Commentary

Nadal, Schiavone reveling in Slam glory

Originally Published: June 8, 2010
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

It has become a familiar final image at each year's French Open -- Rafael Nadal hoisting the Coupe des Mousquetaires at the end of the fortnight.

For the Spaniard, it is a resumption of the reign he began when he debuted at the tournament in 2005 and continued uninterrupted until he lost to Robin Soderling in the fourth round last year.

Fittingly, Nadal's victory in the final this year came over none other than Soderling, a convincing 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 win that helped consign last year's defeat into the ranks of aberration.

For the first time in his seven Slam victories, Nadal cried tears of joy courtside. "One of the most important victories in my career, I think," he said. "After this tournament last year was a difficult year, and I worked a lot to be here."

Following his loss in Paris 12 months ago, Nadal pulled out of Wimbledon with knee problems and had trouble with his abdominal muscle at the U.S. Open. At the Australian Open, he was forced to withdraw partway through the tournament with more knee trouble. It only made the rediscovered taste of Grand Slam victory sweeter.

"All these moments are difficult to accept," he said. "For that reason, today is a very, very special day for me."

There were plenty of milestones to accompany the win. It was Nadal's fifth French Open win -- just one fewer than Bjorn Borg's record of six, a very reachable target given that Nadal turned 24 years old on Thursday and has several years to challenge for the crown if (although it is a significant if) he stays healthy.

Sunday's win also meant that Nadal completed the clay season undefeated with an unprecedented sweep of the four biggest clay events -- Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid and Paris. Finally, it returns him to the No. 1 ATP ranking, blocking Roger Federer from tying and breaking the record of 285 weeks at No. 1 in the next two weeks.

Most of all, Nadal has rediscovered his health and his game, and he's demonstrated his ability to climb back to the summit after recent setbacks. "Physically, I'm feeling great," he said. "That's the most important thing for me. Because if I am healthy again, enjoy playing tennis, that's the main thing."

For Soderling, too, the tournament had a certain roundabout symmetry. Last year, he defeated the defending champion and [then-No. 1] Nadal before losing the French Open final to Federer. This year, he defeated defending champion and No. 1 Federer before losing to Nadal in the final.

Nadal's victory marked a return to order after a wild two weeks in Paris. The women's final had been evidence of the strange happenings of the fortnight, with Francesca Schiavone, 29, coming out of the blue to win the title against Samantha Stosur.

Schiavone's run was entirely unexpected, a combination of sound play on her part and weakness in the bottom half of the draw. But a skillful and courageous performance in the final helped vindicate the accomplishment, and her unaffected joy made it the feel-good story of the fortnight.

On Friday night, a group of Schiavone's friends and relatives piled into a car and drove 10 hours from Italy to surprise her. "When I saw them now, I say, 'What are you doing here?'" she said. "Was fantastic."

Somewhere along the way, they also managed to secure tickets so they could cheer her on during the final and to print T-shirts that read, "Schiavo, Nothing is impossible."

And so she proved, producing a fine display of variety and aggression to topple the favored Stosur 6-4, 7-6(2). Schiavone, who won 14 of her 15 net approaches during the match, recovered from a break down in the second set and leaped higher and higher every time she won a point in the tiebreaker.

"Over the limit" was how she described her accomplishment of being the last player standing in a field of more than 100. "We were 128, and I am the champion. I don't know what to say."

Asked whether she had come in thinking she would win, Schiavone honestly answered, "Maybe not. But inside, yes. I really always dreamed this tournament. It's strange to say it, but when I call my daddy, he say to me, 'I remember you that you always dream this one. Every morning that you wake up, you work to do something like this.' So maybe it was far away in the reality, but here [in the heart] never far away.

After every victory in the later rounds, she knelt and kissed the clay. "To kiss the ground for me is to thanks this clay, this beautiful tournament and this arena … to give me this opportunity and all the emotion that I am living," she said.

The veteran Italian is unlikely to win a Grand Slam again, but her beaming happiness brought some sunshine into a tournament that endured some miserably cold and rainy weather during its middle stages.

Curiously, it was the big, flashy hitters who thrived in the heavy conditions. As it turns out, the damp clay made for better footing while allowing ample time to tee off, and it was the taller, stronger breed of players who could generate the pace required to muscle the ball past their opponents.

On Tuesday evening, with the light fading and steady drizzle slowly turning the clay into mud, Soderling pounded Federer into submission 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 in their quarterfinal match. The Swede unleashed all his might on the heavy, rain-soaked balls and managed to find the edges of the court time and time again -- a stark contrast to the final, when he often sent the ball whistling past the baseline.

"I don't think I played a bad match, so it's easier to go out this way, I think," Federer said. "Conditions obviously were on the rougher side for both of us, and I thought he came up with some great tennis. You know, it's a touch easier to digest."

