towering player and a formidable leader, becoming the first WTA President. Evans lauds King for her contributions but fittingly reserves high praise for Heldman, writing, “It was no exaggeration to call Gladys Heldman a mover and a shaker, and she was about to shake the women’s game to its core.”

Evans later zeroes in on Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and their incomparable 80 match rivalry which lasted from 1973-88. He writes, “In style and personality, they were polar opposites, but throughout most of their time as deadly rivals they established a friendship that would last a lifetime.”

Naturally, Evans soon moves on to the spellbinding 1980 Wimbledon final between Borg and John McEnroe as the centerpiece of his 1980’s coverage, which also includes the industrious Ivan Lendl, the brilliant Boris Becker and the fascinating Mats Wilander. The Borg-McEnroe battle featured their unsurpassed 18-16 fourth set tie-break won by McEnroe, who saved five match points in that sequence after wiping away two match points when Borg served for the match at 5-4 in that set— only to lose 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6 to the imperturbable Swede.

Evans gets to the essence of the confrontation, writing, “The duel had become a classic contest between a player whose instincts were to stay back and pass against the all-out aggression of a natural serve-and-volleyer. Speed of eye and foot were of the essence and both men were so fast it was impossible to determine who was reacting quicker to the thrust and counter-thrust.”

In his “Women in the Eighties” chapter, Evans writes more on the enduring Navratilova-Evert presence but also brings in the tenacious Tracy Austin, the free-flowing Hana Mandlikova and, of course, Steffi Graf, who won the “Golden Slam” in 1988 by taking all four majors along with a gold medal at the Olympic Games.

Chris Evert

Even more compelling is his chapter on women in the 1990’s. Here Evans writes poignantly on the Graf-Monica Seles rivalry and the tragic stabbing of Seles in the spring of 1993 that permanently altered the mindset of the dynamic left-hander with the two-fisted shots off both sides.

Commenting on the aftermath of the stabbing and Seles’s inevitable and understandable decline as a champion, Evans writes, “Graf reclaimed her dominance over the women’s game without ever having the chance to show that she could have challenged Seles for the No. 1 spot—if, indeed, she could have. Given her talent and champion’s determination to fight through adversity, Graf might have worked out a method of dealing with the Serbian whirlwind, but the question mark will remain forever.”

That was some thoughtful analysis. I believe that Graf had already made some inroads in the rivalry in the year leading up to the tragedy, losing an epic 1992 French Open final to Seles 10-8 in the final set at Roland Garros, crushing Monica in the Wimbledon final at the cost of only three games, and falling marginally short in a hard fought, three set Australian Open final in 1993. In my view, the two extraordinary champions were heading for a new phase of their rivalry which would have been magnificent. In my view, Graf would have held her own.

Across the 377 pages of “The History of Tennis” I found myself largely in accord with the judgments of Evans. One glaring exception concerned his assessment of the two greatest Americans of the nineties and beyond— Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.

Evans deservedly lauds Agassi for becoming only the fifth man in tennis history to win all four major championships (the list, of course, has grown to eight with the arrival of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic). He credits Agassi rightfully for his versatility in taking his major titles on two different hard court surfaces— in Melbourne and New York— as well as the clay of Roland Garros and the lawns of Wimbledon.

As Evans concludes, “By the time they [Sampras and Agassi] retired, it was what separated Agassi from Sampras, who had a 20-14 winning record over him but never even reached a Roland Garros final. Agassi had the ability to win everywhere, on anything.  Sampras tended to dominate when they met in Slams and had the bigger, more spectacular game. Who was better? The argument will rage for as long as the game is discussed.”

On this one I have a serious quibble. Sampras won 14 major titles, six more than Agassi. He also upended Agassi in four of their five head to head meetings in major finals, including three on the hard courts at the U.S. Open which suited both players so well. Moreover, Sampras concluded no fewer than six years at No. 1 in the world while Agassi realized that feat only once.

