PARIS — If Rafael Nadal truly was going to be challenged, if his bid for an unprecedented eighth French Open championship would be slowed even a bit, this might have been the moment.
Leading by a set and a break 70 minutes into Sunday’s final against David Ferrer, another generally indefatigable Spaniard, Nadal faced four break points in one game. The last was a 31-stroke exchange, the match’s longest, capped when Nadal absorbed Ferrer’s strong backhand approach and transformed it into a cross-court backhand passing shot.
Ferrer glared at the ball as it flew past and landed in a corner, then smiled ruefully. What else was there to do? Dealing with Nadal’s defense-to-offense on red clay is a thankless task. His rain-soaked 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 victory over Ferrer was Nadal’s record 59th win in 60 matches at the French Open and made him the only man with eight titles at any Grand Slam tournament.
“I never like to compare years, but it’s true that this year means something very special for me,” Nadal said, alluding to the way he managed to come back from a left knee injury that sidelined him for about seven months.
“When you have a period of time like I had,” he added, “you realize that you don’t know if you will have the chance to be back here with this trophy another time.”
But he does it, year after year.
He won four French Opens in a row from 2005-08, and another four in a row from 2010-13.
“Rafael was better than me,” said Ferrer, who had won all 18 sets he’d played the past two weeks to reach his first Grand Slam final at age 31. “He didn’t make mistakes.”
A week past his 27th birthday, Nadal now owns 12 major trophies in all — including two from Wimbledon, one each from the U.S. Open and Australian Open — to eclipse Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver and equal Roy Emerson for the third-most in history. Nadal trails only Roger Federer’s 17 and Pete Sampras’ 14.
“Winning 17 Grand Slam titles, that’s miles away,” Nadal said. “I’m not even thinking about it.”
This was Nadal’s first major tournament after a surprising second-round loss at Wimbledon last June. Since rejoining the tour in February, he is 43-2 with seven titles and two runner-up finishes. He’s won his past 22 matches.
“For me, it’s incredible,” said Toni Nadal, Rafael’s uncle and coach. “When I think of all that Rafael has done, I don’t understand it.”
No one, perhaps not even Ferrer himself, expected Nadal to lose Sunday.
That’s because of Nadal’s skill on clay, in general, and at Roland Garros, in particular, but also because of how Ferrer had fared against his friend and countryman — and video-game competitor — in the past.
Ferrer entered Sunday 4-19 against Nadal. On clay, Nadal had 16 consecutive victories over Ferrer, whose only head-to-head win on the surface came the first time they played, in July 2004, when Nadal was 18.
Nadal had yet to make his French Open debut then, missing it that year because of a broken left foot. On May 23, 2005, Nadal played his first match at Roland Garros, beating Lars Burgsmuller 6-1, 7-6 (4), 6-1 on Court 1, known as the “bullring” because of its oval shape.
And so began the reign.
Nadal won a record 31 consecutive matches at the French Open until the fourth round in 2009, when Robin Soderling beat him. In 2010, Nadal started a new streak, which currently stands at 28.
There was occasional shakiness this year. Nadal lost the first set of each of his first two matches and was pushed to a tiebreaker to begin his third.
He barely edged No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic in a thrilling semifinal that lasted more than 4½ hours and ended 9-7 in the fifth set Friday.
By any measure, that match was far more enjoyable to take in than the final, akin to dining on a filet mignon accompanied by a well-aged bottle of Bordeaux one day, then grabbing a hot dog and can of soda from a street vendor 48 hours later.
Under a leaden sky that eventually would release a steady shower from the second set on, Ferrer felt nerves at the outset, he acknowledged later. But after the players traded early breaks, Ferrer held for a 3-2 lead.
That’s when Nadal took over, winning seven games in a row and 12 of 14. His court coverage was impeccable, as usual, showing no signs of any problems from that left knee, which was supported by a band of white tape. His lefty forehand whips were on-target, accounting for 19 of his 35 winners and repeatedly forcing errors from Ferrer.
