Shapovalov beats idol Nadal in Montreal

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There’s a wholly innocent beauty in being 18, all puppy-dog eager and fresh-faced, with your entire life and career ahead of you.

For young, promising athletes, there is everything to gain on the playing field. And there is nothing more to lose than a tennis match.

At that age, you feel immortal. You know in your soul that even if you lose, you will have plenty more opportunities. Because the future seems endless at 18, full of limitless possibilities.

Nothing really bad has happened yet. You probably haven’t lost a parent. Perhaps you haven’t even yet had your first true love or suffered your first broken heart. It’s an incredible time.

In that context, 18-year-old ATP Tour rookie Denis Shapovalov had the time of his young life Thursday night in Montreal.

Fresh off an impressive over Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina the previous day, the kid went out and defeated his childhood idol Rafael Nadal.

ShapovalovHe did so in dramatic fashion, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (4), in front of a packed house full of fellow Canadians who cheered every mighty, lefty, fearless swat of his new Yonex racquet.

“It’s so tough. A lot of the times he just hits a shot that’s way too good. I was managing to get a lot back when I could. But, you know, he’s honestly the best player I’ve ever played in my life. Yeah, you could tell why he’s won so many Grand Slams. His ball was just so heavy. He’s such a warrior out there. So it’s honestly, like, a dream come true for me to beat a player like that,” Shapovalov said.

A life completely changes, in 12 hours

Thursday morning, the Toronto resident was just a teenager crashing in his buddy Félix Auger-Aliassime’s Montreal basement. When he woke up, the first thing he saw was a poster of Nadal on the wall. He asked Auger-Aliassime, who turned 17 Tuesday and though currently injured, is every bit the prospect Shapovalov is, to take it down.

That same night, he took down the real thing.

“The whole day I was, like, ‘There’s no chance. I’ll go and have fun but I’m not beating this guy.’ ” a stunned Shapovalov said during an on-court interview with Sportsnet after the match. “I just kept fighting. I knew it was going to be really tough. But I went for my shots in the big moments, and caught a couple of lines, got a little bit lucky. But at the end of the day, that’s what tennis is.”

All of a sudden, the Internet lit up. A star was born. Let the hype begin.

And Shapovalov will never truly be 18 again.

The kid was impressive Thursday. Fearless, at times. He went after Nadal with every offensive tool in his arsenal and, often, was able to break through the Spaniard’s legendary defence – just enough.

“Yeah, it just felt really surreal, you know. I mean, I couldn’t believe it actually happened. It’s tough to explain the emotions that were going through my head at that moment. But it was just pure happiness,” Shapovalov told Sportsnet. “Just a roar of the crowd. I mean, yeah, it was just really loud. Honestly, yeah, I think I might have blacked out.”

But, as with just about every tennis match – every story – there is another side.

For Nadal, déja vu

Not so long ago, Nadal was that fresh-faced teenager.

Back in 2004, when Shapovalov was just four years old, the Spaniard was a fresh-faced kid of 17 facing world No. 1 Roger Federer for the first time, in the third round of the Masters 1000 tournament in Miami.

Shapovalov
In Miami in 2004, Nadal was the fresh-faced teenager, and Federer was the world No. 1, livid in defeat.

Nadal was already ranked No. 34, more than 100 spots ahead of where Shapovalov is now. He defeated Federer in straight sets.

A star was born.

Shapovalov is the youngest since then to defeat a top-two player in a match that didn’t end in an injury retirement.  

At 31, Nadal is having a renaissance season. But he’s far more conscious now of the passage of time. He plays with more urgency because, as dizzying as his heights have been, he has had his fair share of valleys during a brilliant career. He knows he’s closer to the end, and he’s not ready for it to end.

In the big picture, a tennis career comes and goes in the blink of an eye.

Shapovalov may toil on Tour for perhaps 15 more years before his blink is done. But some day, regardless of where the future takes him, he will be where Nadal is now.

“Worst match of the year”

Shapovalov
Nadal, livid at the loss, didn’t even stop to sign autographs as he nearly always does, even after a tough defeat.

Nadal was mad. A couple of people who have been around a long time even remarked Thursday that they have never seen him this angry after a loss.

He knows he could have won it – should have won it.  He said he wasn’t surprised that Shapovalov didn’t flinch in the end.

“That’s normal, no? I have been in that situation. If I don’t remember back with 18 years old, I win Roland Garros. Is something that I don’t know why should happen, when you (are) 18, to (not) hold the nerves. In my opinion, is much more easy when you have 18 than when you have 30,” he said.

“He has nothing to lose. Is win-to-win for him. If he loses playing a good match, was good for him. Or if he loses in straight sets, already he played a good tournament. If he wins, he’s amazing,” Nadal added. “He won. Is amazing for him. Just well done for him. Is a great story. And I am not happy to be part of this story. That’s it, no?”