In my view, as a fellow historian, there is no debate whatsoever; Sampras was clearly the better player and his superiority in their most consequential skirmishes sets him far apart from his countryman. The lingering debate is not about Agassi versus Sampras, but Agassi measured against McEnroe and Connors. Agassi and Connors both won eight majors while McEnroe garnered seven. Agassi’s surface adaptability is more pertinent when compared to his two left-handed fellow champions, although Connors did win majors on clay, grass and hard courts. Sampras demonstrably surpassed Agassi over and over again when it mattered the most.

Roger Federer

Be that as it may, Evans leaves no stone unturned in his historical overview of the sport. He makes the case that there is really a “Big Four” rather than a “Big Three” in the men’s hierarchy, putting Andy Murray in that exclusive club along with Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic despite their much wider range of accomplishments. Murray has garnered three major titles across his distinguished career (along with two Olympic gold medals) while Federer and Nadal have 20 Grand Slam titles each with Djokovic only two behind.

Evans defends his decision with clarity. “There will be question marks raised against Murray’s inclusion, which statistically seem obvious, “he writes. “My reason for doing so is based on many factors, the first being that it is difficult to exclude from the equation a man who appeared in eleven Grand Slam finals and 21 Masters 1000 finals during that period. Not only was Murray always in the mix, rarely losing to anyone other than his three rivals, but injury forced him to miss 13 Grand Slams as opposed to six for Nadal, four for Federer and one for Djokovic.”

Evans is making a compelling case for Murray to be linked with the three icons. I have my doubts because the gap is so wide between Murray and the towering trio above him, although Murray did also manage to finish 2016 at No. 1 in the world. That was no mean feat as he moved past Djokovic down the stretch. Some would be in accord with the Evans assessment of Murray, many would probably disagree, but Evans is well reasoned in his argument.

He also does a first rate job of writing on both the men and women in the 21st Century, praising Maria Sharapova effusively for her professionalism and temerity on a tennis court, writing, “Maria Sharapova  epitomized much of what was happening in the women’s game, not least with an ambition and work ethic only a few had been able to surpass in the previous decades.”

Every bit as perceptive in his chapter on the Williams sisters. Evans refers to what seemed like outlandish claims from their father, Richard, who predicted when they were respectively ten and nine years old that both would win Wimbledon. Evans writes, “Yet Venus and Serena achieved exactly what Daddy had said they would. And they did it in a way that strained credulity still further. Mr. and Mrs. Williams defied every norm and, according to current wisdom of the time, did everything wrong. For a start, they took them out of all junior competition.” This is a book which belongs prominently in every sports fan’s tennis library. In addition to the elegant and learned prose of Evans, the photography is splendid. In “The History of Tennis”, Richard Evans draws on his lifelong treasure chest of tennis experiences and remembrances to capture the essence of the sport with a mastery few in his field could match.


Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.

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Why Celebrating LGBT+ Pride Month In Tennis Matters

Besides the fancy rainbow-coloured clothing that is worn, there is a far more important reason.

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Guido Pella during a Men's Singles match at the 2021 US Open, Wednesday, Sep. 1, 2021 in Flushing, NY. (Manuela Davies/USTA)

June is when players switch their focus from the clay to grass in order to tune up their preparations ahead of the prestigious Wimbledon Championships. But for some linked to the sport this month is also significant for another reason.

 

It is LGBT pride month which is an initiative that was originally created as a way to mark the Stonewall Riots which began on June 28th 1969 in New York. A series of protests took place in response to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn which was the catalyst in the fight for equal rights among the LGBT community. In the UK the first pride March was held in 1972 and today there are more than 100 events in the country annually.

Today Pride is about promoting equality in the world with various organizations taking part, including tennis. The British Lawn Tennis Association has gotten more involved this year by hosting a series of Pride Days at their ATP and WTA events. They have taken place on the Friday of tournaments in Nottingham, Birmingham and Queen’s. The final one is taking place this Friday in Eastbourne.

“We still live in a time when people don’t always feel like they can be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity, so the more we can do to show support and let them know everything is ok the better,’ British player Liam Broady recently said.

https://twitter.com/the_LTA/status/1537788274890121216

Some may wonder as to if Pride events such as these are necessary in tennis considering it is 2022 and lives for LGBT people have improved considerably over the years. However, there is still work to be done. One study called OUTSPORT found that 90% of LGBT+ respondents believe that homophobia and transphobia is a problem in sport and 33% remain closeted in their own sporting context. Another study conducted in recent years is Out On The Fields which found almost eight out of 10 respondents felt that an openly gay person would not be very safe as a spectator at a sporting event. Obviously, these findings vary depending on the sport and the country, but it still illustrates the seriousness of the subject.