But the loss was a costly one. Soderling's first win over Federer after 12 straight losses prevented Federer from securing his No. 1 ranking and ended his streak of consecutive Grand Slam finals reached at 23.

"Now I've got the quarterfinals streak going, I guess," Federer joked.

Soderling was joined in the last four by two other surprises, Czech bomber Tomas Berdych and the flaky but talented Jurgen Melzer of Austria, both of whom reached the semifinals of a Grand Slam for the first time.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty ImagesRoger Federer's incredible streak of 23 straight Grand Slam semifinals came to an end at the French Open.

Berdych manhandled a listless Andy Murray in a fourth-round match interrupted by rain and finished in near darkness in front of a handful of spectators. All told, Berdych dropped just 23 games against John Isner, Murray and Mikhail Youzhny to reach the semifinals.

It was the kind of performance long expected of the Czech, who had been touted as an up-and-comer alongside Nadal, Murray and Novak Djokovic ever since he defeated Federer at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. But in a five-set semifinal shootout against Soderling, he occasionally displayed the shakiness at crucial moments that has kept him from fulfilling his potential in the past.

Melzer wore down Djokovic in the quarterfinals, coming from two sets down against the Serb.

The results highlighted the recent slides of Djokovic and Murray, who have been cushioned in the rankings by the injury absences of Juan Martin del Potro and Nikolay Davydenko. In addition, none of Nadal's compatriots -- Fernando Verdasco, Nicolas Almagro, David Ferrer -- made a strong statement at the French Open despite good results during the warm-up events. On clay, at the moment, Nadal has no serious challengers.

In the women's field, meanwhile, the hierarchy seems to have broken down. Like Soderling on the men's side, it was the losing women's finalist, Stosur, who wreaked the most havoc on the established order.

In back-to-back matches, she defeated four-time champion Justine Henin 2-6, 6-1, 6-4 and 12-time Grand Slam champ Serena Williams 6-2, 6-7(2), 8-6 before cleaning up a revitalized Jelena Jankovic in the semifinals. The Aussie outgunned her opponents with her kick serve and big forehand but was too tentative and erratic in the final.

Her challenge now will be building on this run to make herself a contender for future Grand Slams. At 26, she is taking hope from the 29-year-old Schiavone.

"I think it proves you don't have to be the teenage wonder kid superstar to win the tournament like this," Stosur said.

Many of her fellow pros will be thinking the same thing. One may be Nadia Petrova, a perennial Slam dark horse who helped shake things up at this event by dispensing of surprise Madrid titlist Aravane Rezai and No. 2 seed Venus Williams before an injury-hampered loss to Elena Dementieva in the quarterfinals. Two other longtime Slam bridesmaids, Jankovic and Dementieva, looked as though they were about to get their best shot at winning a major when they set up semifinals against less experienced opponents. But this was a tournament in which the expected rarely came to pass.

Dementieva retired with a calf tear to Schiavone, and Jankovic never got into gear against Stosur.

There were some battles off the court, too. The two top Frenchwomen, Marion Bartoli and Rezai, fired shots at each other through the media, generating headlines in the national media. Fellow Serbs Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic criticized each other's sportsmanship. Venus Williams stayed out of the fray, but her lace dress and see-through underpants generated plenty of controversy, prompting a style rethink for the rest of the season.

Like every major, the French Open had several early thrillers that receded into the background by the end of the fortnight. Local favorites Gael Monfils and Rezai battled until darkness halted play overnight, only to come back and lose the next day to Fabio Fognini and Petrova, respectively.

Kimiko Date Krumm, a veteran's veteran at age 39, overcame injury and former No. 1 Dinara Safina in the tournament's major first-round upset. Defending women's champ Svetlana Kuznetsova saved three match points against Andrea Petkovic in the second round before losing in her next match. Henin's three-set encounter against Maria Sharapova in the third round was one of the highlights of the first week, with the two splitting sets late in the evening and Henin winning the third when the match resumed the next day.

Murray and Richard Gasquet kicked off the tournament with a bang with their sparkling five-set, first-round encounter, and Lukas Lacko and Michael Yani tied the modern French Open record for most games played with their first-round 4-6, 7-5(5), 7-6(4), 6-7(5), 12-10 battle won by Lacko.

Other encounters, less noticed at the time, turned out to be significant as well. On the first Monday, Schiavone rallied from a set and a break down in the final set to take her first-round match 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 in 2 hours, 56 minutes against Regina Kulikova on faraway Court 16.

Less than two weeks later, there she stood, one of the unlikeliest French Open champions of all time. Her male counterpart, Nadal, was one of the likeliest. Anything and everything was possible during this Grand Slam fortnight.

"This means that everybody have the chance to be who really you want to be, and to do everything in your life," Schiavone said. "This is what's happened to me."

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.