That Nadal managed to win the first set with a 45 per cent first-serve effort and just two winners was luck and timing; his younger opponent cracked a bit at the end of that set.

He was way down in the second set, came back, and lost the set on a return that Shapovalov completely shanked. It ended up inside the sideline, in a spot on the court a surprised Nadal couldn’t get to in time to make a winner routine. He missed a forehand down the line long, and they went the distance.

The third game of the third set was the pivotal one. It took more than 14 minutes for Shapovalov to hold his serve. The Canadian double-faulted three times in that game, and Nadal still couldn’t take advantage. There was one moment towards the end, when Nadal had a short ball he needed to drill down the line with his forehand, with everything he had.

He had set it all up, all he needed to do was finish with panache.

Nadal hiccuped. He blinked. He bailed out with a meek drop-shot attempt that never got over the net. And Shapovalov held.

No. 1 on the line

In retrospect, and though it took a long time to actually get to the finish line, that was the telling moment. Nadal had not been serving well. He had not been hitting his forehand particularly well. At times, it looked like the tight stroke of 2016 vintage – the one that too often landed short and gave his opponent opportunities to attack. 

He knew he was just two wins away from getting the No. 1 ranking back; Nadal’s math, when it comes to tennis, is impeccable. And he flinched.

In the ultimate tiebreak, Nadal jumped out to a 3-0 lead. Suddenly, it was 4-5 and Nadal was fighting to stay in it. The man who has made huge bank on eternally long points dumped a forehand into the net, on the second shot of the rally.

On match point, Shapovalov hit a huge lefty forehand of his own down an open sideline, and fell to the court in disbelief.

“All the time I was waiting for his shot. I didn’t went for the shots. I didn’t feel the ball tonight. That’s it, no? I tried to fight until the end. I had a lot of chances in the third. Probably I played bad, but at the same time playing like this, I could win the match,” Nadal said. “I don’t know how many breakpoints I had in the third. But he played well in the break points. He hit some lines. … A couple of ones (were) well played for him. But even all these kind of things, I make too many mistakes in important points. In all terms, I cannot be happy about the things that I did.”

Shapovalov has had big moments before. Not just winning the Wimbledon juniors a year ago, although that was big. But a few weeks later, just 17, he dismantled Nick Kyrgios on his home court at the Rogers Cup in Toronto.

“I said I’d never forget the roar in Toronto but this was about five times louder. Every time there was a big point, my ears just popped,” he said.

No stopping the hype

The hype around this likeable, talented kid is about to get just as loud.

You hope Canadian tennis fans have learned a thing or two from the Genie Bouchard experience. But you know they haven’t.

Shapovalov
A decade ago on the same court, a young Frank Dancevic (who had also beaten Juan Martin del Potro along the way), met Nadal in the Rogers Cup quarterfinals. He lost in three sets, but it seemed a star was born that week as well. As Dancevic will tell you, it’s never as easy as it looks before it starts.

That’s normal. It’s human nature. If you’re a spectator, there’s nothing more exciting than discovering a rising new talent. And it’s a blessing to be able to watch them at this age, when they’re potentially on the cusp of exciting things and the sky is the limit.

But the road to the top in tennis is filled with bumps and potholes. The weight of expectations grows. The commitments and responsibilities multiply. The attention gets overwhelming. This is as easy as it’s going to get for Shapovalov, who will rise to about No. 100 in the world with the victory and, if he wins again Friday, could get as high as No. 65 in the world.

As indelicately as Bouchard put it after her first-round defeat in Toronto a few days ago, it is a load to carry. And there’s no school to learn how to carry it. You learn on the job, with the whole world watching.

Nadal has been through all that. And at this stage, the losses hurt far more. Especially losses like this one.

For Shapovalov, another match awaits. He likely won’t sleep much Thursday night as he prepares to face tricky lefthander Adrian Mannarino Friday evening. He won’t be feeling all that great; after a three-set match against Nadal, the body barks.

Shapovalov, who had started to cramp, stood up during his post-match press conference.

Mostly, he’ll expect far more from himself than he did just 24 hours before, when he walked on the court with his childhood idol expecting to lose.

Everyone else will be expecting more, as well. 

Wimbledon Day 1 – What to watch

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WIMBLEDON – It’s finally under way.

And with no first-round byes and some dangerous floaters, there is no breathing room at all before the intriguing matches start coming at us.

Big courts hopping

Some were surprised Rafael Nadal got the No. 1 Court assignment while Stan Wawrinka – who has never won Wimbledon and is seeded lower at No. 5, got Centre Court.

It’s worth remembering that No. 1 also is a ticketed court. And, as at the French Open with Court Suzanne Lenglen, the tournament also wants to give full value to those patrons. 

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As is custom, defending champion Andy Murray will open  Centre Court promptly at 1 p.m. And he’ll take on an intriguing customer in lucky loser Alexander Bublik.

