Come out of your comfort zone, Roger
Seven-time French Open champion Chris Evert, one of the most formidable clay-court players in history, rang up ESPN.com's Bonnie D. Ford last week for their annual pre-Roland Garros chat. Topics included the Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer rivalry, the state of flux in the women's game and what Evert has learned about golf from watching her husband, Greg Norman. The following are excerpts from their conversation:
Bonnie D. Ford: Chris, you're certainly familiar with having a long, great rivalry hit an interesting tipping point. Is that's what's happened with Nadal and Federer in Grand Slams? Once that momentum gets going, is there a way to stop it?
Chris Evert: It's interesting. With Martina [Navratilova], I dominated the first part of it, she came on strong the second part, then I broke that streak and won the '85 and '86 French Opens, so we were sort of even when we retired. [Editor's note: Each woman won 18 Grand Slam titles; Navratilova finished with a 10-4 edge in their head-to-head Slam finals and had 43 wins to Evert's 37 in their career series.] Anything is possible. The thing that concerns me about Roger is, I just don't know if his best is going to be good enough to beat Nadal. I don't really see him playing out of the box, so to speak; I don't see him changing anything, and that is what must happen if he wants to turn the tide. And also you have the added dimension of Andy Murray emerging, and [Novak] Djokovic, he seems to have gotten it back together.
Ford: I know it's easy to give advice from afar, but do you agree with the speculation that Roger needs a full-time coach at this point?
Evert: I think he's his best coach. I don't think there's anyone better than him out there. Maybe someone to help him with training, fitness, getting stronger. If he can't beat [Nadal], join him. Maybe he needs to get into the gym more. And by the way, he might be doing all this already, I don't know. The fitness level could improve and that will bring along with it quickness and more power. But as far as playing the game and tactics, Roger is the best judge of that. Fitness helps you psychologically, there's no doubt about it. When Martina started cleaning my clock, I said, I at least have to give myself a chance here, and so I went into the gym. Not to try to copy her, but just to be the best I could be and the strongest I could be. I think that's what Roger needs to think about. Now's not the time, but after this year when you have a period of six weeks, two months where you can really train hard.
Ford: In retrospect, what surprises you more -- that Nadal was able to beat Federer at Wimbledon or on hard court in Australia?
Evert: Wimbledon. Roger is such a natural volleyer and Nadal is not. Nadal hits with such topspin that it's not going to be as effective on a grass court where the bounce is lower. His strengths are not as effective on a grass court and his weaknesses are a little more exposed. I'm so impressed with how quickly Nadal has become a grass-court player and adjusted his game. At the same time, I'm a little surprised that Roger, in the last year and a half, two years, I feel, is starting to lose the feeling of closing matches. He's not closing as confidently as he did in the past. Isn't there something about Federer that pulls at your heartstrings? I cry every time he loses a match, and I don't even know the guy. (Laughs) There's something so endearing about him as a person.
Ford: What are your thoughts on Nadal's chances of winning a calendar Slam?
Evert: If he should win the French, then it's a conversation. Then again, if he wins the French and Wimbledon, he's going to be trying to win the U.S. Open to win the Grand Slam, and that's added pressure. If he's had a spectacular season leading up to the U.S. Open, that's eight months in, he's got to start feeling the wear and tear and the mental letdown a little bit. Winning that fourth one would be really tough, I think.
Ford: Moving on to the women's game, since Justine Henin retired, the No. 1 ranking has changed hands eight times among five different players. Two of the women who have held it haven't won a Slam. Do you see the turnover as good for the game, or bad, or indifferent?
Evert: People will turn on the TV if there's a real exciting rivalry. As a spectator, I would much rather watch a Federer-Nadal match than a Dinara Safina-Venus Williams match. When there's history and richness behind a rivalry, that's much more interesting. You don't have a rivalry in the women's game right now. People will turn on the TV to watch Venus play Serena, because you never know what's going to happen. Form gets thrown out the window and you never know which one's going to be better that day. But aside from the Williams sisters, there's no history right now on the women's side.
Ford: The last time Maria Sharapova played in a Grand Slam was last year's Wimbledon. She's trying to come back for the French Open. How much of a hole did her absence leave?
Evert: She was a big presence on the women's tour. She not only has a big game; she has a big personality and a great following. I still maintain that over the last few years, there's been nobody mentally tougher than her. She brings glamour to the game, and history. The game is only better when she's in it.
Ford: On the other hand, Kim Clijsters is coming back.
Evert: She's one of the most well-liked girls on the tour. I was happy she had a baby, but I always thought she retired too young. I felt like she had some more good tennis [left]. Nobody's dominating, nobody's necessarily playing the greatest tennis. It's a good opening and a good opportunity for her to come in.
Ford: Switching sports, I know you know a little more about golf now. Do you see similarities and differences in what it takes to be a great tennis player and a great golfer?
Evert: To be at the top of your profession in any sport, you have to have mental toughness -- focus, patience, the ability to make good decisions under pressure. Where I think golf is different is that you have to beat the field every single week. In tennis you have to beat one person. Or you have to win five matches to win a tournament, and maybe in those five matches you're not playing the person who gives you the most trouble. In tennis you can be down a set and still win a match. In golf, it's harder to bring it back and win after a couple sloppy holes.
Ford: Do you think you would have been a good golfer if you had taken it up when you were young?
Evert: Yes. I don't even hesitate to say that, because it enhances my strengths and minimizes my weaknesses. I wasn't the fastest player on the court, I wasn't the fastest off the mark like Steffi Graf, I wasn't the strongest leg-wise like Martina. It would take away the running and emphasize my focus. I was always really good at concentrating and blocking out everything else. I have good patience, and hopefully I would have pretty good hand-eye coordination. I think I would have been pretty good at it.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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2009 FRENCH OPEN
Women's singles: Svetlana Kuznetsova, Russia
Roger Federer, Switzerland
Men's doubles: Lukas Dlouhy, Czech Republic and Leander Paes, India
Women's doubles: Anabel Medina Garrigues and Virginia Ruano Pascual, Spain
Mixed doubles: Liezel Huber and Bob Bryan, United States
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