When Nadal did have lapses, he admonished himself, once slapping his forehead with his right palm after pushing a lob wide. But what’s demoralizing for opponents is the way Nadal slams the door when they have openings, then rushes through when he gets the slightest chance.
He was at his relentless best on key points, including those four break chances for Ferrer at 3-1 in the second set. Immediately after, Nadal broke to 5-1 on a forehand winner down the line.
As Nadal prepared to serve in the next game, a man wearing a white mask and carrying a fiery flare jumped out of the stands nearby. The intruder quickly was shoved to the ground by one security guard, while another went to protect Nadal.
“I felt a little bit scared at the first moment,” Nadal said, “because I didn’t see what’s going on.”
It happened within a few minutes of other actions by protesters, including chanting from the upper deck that briefly delayed play. Police said seven people were held for questioning.
Nadal got broken in that game, then broke back right away to take the second set.
The third set was similar to the first. It was 3-all, then suddenly over. Nadal took the last three games, ending the match with a forehand winner before dropping his racket and falling on his back, leaving a rust-colored smudge on his white shirt and flecks of clay on his stubbled cheeks. Soon he was standing, holding his index finger aloft.
Yes, Nadal is No. 1 at the French Open. When the ATP rankings are issued Monday, however, he will be No. 5, because of points he dropped while hurt.
Ferrer will be at No. 4.
“Yeah, it’s strange, no? I lost the final against Rafael, but tomorrow I am going to be No. 4 and him No. 5,” Ferrer said with a grin, then delivered his punch line: “I prefer to win here and to stay No. 5.”
Sorry, David. This is Nadal’s tournament.
Now the question becomes: Is eight enough?
The University of Alabama gymnastics team wrote a new chapter in its championship history Saturday night.
Winning the school’s sixth gymnastics national championship is impressive by itself. But winning back-to-back national titles is a new high for the Crimson Tide program.
With a score of 197.85, Alabama edged out SEC rival Florida (197.775) to bring another trophy back to Tuscaloosa.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our athletes,” coach Sarah Patterson said. “We really had a great night. I thought last year was great, but for a lot of different reasons, this year is a lot better.”
During the semifinals, it was the balance beam that got the Tide started off strong, and it was the balance beam ending the finals that got the Tide to its sixth title.
Seniors Geralen Stack-Eaton and Ashley Priess finished up the competition for Alabama. Last year, Priess sat out the season with two hurt ankles, and it came down to her final beam routine to win the championship.
“As it was coming down to the end and I knew that it was (Florida’s) Kytra Hunter on floor, and Ashley Priess was going on the balance beam, and I knew it came down to that routine,” Patterson said. “To have her step in this year and lead with Geralen, I couldn’t be more proud of that moment.”
Priess and Stack-Eaton prayed before they went on for their beam routines, and Priess said it was an incredible moment for her.
His coolness may have been undimmed, but what he looks as he is given the runaround by the heavyweight, pummelling, whacking Frenchman is something more debilitating: for a moment he looks old. As Tsonga rampages, he suddenly seemed past it, a spent force, yesterday’s man. His gaunt expression says only one thing: retirement is surely now imminent.
Which is why, even as the odds lengthen exponentially, it seems the perfect time to put money on him winning Wimbledon. In fact, studying that picture of him seemingly lost and forlorn, apparently arthritic and creaking, the only astonishment will be if Roger Federer drops a set on his way to retaining his All England title.
This is what the implacably smooth champion does as he reaches his sporting dotage: he gives the impression that it is all over just before staging a perfectly timed comeback. Writing off Federer has become a routine of the tennis circuit. And just as routine has been the subsequent requirement to make a meal of such dismissive words.
Sure, Federer is now 31. Sure, he has yet to win anything this season. Sure, the twinges in his back are becoming more frequent and more aggressive. But the notion that he is finished at the top of the game is not just premature. It is laughable.
The thing about Federer is that he has always played to his own set of rules. When he was at the summit of his powers six or seven years ago, he appeared not to indulge in any kind of exertion. He could beat the most vigorous thrasher with barely any suggestion of effort.