There’s no more dangerous player on grass than an unpredictable, rather unknown player. So while Murray theoretically knows what to expect, he can’t truly know until they begin to play. That’s where the best-of-five format is an advantage to the established player.

Whether the loosey-goosey Bublik suffers a case of Wimbledon nerves, or seizes the moment, is part of the intrigue. Making your Wimbledon career debut on the Centre Court against the British defending champion is quite a way to kick it off.

Kvitova back in her happy place

Two-time champion Petra Kvitova, the No. 11 seed, also gets Centre Court as she triumphantly returns from the horrific stabbing incident last December. There surely were times she thought she would never be here on this day. 

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On No. 1 court, British female hope Johanna Konta takes on a familiar foe in Hsieh Su-Wei. 

Sometimes the draw gods are cruel. And in this case, Konta’s opponent was the one who came back from a 1-6 first set to defeat her in the first round at the French Open just a few weeks ago.

Different tournament, different surface. But Hsieh (who has aWimbledon doubles title) has a whimsical game that is just as tricky on grass as it is on hard courts when it’s on.

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No. 10 seed Venus Williams once seem destined to dominate at Wimbledon her entire career but in fact has not won here since 2008. She’s dealing with a devastating personal issue, as she was involved in a car accident resulting in a fatality a few weeks ago. And she’s without her sister (with whom she won the doubles just a year ago). But it’s hard to see her losing to Elise Mertens of Belgium.

Three men’s seeds to watch

[20] Nick Kyrgios vs. Pierre-Hugues Herbert (1st, Court 3)

Kyrgios is an unknown quantity, particularly health-wise. And he’s facing an accomplished grass-courter in Herbert, whose doubles skills help him on this surface.

[31] Fernando Verdasco vs. Kevin Anderson (2nd, Court 18)

Anderson has been seeded before here, but injury has dropped his ranking. With his huge serve, on grass he’s a threat to anyone. And this is a tough first-round matchup for both.

[28] Fabio Fognini vs. [PR] Dmitry Tursunov (3rd, Court 17)

The former top-20 player Tursunov has barely played for a year, using his protected ranking to enter tournaments only to withdraw. Currently ranked No. 715, at age 35, this is very likely his final Wimbledon. You have to think he’ll lay it all out there against new father Fabio.

Three women’s seeds to watch

[4] Elina Svitolina vs. Ashleigh Barty (2nd, Court 3)

Svitolina is up against a grass-loving Aussie who has shown great form during the preparatory season, and who has reached a Wimbledon final in doubles. Just 21, back from a retirement sabbatical, Barty could well pull off the upset.

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[25] Carla Suárez Navarro vs. Eugenie Bouchard

A year ago, Bouchard was beating British hope Konta on Centre Court, in an impressive display of timely tennis that belied her poor form coming in. The match is a TBA, which means it will get on a show court late in the day. The specific court will be determined by the length of the scheduled matches. Bouchard has been tough on Suárez Navarro even on the Spaniard’s favourite surface, clay. And they have practiced together often. 

[27] Ana Konjuh vs. [WC] Sabine Lisicki (4th, Court 14)

The German, who lost the 2013 Wimbledon final to Marion Bartoli, returned to action for the first time this season at the grass event in Mallorca. And she did surprisingly well. In this big-hitting battle, the younger Konjuh might be at an experience disadvantage.

Unseeded must-sees

[PR] Victoria Azarenka vs. Cici Bellis (TBA)

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The return of Victoria Azarenka to Wimbledon after missing it a year ago is one of the highly-anticipated moments of this Wimbledon.

With baby Leo in tow and a new Yonex racquet, she gets 18-year-old American CiCi Bellis in the first round. That’s not easy. On the plus side, the two have (coincidentally) practiced several times on the grass since Azarenka’s return, so she won’t be faced with some unknown kid who will take it to her.

[WC] Tommy Haas vs. [Q] Ruben Bemelmans (3rd, Court 16)

The 39-year-old Haas gets the lefty Belgian qualifier first up. He can’t ask for much better than that as he undertakes his final Wimbledon campaign

Dustin Brown vs. Joao Sousa (1st, Court 14)

The Dredded One is always a a treat to watch on the Wimbledon lawns. And given he’s on small Court 14, you’ll have to plan it well to get a seat.

Camila Giorgi vs. Alizé Cornet (1st, Court 8)

Watch for Giorgi’s father Sergio on the side of the court if Cornet takes a lead in this one. It’s WTA drama of the best kind as these two quick players battle the grass – and themselves

[WC] Denis Shapovalov vs. [PR] Jerzy Janowicz (1st, Court 7)

The two played at a Challenger in Leon, Mexico last winter – outdoors, at altitude, on a hard court. So they’re familiar with each other (Janowicz won in a third-set tiebreak).

Shapovalov earned the Wimbledon wild card with the combination of his junior title a year ago, and his current ranking in the top 200. He defeated Kyle Edmund in the first round of Queen’s Club two weeks ago and is definitely one to watch. But the former top-15 player is a tough first round, even if he’s unseeded.

