x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A few lessons from the Tango in Paris at the French Open

A few lessons learnt from the Tango in Paris... behind Nadal's barbarism lies a gracious soul, and Andy Murray will win a grand slam one day.

Questions and answers after the French Open at Roland Garros:

What's so funny about Rafael Nadal?

Somehow, he manages to be both the person you would least like to see across the net and one of the people you would most like to see in company. Take the closing weekend.

The force that overtook Roger Federer in the fourth set on Sunday resembled some sort of mighty weather pattern. It might have turned up on radar. It could make your jaw drop even after seven years of watching Nadal.

It went beyond tennis and into boxing. You could imagine bruises even though the ball never struck anyone.

It embodied the old line by the American former professional Luke Jensen, who said he saw in players opposing Nadal a yearning: Could we please, please just get to the locker room?

And still, opposite that impressive level of benign barbarism stands one of the most gracious people ever in sport.

On Friday, Nadal revealed his curious absence of ego by referring to the Novak Djokovic-Federer match as "the best player of today and the best player of history". When he embraced Andy Murray after their semi-final the same day, he assured his victim that Murray possesses skill adequate for a first grand slam title.

That's right. In a sport in which confidence boosts can mean dramatic swings of outcome, he tried to lend some confidence to somebody who might defeat him someday.

Apparently they do teach manners in Mallorca.


Was Murray's semi-final berth accomplishment or disappointment?

Accomplishment. It counted as a fresh French Open frontier for a man who had never reached a Roland Garros semi-final.


Do you think he will win a grand slam?

Yes. But then, I don't mind joining a minority from time to time.


What about Federer refuting those critics, as his family claimed to the New York Times on Friday?

Oh, please. That man has no "critics". He has commentators who assert - accurately - that his dominance has waned as it always expected to, plus other commentators who say it has waned but that, at 29 and beyond, he will know episodic bursts of nostalgic greatness such as last weekend.

Sure, he has a few who think him gone from the top two for good, but really, everybody should get "insulted" so gingerly.

That whole theme has reiterated how many athletes - or, just as often, their fans - scour the planet for slights hoping they will lend motivation. It almost makes you think that without the media hurling doubt, nobody would ever accomplish anything.



What's the most impressive aspect of Li Na this year?

I'm going for the two grand slam finals. In a sport gone inchoate, it is uncommon consistency that one player, especially a player long in the backdrop, would reach both Australian and French Open finals, and clearly learn from the almost of the first to the boldness of the second.

Other aspects rival that. It is close to amusing that her first grand slam title came in the least likely of the four, in an event in which she had never surpassed the fourth round.

And it is curious that after the Australian Open finalist showing, she lost in her first match in Dubai, Doha, Indian Wells and Miami, and then her second in Stuttgart.

And it is fun that she jettisoned her husband as coach along the way, two months after imitating his snoring to a charmed Australian audience.

And it is quite a testament to China's continued bigness that the first Chinese champion did so in such an exotic place and surface.


Where does Li rank in your head, and does Dubai champion Caroline Wozniacki deserve to remain world No 1 after losing in the third round?

No 2, and yes.

The computer, which goes on a 12-month cycle, positions Li fourth, and that's fine. I think of her as just behind Wozniacki.

Even though Wozniacki really flopped in Paris and has not graced a grand slam final since 2009, I still think it good for the game that the second- and third-tier tournaments count, even if there are too many of them for basic human health.


What's so funny about Maria Sharapova?

It is not as extreme a case as Nadal, but it is a compelling dichotomy. Off the court, she rules in the ads and the glamour. On the court people might talk tiresomely about her clothes, but the fight grabs you. You always get honest effort.


So is Nadal, with his 17-8 record against Federer, 6-2 in slam finals, the best ever?

Not yet.