Commentary

Nadal amplifies his clay-court prowess at French Open

From a lopsided men's final to the best espresso in town, the French Open had highlights -- and lowlights -- aplenty.

Updated: June 9, 2008, 1:30 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Rafael NadalThomas Coex/AFP/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal's ingenuity on clay vaulted him to a fourth straight French Open title, but his victory celebration was far more demurred than in year's past.
PARIS -- The kid is getting better.

It didn't seem possible, but there it is. Sure, we knew Rafael Nadal was the master of clay coming into 2008 Roland Garros, but this is really starting to get ridiculous.

The muscular Spaniard, less than a week past his 22nd birthday, wrecked the best tennis player in the world on Sunday in the French Open final. Nadal defeated Roger Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0.

So it's official: He cannot be beaten at this venue and, barring a plague of locusts or a serious injury, will not lose as long as he shows up every year. Nadal's body of work includes a 28-0 record at the French Open and a perfect 41-0 record in best-of-five clay-court matches.

Nadal has won 23 straight sets at Roland Garros going back to last year's final, when he dropped the second set to Federer. Since then? Nada.

An athlete's physical peak is usually in the 24- to 25-year-old range, so he is likely to grow even stronger. People who know the game say Nadal's forehand is deeper, more powerful and bounces higher than ever before. And then there is the mental maturity, a sense of invincibility that knows no peer.

Here are a few other things we learned during a gray and chilly two weeks at Roland Garros:

The window is closing on the Williamses: Venus turns 28 next week and Serena is 26 -- fairly ancient by the standards of professional tennis. In the season's first Slam they were bounced from the Aussie Open by the Serbs and here at Roland Garros they fell in the third round to unseeded players.

Since Serena won the 2005 Australian Open, some 13 Grand Slams have been contested. Only one occasion -- when she won the 2007 Aussie -- has Serena gone past the quarterfinals. Since Venus won Wimbledon in 2005 she has advanced beyond the quarters in only two majors, winning at Wimbledon last year, then reaching the semis in New York.

After losing to Flavia Pennetta, Venus was asked if she would play one of the three grass tournaments before Wimbledon.

"I won't be playing before," she said.

The Williams have always operated outside the tennis matrix and done things on their own terms. They have won 14 Grand Slam singles titles between them, but there may be only one or two more -- if that.

And, in a related concept …

Women's tennis is wiiide open: Justine Henin retired and handed off the torch to Ana Ivanovic in the trophy ceremony. Ivanovic, 20, is the seventh-youngest woman to become the No. 1 ranked player in the world.

With four players in the running for the No. 1 ranking in mid-tournament -- Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova -- anything is possible with Wimbledon and the U.S. Open looming.

Café crème is (truly) the bomb: When the sun block never comes out of the bag, you better have something strong to battle the elements and long hours. Café crème (the yin espresso and the yang cream) is like nitroglycerin -- and tastes so much better.

As Chuck Culpepper of the Los Angles Times said, "I'm looking forward to going back to London to warm up."

Culpepper lives in London, which is usually colder and wetter than Paris this time of year. Hopefully not this year.

The next big things: Gael Monfils of France, Russia's Dinara Safina and Ernests Gulbis of Latvia finally got their heads connected to their magnificent bodies.

Since Monfils won the junior tournaments at Roland Garros, Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2004, the tennis world has been waiting for him to arrive at the top of the professional game. He's got tons of game and, finally, seems to be healthy, and therefore, happy. Watch out.

Gulbis, 19, has some serious weapons and ushered James Blake from the tournament. Going forward, he should go farther than the quarterfinals he achieved here and at last year's U.S. Open.

[+] EnlargeSerena Williams
AP Photo/David VincentThe Williams sister first-week dismissal at the French Open left us dumbfounded.
Safina, after defeating six top-10 players in her last two tournaments, matches her career-high ranking of No 9. She has learned to control her emotions, well, temper them, anyway.

At the trophy ceremony, Henin told Safina, "Keep on going."

"Definitely, I will not stop, and push even harder now," Safina said.

American men can play on clay: Robby Ginepri won three matches here, Wayne Odesnik won two and Mardy Fish and James Blake won one apiece. The collective record of 8-10 eclipsed last year's 0-for-9, a stinky fromage mess. Even Scoville Jenkins won three qualifying matches to reach the main draw.

This is good news going forward to Wimbledon, where Andy Roddick, America's best hope, returns from a right shoulder injury.

Bjorn Borg speaks: The mysterious Swede has stayed well beyond the reach of the spotlight since retiring from the game in 1981. He met the press the day before the men's final and was a wealth of information and observation.

On three straight occasions (1978-80), Borg won the French Open and followed it up with victory at Wimbledon. It hasn't happened since, but it is still possible, he said.

"You're mentally tired after this tournament," Borg explained. "Paris is the toughest tournament mentally and physically to win because it's on clay. You have to stay out there for many hours, many matches. To say you're not tired, I mean the players are lying.

"The thing is that at Wimbledon, if you survive … I had always problems the first couple rounds. If I survived those matches, then I started to play good tennis. [Nadal] if he survives the first couple rounds, he's going to be really dangerous at Wimbledon."

Serbian cat fight: The three ascendant Serbians -- Novak Djokovic, Ivanovic and Jankovic -- have always been careful to say the right things about each other. But now that they have reached the top of tennis (they are all ranked among the top three), watch out.

There was a sublime moment in the Ivanovic-Jankovic match when Jankovic let off a little steam. She was angry at herself for losing the point, but on seeing Ivanovic do her signature, demure fist and twist (it somehow falls short of a pump), Jankovic mimicked her gesture.

And now, the Serbian stamp controversy threatens this happy little trio. It turns out the Serbian government has placed their faces on postage stamps. But the stamps are not of equal value. Djokovic's checks in at 46 dinars, while Ivanovic's (40 dinars) and Jankovic's stamps (30 dinars) are worth less.

Ivanovic and Jankovic are on record as complaining that the three stamps should have an equal value. Hmm …

Euro 2008: It's the second-biggest soccer tournament after World Cup and the 16-country event is already underway. The hysteria here is all-encompassing. Switzerland and the Czech Republic got things started on Saturday night (the Czechs won 1-0.)

England, sadly, did not qualify. That means the pubs in Wimbledon Village and London will be manageable when Wimbledon and the Euro 2008's quarterfinals collide in a few weeks.

Men's tennis in turmoil: The stuff is going to hit the fan in few weeks, when the players gather at Wimbledon.

The players -- including the big three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic -- aren't happy with the way the ATP runs tennis. They have all declared themselves candidates for the players' council.

In theory, the ATP is owned 50 percent by the players and 50 percent by the tournaments. But when the ATP unveiled its 2009 calendar, Monte Carlo and Hamburg were taken out of the Masters Series rotation. The players complained and Monte Carlo was returned to elite status. Hamburg, however, remains a minor tournament and, therefore, a problem.

There is no collective bargaining agreement in tennis, but the players feel the tournaments are dictating policy. This bears watching.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.