The Weather

The Wimbledon forecast is an exercise in brilliant creative writing every day. So we’ll bring it to you each morning.

“A largely dry morning with some brightness and even sunshine at times. Cloud amounts increasing through the morning with the slight (20%) risk of some showers for the start of play until mid-afternoon, around 1600.

Some warm sunshine developing for the end of the afternoon and through the evening where it will feel rather humid.

The light south-west winds will freshen slightly. Temperatures reaching a maximum of 24 Celsius, 75F.”

People watching

The Duchess of Cambridge (a.k.a Kate) will be on hand to open proceedings and see defending champion Murray off in his quest to repeat.

And, of course, HRH the Duke of Kent and HRH Prince Michael of Kent will be on hand.

Andy Murray’s father Williams gets the call in the Royal Box.

#OlympicDay – Rio tennis flashback

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There were a lot of big names missing at the Rio Olympics – especially on the men’s side.

But it was a fabulous event just the same.

Here’s a sample of pics taken during the tournament.

Among those featured are Eugenie Bouchard, Canadians Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil, Venus Williams, Fabio Fognini, Rafael Nadal and Marc Lopez, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Daria Kasatkina, Andy Murray and many more.

There’s a special collection of epic Barbora Strycova moments in there, too. 

Enjoy.


 

Nadal pulls rank at WTA’s Mallorca Open

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When your uncle and coach is the tournament director, you probably won’t have trouble getting practice-court time at the event he’s running.

But Rafael Nadal’s practice session at the Mallorca Open Tuesday caused somewhat of a logjam.

There are three practice courts on site at the tournament. But on Tuesday – with so many players still in the event – they were down to two for several hours. A doubles match had to be relocated from the stadium court to one of the designated practice courts. The reason was that singles match suspended the previous evening because of darkness had to be completed.

The match, featuring top seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, needed to resume on the stadium court. As it was, there already was a doubles match scheduled on that extra court.

That dropped the available practice courts down to two.

When Nadal and his team (including tournament director Toni) took over another court, the total number of practice courts available to the players was down to one, one coach on hand told Tennis.Life.

With 39 players in action on on a busy Tuesday, that’s not nearly enough.

Prep time at home

Nadal withdrew from the event at Queen’s Club after his momentous 10th French Open title last Sunday. 

He’s using this time to get in some early practice on the grass while staying at home in Mallorca. And it’s not as though there are grass courts around every corner on that Balearic island.

Still, the tournament director put the needs of his nephew above the needs of a second-year tournament. It’s a tournament that still is in the growing pains stage and, in competition with the Premier tournament in Birmingham, needs to develop a reputation amongst the players as having good practice conditions as they prepare for Wimbledon.

It’s not the end of the world. But it’s not a great look, especially as women’s tennis generally always takes a back seat in Spain. You need only look at the number of WTA Tour events that have tried, and failed, to gain a foothold there.

The tournament even streamed a portion of Nadal’s practice live on Facebook, something they have not done for any of the players in the tournament. And there are more photos of him there as there are of any other player.

There will only be two courts used as match courts Wednesday, compared to the four in use on Tuesday. So the problem will be resolved going forward.

Nadal withdraws from Queen’s Club

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For many years, the sight of Rafael Nadal going through his first paces on grass at Queen’s Club the day after winning the French Open title was an annual rite of passage.

That won’t happen this year.

The 10-time French Open champion is taking a pass on the tournament, which takes place next week.

Here’s the official quote from the tournament’s press release:

“Very sorry to say that I am not going to be able play Queen’s next week. I am sad to make this decision because I love Queen’s; I won the tournament in 2008 and every time I reached the Wimbledon final it was after playing Queen’s.  I was hoping to take some days off and then be ready, but at 31, and after a long clay court season with all of the emotions of Roland Garros, and after speaking to my team and doctor, I have decided my body needs to rest if I am going to be ready to play Wimbledon. Sorry to all the great fans in Britain and to the tournament organizers. Hope to see you at Queen’s next year.”

It’s a very smart move for Nadal, who would seem to have as good a chance as anyone to win Wimbledon and do the double, as he did in both 2008 and 2010 after not dropping a set in his run to the French Open title.

But it’s a shame for the tournament, although it does still have a stellar field.

Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Grigor Dimitrov, Juan Martin del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and 2016 finalist Milos Raonic remain in the field. They’ll be fine.

Diego Schwartzman also has pulled out of the tournament, which allows Brit Kyle Edmund to get direct entry.

Edmund had been given a wild card. Hmmmm, that means there’s a wild card out there for the taking.

Nole, are you game?

Tangled up in (Nike Paramount) Blue

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In a few weeks, when Wimbledon rolls around, the end of the blue period will be upon us.

But until then, we are not yet done with the Nike Blue – Paramount Blue, officially – that was ubiquitous during the clay-court season.