In tennis, the WTA Tour has seen various LGBT role models triumph at the very top. Both Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova were some of the very first professional athletes to come out publicly during the 1980s which was a decade when misinformation about the Aids crises lead to the stigmation of the gay community. King said she lost all of her endorsements within 24 hours after being outed in 1981 and that was before the Aids crisis erupted. Navratilova also experienced similar misfortunes.

The WTA was founded on the principles of equality and opportunity, along with positivity and progress, and wholeheartedly supports and encourages players, tournaments, partners and fans’ commitment to LGBT+ initiatives,” the WTA told UbiTennis last week.
“The WTA supports LGBT+ projects across the tennis family, such as amplifying our athletes’ voices on this topic through the Tour’s global platforms, increasing awareness by incorporating the LGBT+ spirit into our wider corporate identity, among many other initiatives.”

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) tells UbiTennis the sport has a ‘proud history of advocating social change.’ The organization oversees the running of all junior events, Davis Cup, Billie Jean King Club and the Olympic tennis events.

“Inclusion is one of the ITF’s core values and a pillar of the ITF 2024 strategy. Tennis as a sport has a proud history of advocating social justice and instigating change. Within the tennis community, we embrace the LGBTQ community and full support any initiative, such as the celebration of Pride Month, that continues the conversation and furthers progress in ensuring sport and society are free from bias and discrimination in any form. There is always more that can be done, and we will continue to make every effort to ensure that all our participants, our employees and fans feel welcome, included, and respected day in, day out.” The ITF said in a statement.

Whilst the women’s Tour has had plenty of LGBT role models, it is different on the men’s circuit. At present there is no openly gay player in men’s tennis where around 2000 people have an ATP ranking. In recent months the governing body has looked into making the Tour more inclusive. Last year they reached out to Lou Englefield, the director of Pride Sports, a UK organisation that focuses on LGBTQ+phobia in sport and aims to improve access to sport for all LGBTQ+ people. Through their connection, they contacted Eric Denison, a behavioural science researcher at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences. Monash University supplied the ATP with a series of scientifically validated questions, which they used to ‘look under the hood’ at the factors which supports a culture where gay or bisexual players feel they are not welcome.

It has been over nine months since news of the survey taking place emerged but the findings are still to be published. In an email to Ubitennis, the ATP confirmed that they are ‘finalizing their next steps’ and will be making an announcement shortly. They acknowledge that the survey process has taken longer than expected but it is unclear as to why.

As for those who may be experiencing difficulty in their personal lives regarding their sexuality, Brian Vahaly has his own advice which he shared with Ubitennis last year. Vahaly is a former top 100 player who came out as gay after retiring from the sport.

“Find somebody to talk to, somebody you trust. Know that people like us are there if you have questions. It’s just nice to have somebody to talk to who can help you learn about yourself,” he said.
“What I try to do is in terms of putting my family forward is that we live a pretty ‘normal life.’ I have two kids, I have a house and I walked my kids to preschool this morning. It doesn’t have to be such a defining characteristic of who you are. In the sports world, it feels that it is magnified, but what I want to show is that you can have a great athletic career, meet somebody and have a family no matter your sexuality.”

Pride is as much about making sports such as tennis an open environment for everyone as it is about marking a series of historic protests which took place in America more than 40 years ago.

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It’s Unfair, Rafa Is Too Good In Roland Garros Final

James Beck reflects on Nadal’s latest triumph at Roland Garros.

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Rafael Nadal - Roland Garros 2022 (foto Roberto Dell'Olivo)

This one was almost unfair.

 

It was like Rafa Nadal giving lessons to one of his former students at the Nadal academy back home in Mallorca.

When this French Open men’s singles final was over in less than two hours and a half, Rafa celebrated, of course. But he didn’t even execute his usual championship ritual on Court Philippe Chatrier of falling on his back on the red clay all sprawled out.