While opponents changed their sweat-soaked shirts after every set, he looked as if he had just stepped out of an air-conditioned lounge. As a psychological ploy, it was untouchable. It gave him an aura of utter invincibility. That and a range of strokes previously thought only to exist in the imagination.
As he has got older, however, the assumption of superiority has been more frequently challenged. Though the mask of effortlessness has never slipped, the defeats have become more frequent. It is not just Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic who can get the better of him these days.
Juan Martin Del Potro, Tomas Berdych, Robin Soderling and Tsonga have all done it in recent slams. Andy Murray did it at the Olympics. It appears that from a position of total pre-eminence he has been brought back into the chasing pack, dragged down from Olympus to mere mortality. From once being the one and only, he is now no more than one of the boys.
But that does not mean it is over. That does not mean he should hang up his headband and retire to the Swiss mountains to tend to the herd of prize cows he has accumulated over the years, one for every slam. Especially not when his competitive instinct remains undimmed. This is the thing about Federer: beneath that elegant exterior bubbles a boiling determination to win.
You could see that in last year’s Wimbledon final. When Murray won the first set, it seemed as if the plotline was running to a pre-ordained script. A home Wimbledon champion in Olympic year: the force, not to mention the overwhelming majority of the centre court crowd, appeared to be with the Scotsman. There were many convinced this was the moment. We should have known.
Instead of the saltire flying proud above the All England Club, centre court was subject to a display of astonishing competitiveness by the Swiss. Simply refusing to be beaten, Federer hauled back the momentum by sheer force of will. Even against an opponent as determined as Murray, he simply refused to accept defeat. It was a comeback which perfectly encapsulated his latter career: at the very point you think it is over, he storms back.
With Nadal and Murray both circumscribed by injury, with Djokovic distracted by off-court issues, opportunity is opening up for Federer to retain his Wimbledon crown. But it is that defeat by Tsonga and its seeming apocalyptic implications for his legacy that will provide the greatest incentive.
He has no interest in defeat becoming the motif of his twilight playing years. He wants more cows before he bows out. Holding up the trophy in Wimbledon’s centre court on July 7 is the most unequivocal way of demonstrating it is not over for Roger Federer. Only the unwise would bet against it.
After the season (and last four years) they’ve had, it is somewhat expected that the Alabama Crimson Tide would be able to recruit top-notch players. Coach Nick Saban has applied his process to recruiting as Alabama tops the list for 2013.
With four five-star and 13 four-star prospects, Alabama is looking to be just as competitive in 2013. Five-star prospect linebacker Reuben Foster, whose creative Auburn tattoo certainly made an interesting statement, has surely had the most colorful road to national signing day (this including the tattoo and taking an unofficial visit to Alabama during his official visit to Auburn, and thus recommitting to Alabama).
Still, Foster is sure to be quite the force for the Tide. A No. 16 recruit overall, Foster will fit right in at Alabama. His size, quickness, and ability to tackle is essentially the tenacious defensive qualities that Alabama is known for having. I predict that Foster will play a big role in Alabama’s defense in the future.
Gaining four-star defensive end Dee Liner (what a fitting name, might I add) in the home stretch help put the Tide on top.
So, what does all this mean for the season to come?
It means Alabama’s chance for yet another National Championship bid is looking to be more and more attainable. With a more mature defense that is sure to be a lot more stingy in years to come, Alabama shows no sign of stopping the process.
The players who comprised Alabama’s roster Monday had nothing to do with the Crimson Tide’s gut-wrenching loss to Notre Dame in the 1973 Sugar Bowl, nothing to do with a similarly tough loss in the 1975 Orange Bowl and nothing to do with the other three losses in its six previous tries against the Fighting Irish.
Ask coach Nick Saban, and he’ll go one step further. This year’s team had nothing to do with last year’s national championship or the one Alabama seized in 2009.
His conversations with the team about this very subject were recounted constantly throughout the 2012 season. There was a similar message conveyed before Monday’s BCS National Championship.
“He told us we haven’t done anything yet,” linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “The legacy was going to be determined by the end of this game.”