It was a step above the yellow and green neons that fought a valiant battle for supremacy on the Nike players during the Indian Wells-Miami swing a couple of months ago.

But the French Open was absolutely overrun with it.

Here is just a small sample of the protagonists. They ranged from the juniors, to the pro players – even to legends like John McEnroe and Conchita Martiez.

There were two varieties for the women. The basic kit matched up with the shorts worn by the men.

Some of the women were chosen to wear the non-patterned Maria Sharapova kit : Russian juniors Olesya Pervushina and Anastasia Potapova, American Anastasia Anisimova, Croat Alja Tomljanovic and Canadian Françoise Abanda.

But the vestiges from the battling neons era remained.

Where are the blue socks?

It was all about the shoes and socks.

Nike

We asked several Nike players why the heck the shoes didn’t match. None of them had an answer; they just wear what they’ve given, or paid to wear.

But one did point this out: “The socks don’t match, either!”

There was a little of the green neon around the trim of the shirts – and of course the Swoosh. But the sock/shoe wardrobe malfunction was definitely out-of-the-box thinking.

They should all have been wearing Nadal’s shoes. And it would have been perfect.

Nike

As well, they are also 10 French Open, winning championship shoes. They could even have kept the personalized “Rafa” and No. 9 on the backs of them – just for good karma.

The only outfit that matched the shoes was the black version of the kit, worn by Genie Bouchard.

Nike

On a related note, the two junior girls’ finalists and all four girls in the doubles final were tangled up in Nike Paramount blue. So you can see where the future is headed once they all graduate to the pro tour.

“Décima” means “decimation” as Nadal takes 10

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ROLAND GARROS – Purely on a tennis and physical level, it was perhaps the easiest French Open Rafael Nadal has won.

Emotionally, it was on another level entirely.

The 31-year-old from Mallorca pulled off “La Décima” Sunday. And in doing so, he dominated the one opponent most gave at least a puncher’s chance to stop him in 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka.

Wawrinka has the game to beat Nadal. And he was unbeaten in his three previous Grand Slam finals. Nadal’s solution to that was thorough: make sure the man had absolutely zero chance to impose that game.

Who knew? After a 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 victory, it turns out “Décima” was short for “decimation”.

“This tournament I have been playing great during the whole event since the beginning. So have been, I think, a perfect Roland Garros for me,” Nadal said. “So it’s not that I am playing more or less aggressive. I am playing well. And when you play well, you have the chance to play more aggressive, no?”

Conditions a perfect “10”

The conditions on Sunday were tailor-made for 10: blazing hot temperatures made for a quick court, just the way Nadal likes it.

Decima It seemed Wawrinka wasn’t running on all cylinders physically after a four hour, 34-minute semi-final victory over world No. 1 Andy Murray two days ago. But he shot down that notion.

Wawrinka said he had completely recovered from the Murray match. It was a case of the mental affecting the physical.

“Everything’s connected. If the mind hesitates about what you want to do, the legs are late and then, it becomes difficult. You’re always sort of in-between,” Wawrinka said. “When you play Rafa, if you hesitate even half a second, or even less than that, it’s already too late.” 

This version of Rafael Nadal might well be the finest version yet. The way he played Sunday – throughout the fortnight, really – it was hard to imagine anyone on the other side of the net having a ghost of a chance.

“For sure he’s playing the best he’s ever played. But not only here. I think since the beginning of the year. You can see he’s playing more aggressive, staying more close (to) the line,” Wawrinka said. “That’s why he’s winning so much again.”

No solutions for Swiss

Wawrinka tried to wake his racquet up by banging his head with it a few times. He made a racquet sculpture that wouldn’t have looked out of place next to the Louvre Pyramid. 

Decima“I was trying to find a solution. Trying to play better. I was trying to play the game I wanted to play. I was trying to do something different. But again, today, as I say, there is not much to talk about the match,” he said. “I played against the biggest clay-court player ever. He won his 10th French Open today, so that’s something huge, also.”

Nadal won nine French Opens and 14 Grand Slam titles overall with a backhand that served more as a placeholder for his big, spinning, powerful forehand than a dangerous weapon on its own. And he won them, with the exception of the 2010 US Open, with a serve used more to start the point than create havoc in and of itself.

New, improved, post-drought Rafa

In this 10th championship run, Nadal’s weaponry was virtually complete. He dropped just 35 games in seven matches. It was clear to all who witnessed it that the best clay-court player in the history of the game actually has gotten better, after a three-year Grand Slam title drought.

The Spaniard spent more than half an hour Saturday just ripping first serves in his final full practice. More often than has been his preference, he broke 200 km/hour. The serving upgrade was long overdue. But as in everything he does, Nadal runs on his own timetable.

The Slam drought was partly health-related, to be sure. But it was also clear through Novak Djokovic’s domination of their rivalry (he held an 11-1 record against Nadal between the 2013 US Open and this year’s Madrid event) that the Spaniard needed to retool for this latter stage of his career.