This one was that easy for the 36-year-old Spanish left-hander. He yielded only six games.

 It certainly didn’t have the characteristics of his many battles at Roland Garros with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

It must have been a bit shocking to the packed house of mostly Rafa fans.

RAFA DIDN’T MISS ‘HIS SHOT’ OFTEN

Nadal didn’t miss many of his patented shots such as his famed reverse cross-court forehand. He was awesome at times. Young 23-year-old Casper Ruud must have realized that by the middle of the second set when Rafa started on his amazing 11-game winning streak to finish off a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory.

Ruud is good. The Norway native will win his share of ATP titles, but probably not many Grand Slam titles. If any, at least until Rafa goes away to a retirement, certainly on his island of Mallorca.

Rafa already has his own statue on the grounds of Roland Garros. Perhaps, Mallorca should be renamed Rafa Island.

RUUD COULDN’T HANDLE RAFA’S PRESSURE

Ruud displayed a great forehand at times to an open court. But when Rafa applied his usual pressure to the corners Ruud’s forehand often  went haywire.

Rafa’s domination started to show in the third set as Ruud stopped chasing Nadal’s wicked reverse cross-court forehands. 

Ruud simply surrendered the last three games while Nadal yielded only three points. Nadal finished it off with a sizzling backhand down the line. In the end, nice guy, good sport and former student Ruud could only congratulate Rafa.

JOHNNY MAC: RAFA ‘INSANELY GOOD’

The great John McEnroe even called Nadal’s overall perfection “insanely good.”

If Iga Swiatek’s 6-1, 6-3 win in Saturday’s women’s final over young Coco Gauff was a mismatch,  Iga’s tennis idol staged a complete domination of Ruud a day later.

It appears that the only thing that can slow Rafa down is his nearly always sore left foot, not his age. He won his first French Open final 17 years ago.

For Nadal to win a 22nd Grand Slam title to take a 22-20-20 lead over his friends and rivals Djokovic and Federer is mind-boggling, but not as virtually unbelievable as winning a 14th  French Open title.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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At The French Open Rafa and Novak Lived Up To A Battle For The Ages

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Rafael Nadal (photo @RolandGarros)

Rafa Nadal is simply amazing.

 

His herd of fans couldn’t have been more pleased with their hero on this day just hours from his 36th birthday. He was never better, his patented reverse  cross-court forehand a marvel for the ages and his serve never more accurate.

The presence of his long-time friend and rival on the Court Philippe Chatrier that he loves so much made Nadal’s victory over Novak Djokovic even more special. The 59th meeting between these two warriors was a match for the ages, marvelous play by both players. Some games seemed to go on forever, with these two legends of the game dueling for every point for nearly four hours in a match that started in May and ended in June.

NADAL HAS NEVER PLAYED BETTER

The 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) victory sends Nadal into his birthday on Friday to face Alexander Zverev for a spot in Sunday’s final of the French Open. Win or lose now, Rafa will remain the all-time leader in Grand Slam singles titles until at least Wimbledon due to his current 21-20-20 edge over Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Nadal played like he could go on forever playing his game, but he is quick to remind that his career could end at any time. The always painful left foot remains in his mind.

But the Spanish left-hander has never played better than when he overcame a 5-2 deficit against Djokovic in the fourth set. Nadal sparkled with energy, easily holding service, then fighting off two set points with true grit, holding easily to get back to 5-5 and then holding serve at love for 6-6.

A 6-1 TIEBREAKER DEFICIT TOO MUCH FOR EVEN NOVAK

The tiebreaker belonged to Rafa for six of the first seven points. That was too tough a task for even Novak to overcome.

Rafa’s podiatrist must have felt relieved at least for now. If Rafa was in pain, he didn’t show it for the first time in quite awhile.

If Nadal could pull off the feat of taming the big game and serving accuracy Zverev displayed while conquering potential whiz kid Carlos Alcaraz, and then taking out whoever is left in the battle between Denmark’s young Holger Rune, Croatia’s veteran Marin Cilic, Norway’s Casper Ruud and Russian Andrey Rublev, Nadal might own a nearly unbeatable lead with 22 Grand Slam titles.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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