These players — recruited exclusively by Saban’s staff and groomed in a program where expectations were re-established as “national title or bust” upon their enrollment — had everything to do with avenging those haunted shortcomings to the Fighting Irish and enhancing the mystique of one of the greatest eras in Crimson Tide history.
And they did it without a hint of drama.
Alabama’s 42-14 victory on a breezy Miami night at Sun Life Stadium was a recreation of the runaway train routs that filled the space between its nail-biting thrillers against LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia.
It’s the first time any team has won consecutive titles during the BCS era. The last time a team won the BCS title game by 28 or more points was 2005, when USC routed Oklahoma, 55-19 in the same stadium. The last team to win three titles in a four-year span was Nebraska (1994-97).
Yet it remained a challenge to find anyone from Alabama’s team to say it was a dynasty — better known as “the D word” among Crimson Tide players who refused to acknowledge it before or after Monday’s dominant performance.
“This one feels great,” senior defensive end Damion Square said. “It’s unique. It’s this one, down in South Florida. The one in New Orleans, that was in New Orleans. I’m going to take all of these to heart.”
For some Crimson Tide players, such as quarterback AJ McCarron, who etched his name next to more records with yet another outstanding championship game performance, it was their third title.
For sophomore safety HaHa Clinton-Dix — who was all over the field in one of the best games of his career — and a number of other underclassmen who embraced elevated roles in 2012, it was the second.
For true freshmen such as wide receiver Amari Cooper and running back T.J. Yeldon, who shined Monday much like they did throughout the regular season, it was the first.
By the logic Saban applied throughout the year, this national championship was this particular team’s first and only. And it wasn’t any easier than the previous two.
“People talk about how the most difficult thing is to win your first championship,” Saban said. “Really, the most difficult is to win the next one because there’s always a feeling of entitlement.
“The commitment that these guys made two days after the we played LSU in the national championship game to be a team, to set a goal to accomplish something of significance is really special for what they were able to accomplish.”
Notre Dame, rejuvenated under third-year coach Brian Kelly after decades of mediocrity, helped make this championship victory appear to be the easiest of the three. The Fighting Irish were frazzled in every aspect of the game — running routes too close to the sideline, missing tackles, muffing punt returns — and the Crimson Tide was there to pounce on every opportunity.
It took the Alabama less than 3 minutes to strike first. It was the kind of drive that would replicate itself three more times during the Crimson Tide’s dominant first half.
McCarron loosened up the Notre Dame defense with a 29-yard pass to Kevin Norwood before he let Eddie Lacy and the Crimson Tide offensive line do the rest. Lacy ran through a gaping hole up the middle to score a 20-yard touchdown.
“I could feel it in warm-ups,” said McCarron, who threw for 264 yards and four touchdowns. “I always feel like if I hit my first pass, it’s going to be a good day.”
Six minutes later, the Crimson Tide did it again. Set up by more of Lacy’s running, McCarron found a wide-open Michael Williams in the back of the end zone with a 3-yard pass to cap a 10-play, 61-yard march down the field.
After ending a first quarter that saw it outgain Notre Dame 202-23, Alabama extended its lead to 21-0 on the second quarter’s first play with a 1-yard Yeldon touchdown run. The Crimson Tide capped the half with a 71-yard drive that ended with a whirling Lacy landing in the end zone after he caught and ran with an 11-yard McCarron screen pass.
It was 28-0 before halftime against a team that allowed more than 20 points just once all season.
“That’s how we practice,” linebacker Trey DePriest said. “It’s an everyday thing. We go against our offense and you see what they just did.”
McCarron’s third-quarter touchdown pass to freshman Cooper went for 34 yards and put him alone at the top among Crimson Tide quarterbacks with 48 for his career. It also capped a 97-yard drive and staked Alabama to its biggest lead of the game, 35-0 — an advantage that was sliced on the ensuing drive by Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson’s 2-yard touchdown run.
The McCarron-Cooper battery hooked up one more time in the fourth quarter for a 19-yard touchdown — one of the final marks on the Crimson Tide’s history-altering night.
“We’ll take a couple of days to celebrate this,” Saban said. “Then it will be time to start building toward next season.”
They are partying in Scotland!