If the game between the supreme roster in men’s tennis right now is catch up and adjust, the field had caught up – particularly the two-handers with great returns of serve. So Nadal adjusted. He didn’t do it by adding new weapons. He did it by taking the shots he already possessed up a notch.

Wawrinka felt the ire of that French Open dry spell Sunday. As one of the French commentators noted, it was a “monumental and inexorable butt-kicking.” (It sounds even more dramatic in French).

“I try my best in all the events. That’s the real thing. But the feelings I have here are impossible to describe, compared to other places. For me, the nerves, the adrenaline I feel when I play in this court is impossible to compare to another feeling,” an emotional Nadal said after the victory, which took just two hours and four minutes.

Perfect Roland Garros touches

The tournament was well-prepared for this milestone win. That’s always a risk; there’s an opponent there who wants nothing more than for the commemorative banners to stay in storage another year.

Decima

The raised stand brought out onto the court for the trophy ceremony boasted a Roland Garros logo with the number 10. There were massive banners that covered the fans in the upper levels of the stadium congratulation Nadal on his achievement.

And in a surprise, the tournament commissioned a full-sized replica of the Trophée des Mousquetaires, one that listed all of Nadal’s victories and the years he won.

His uncle and coach Toni Nadal, for whom this is to be the final French Open with his nephew, brought it out to him.

Nadal nearly dropped it – a rare trophy faux pas for a man who has raised the hardware on this special court so many times.

Decima

And after Nadal insisted his uncle stay up on the stand for he photos, they stood side by side. Each was holding a full-sized trophy – twin symbols of a incredibly fruitful, symbiotic partnership that was celebrated on this day as never before.

Doubts erased – for now

“During that three years, I had doubts. Right now, I gonna have doubts even in a few days, because in tennis every week is a new story and that’s part of the beautiful thing of our sport. Life is not that clear,” Nadal said. “The doubts, I think, are good, because the doubts give you the possibility to work with more intensity, with being more humble, and accepting that you need to keep working hard to improve things.”

This was the third French Open Nadal has won without dropping a set. The other two came in 2008 and 2010. As it happens, he won Wimbledon both those years.

There may be more to come.

One final practice for Rafael Nadal

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ROLAND GARROS – On Sunday, Rafael Nadal will attempt to do the unthinkable – win his 10th French Open.

On Saturday, the atmosphere was rather more relaxed on Court 3, where he went through a full practice with a full complement of team members.

There was Uncle Toni, who is guiding his nephew in one last Roland Garros – he says. There was associate coach Francisco Roig. And there was new super-coach Carlos Moyá. And the rest of the team.

His sparring partner was Joan Soler, a 26-year-old Frenchman who played some college tennis at St. Leo’s in the U.S. and has been on the Futures circuit.

After Soler departed (not before getting the obligatory selfie with Nadal), Moyá stayed on and practiced Nadal’s defence.

Uncle Toni would feed Moyá a short ball, and the former No. 1 would crunch it as hard as he could, with Nadal scrambling to defend.

Nadal did that pretty well. 

Here’s what it looked like.

Finding Nadal – the French challenge

The French federation isn’t big on letting the fans know where players are practicing during their tournament. It’s something most tournaments around the world have recognized is a very popular part of the tournament experience – and indeed have made infrastructure changes to accommodate. But the trend hasn’t yet made its way to Paris.

Nadal was originally scheduled for Court 4 at noon, with Wawrinka on Court 3 at the same time. But even with the court change and an earlier start time, plenty of fans found him on Court 3.

Father Sebastian Nadal was sitting in the stands, watching.

He took a break for a bit to take a peek at the junior girls’ doubles final going on next door on Court 2.

practice

RG men’s quarters almost true to form

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ROLAND GARROS – Milos Raonic, the No. 5 seed at the French Open, played spoilsport in what turned out to be a true-to-form final eight.

The Canadian was upset, 8-6 in the fifth set after four hours and 17 minutes, by No. 20 seed Pablo Carreño Busta in the fourth round on Sunday.

But the other seven top seeds made it. And along with Carreño Busta, they make up a top-quality, if predictable, elite eight bracket.

Which is not to say that they all arrived here in thoroughly predictable fashion.

Here’s a look at their twists and turns through the first week of the tournament.

No. 1 – Andy Murray

form
Murray was in good spirits before the tournament began, and might even have avoided chiding coach Ivan Lendl for wearing the same way-too-big polo shirt two days in a row (he really did). (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

The top seed went about it all bass-ackwards. He lost sets to players he probably shouldn’t have (Andrey Kuznetsov, Martin Klizan) and didn’t lose sets to players he maybe could have (Juan Martin del Potro, the powerful Russian Karen Khachanov).

But along the way the Brit appeared to rebuild some of the confidence lost along the way this season – just in time for the pointy end of the tournament.  

He even managed to make jokes!

Fitness for battle: 8

Quarter-final opponent: [8] Kei Nishikori

No. 2 – Novak Djokovic

Much was made of the new face in Team Nole, as Andre Agassi arrived with great fanfare shortly before the tournament began. 

Agassi is reportedly gone now, but promises to be back when and if Djokovic needs him. While he was here, he watched Djokovic navigate some pretty good players routinely. Except for Diego Schwartzman.

The Argentine was right in there until his body failed him in the late going of their five-setter in the third round. He even led two sets to one. With Djokovic’s up-and-down results this season, it would have been an unlikely upset, but by no means an impossible one.

Whether his earlier rounds – he had, by most measures, a good draw – were enough preparation for what his quarter-final opponent will bring to the table is a question that will be answered on Court Suzanne Lenglen Tuesday.

Fitness for battle: 8

Quarter-final opponent: [6] Dominic Thiem

No. 3 – Stan Wawrinka

The only big (Swiss) cheese in the draw this year with the absence of Roger Federer, Wawrinka’s season has been below his standards. But while it’s a cliché to say a player peaks for the Grand Slams, the 32-year-old REALLY peaks for the Slams. Which probably is why he’s won three of them, including this one.

Wawrinka faced two of the more dangerous lower seeds in the tournament in Fabio Fognini and Gaël Monfils, and got through both in straight sets. Again with Fognini, the body didn’t cooperate.

Against Monfils on Monday, everyone was hoping for a blockbuster. But these two good friends made it more like a fun match for beers in their local Swiss public park. 

When it was over, Wawrinka looked as though he almost felt badly that Monfils couldn’t put up more resistance. He knows more than most that his great friend, at 30 but with a fragile body, won’t have many more chances to make a deep run at his home-country Slam.

“It was a mentally exhausting match, I think. We were both tense. And we know each other so well. We knew how important it was, for him or for me, to play well,” Wawrinka said.

On the worrisome side, the Swiss star’s back locked up from the beginning of the match. It’s what he calls the most fragile part of his body, always managed but never worry-free.

 

Fitness for battle: 7

Quarter-final opponent: [7] Marin Cilic

No. 4 – Rafael Nadal

It appeared the nine-time French Open champion was back for real in 2017 after a great start to the season. But who knew to what extent?

His French Open prep was vintage, although stubbornly deciding to play Rome despite already having won three titles looked like a bad call when he was on fumes by the quarterfinals. He lost to Dominic Thiem there, after beating him twice earlier in the clay-court season.

Raonic, slotted to be his quarter-final opponent, might have posed a few more challenges than Nadal’s young countryman Carreño Busta. Nadal is pretty much money when he’s playing fellow Spaniards. And Carreño Busta is coming off a draining, emotional marathon win while Nadal is fresh as a margarita amarilla.

Fitness for battle: 11

Quarter-final opponent: [20] Pablo Carreño Busta

No. 6 – Dominic Thiem

With his efforts during the spring clay season, and with fellow youngster Alexander Zverev winning Rome, it figured these two would be in the mix in the second week in Paris.

But Zverev flamed out in the first round against Fernando Verdasco. And so it was left to Thiem to make his seed. He did so very much under the radar, without dropping a set and ceding more than four games in only two of the 12 sets he played. 

Had he faced David Goffin in the fourth round, rather than Horacio Zeballos, Thiem might have been tested more. But Goffin’s nasty ankle injury, suffered in the first set against Zeballos, took him out.

In the quarter-finals, we’ll find out if he has a Plan B, after getting just one game against Novak Djokovic in the Rome semi-final a few weeks ago. On the plus side, he won’t have to play him the day after he has to play Nadal.

Fitness for battle: 8

Quarter-final opponent: [2] Novak Djokovic

No. 7 – Marin Cilic

With Nadal, Djokovic and Thiem all in the final eight, no one is talking about Marin Cilic.

He’s used to that – especially in Paris, where he is a quarter-finalist for the first time in his career a year after losing in the first round, to No. 166-ranked Marco Trungelliti of Argentina.

Cilic has had a sweet draw, and hasn’t lost more than three games in any set. He caught a break in the fourth round Monday as opponent Kevin Anderson retired in the middle of the second set due to injury.

The last time Cilic faced Anderson was in the third round of the 2014 US Open. For what it’s worth, he won the tournament.

Fitness for battle: 7

Quarter-final opponent: [3] Stan Wawrinka

No. 8 – Kei Nishikori

In the third round, Nishikori caught a break when rain came to suspend his match with the younger, bigger, stronger Hyeon Chung of South Korea. When play resumed Sunday, Nishikori still looked dead on his feet, his stiff back  – or something – limiting his movement to a major degree.

Somehow, he got through that one.

Then on Monday, he faced Fernando Verdasco and looked basically the same in losing the first set 6-0. Somehow, he warmed up the body parts and got through that one as well. Let’s face it, though, he got help from Verdasco.

This is kind of the story of Nishikori’s career; his inability to keep his body as strong as his will has held him back from … who knows what?

Fitness for battle: 3

Quarter-final opponent: [1] Andy Murray

And, finally, the outlier

No. 20 – Pablo Carreño Busta

No one gives the 25-year-old a shot against his much-decorated compatriot in the quarter-finals. Maybe not even the Carreño Busta family, for all we know.

The man himself said after his win over Raonic that if he didn’t think he had a shot, he wouldn’t take the court. He might get his behind kicked, he might pull off a miracle. But he can’t ask for more than playing the clay GOAT and his good friend on a big stadium court in the French Open quarter-finals.

Hopefully his family, who had to leave to catch a flight back to Spain in the third set of his match against Raonic, will fly back to see this one.

Fitness for battle: 5

Quarter-final opponent: [4] Rafael Nadal

Nadal vs. Carreño Busta is on Court Philippe Chatrier Tuesday, while Djokovic vs. Thiem is on Court Suzanne Lenglen. You have to think the champion is going to come out of that group.

Nishikori vs. Murray and Wawrinka vs. Cilic will be Wednesday, with far less fanfare.

Spanish Armada sailing into sunset

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ROLAND GARROS – There was a time, not that long ago, that one of the 18 meetings between Feliciano Lopez and David Ferrer match would have been in the latter stages of a tournament.

At this year’s French Open, it came in the second round. And it was a heartbreaker for Ferrer, who was a finalist here just four years ago.

Lopez’s 7-5, 3-6, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 victory took three hours and 52 minutes and eemed to bring him little joy, even if it was the first time he’d beaten Ferrer on clay since 2008.

No doubt that was partly out of exhaustion. But these moments are bittersweet, now. The huge gang of amigos that peppered the top of the rankings for the last decade are getting old. Injuries are catching up to many of them.

It’s just about the end for the Spanish Armada.

Here’s what Ferrer vs. Lopez looked like.

Ferrer, whose career high ranking was No. 3, was seeded No. 30 at this French Open. Barely seeded. And he likely won’t be seeded at Wimbledon. 

Remember the years when, if Rafael Nadal couldn’t play a Davis Cup tie, Spain would have an embarrassment of top-30 riches that included Ferrer, Lopez, Verdasco, Robredo and many more to fill in? 

There still are eight Spaniards in the top-75 in the ATP Tour rankings this week. Take away Pablo Carreño-Busta (who reached his first Grand Slam quarter-final Sunday after a five-set win over Milos Raonic), who is an outlier at age 25. The average age of the other seven is 31 1/2.

Ferrer, Lopez and Tommy Robredo are 35. Fernando Verdasco is 33.

Here’s a list of the Spanish players with their career-best rankings, and their current rankings.

armada

It’s a declining asset. And let’s face it, we won’t ever see the likes of this kind of volume from any one country again. 

France in the same boat

France is in a similar fix at the moment. The French currently have nine players in the top 75. But save for 23-year-old Lucas Pouille, who is on the rise, their stock also is aging.

The country had an embarrassment of riches for so long. Four players from the same generation reached the top 10 : Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gaël Monfils, Richard Gasquet and Gilles Simon. That, too, isn’t likely to happen again.

The game has become so global. There is so much money available to the very best; players from countries that didn’t even exist a generation ago are developing players and hitting the top of the ATP charts.

For Spain, though, there isn’t much in the pipeline. The country has two top-20 players beyond Nadal in Roberto Bautista-Agut and Albert Ramos-Viñolas (Carreño-Busta will join them next week). But both are 29, late bloomers. They likely have maximized.

Neither was much of a match for his all-world opponent Sunday in Paris as Bautista-Agut was quickly eliminated by Nadal. Ramos-Viñolas, after a good start, lost in straight sets to Novak Djokovic.

Not much on the horizon

Spain has just two entries in the boys’ singles this week: No. 11 seed Nicola Kuhn and No. 14 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.

If those names don’t sound particularly Spanish, that’s because it’s a different world in Spanish tennis these days. Kuhn, born in Austria but a resident of Spain since he was a kid, represented Germany in international competition until just a year ago. He finally made the switch despite the German tennis federation offering him plenty of incentive$ to stay.

Fokina is Malaga-born, to a Swedish father and a Russian mother. He turns 18 on Monday, 

He’s quite the expressive fellow.

In the Spanish Armada generation, a lot of players exited the junior track pretty early and honed their craft on the Spanish Futures circuit. But only one other Spanish teenager beyond Kuhn and Fokina is even ranked in the top 900 in the ATP Tour rankings right now.

So if the next Spanish Armada – even a tiny flotilla – is on the horizon, no one can see it yet.

But it was pretty great while it lasted.

No wonder Ferrer had a rare moment of disgust as he left his Babolat stick in the dust after his loss to Lopez.

Sort of summed it up.