Thursday, June 4, 2015

A Changing of the Guard at Roland Garros

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic may have finally ended Rafael Nadal's run of historic clay court dominance at the French Open. Can the Djoker take advantage and own the sport with Nadal and Roger Federer down?

 By Andy Dougherty (@AndyDougherty10)

Tennis experts billed Wednesday’s clash between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal as the greatest quarterfinal matchup in the history of tennis. Djokovic has been untouchable this season, while Nadal has been untouchable at the French Open throughout his career.

But Nadal was far from untouchable on Wednesday. His normally lethal forehand wing produced just 3 winners in the entire match. Both players committed 30 unforced errors, but Djokovic controlled play, hitting 45 winners compared to Nadal’s 16. Fans expected a classic, but instead they saw a beatdown.

Nadal’s clay-court dominance has gradually regressed in recent years, but he has still always managed to pull things together in Paris, where he has won 9 titles in 10 years. This is the 6th time Djokovic has beaten Nadal on clay in the last 5 years, but it is his first win in 7 tries against Nadal at the French Open. This match also marks the 6th time Nadal has lost on clay this season, which is more than his combined loss total on the surface from 2006-2010. No one has ever dominated a surface like Nadal, and this match does little to taint his legacy as the King of Clay. However, his historic run as the best clay-court player in the world might finally be over.

Meanwhile, Djokovic still has work to do. There are no slouches left in the draw; all 8 quarterfinalists have been ranked in the top 5 and reached at least one Grand Slam final. Djokovic’s next opponent is No. 3 Andy Murray, who defeated No. 7 David Ferrer in 4 sets to extend his clay-court winning streak to 15 matches. Murray, who trounced Nadal in the Madrid final in May, is playing the best clay-court tennis of his career by a mile. Often the forgotten member of the Big 4, Murray is hungry to prove that he deserves to be mentioned alongside Nadal, Djokovic, and Roger Federer.

14th-ranked Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is the only player outside the top 8 who reached the quarterfinals.  Tsonga, a former Grand Slam finalist and top-5 player himself, defeated No. 4 Tomas Berdych in the 4th round and followed up that win with a 5-set victory over No. 5 Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals. Tsonga will play No. 8 Stan Wawrinka in the semifinals, following Wawrinka’s straight-sets win over No. 2 Roger Federer. Wawrinka became the first player since 2002 to beat Federer at a Grand Slam without losing a single game on his serve.

Djokovic will be a heavy favorite going forward, but surely he can’t help but think about the importance of this occasion. The French Open is the only Grand Slam title that has eluded him, and it would give him 9 career Grand Slam titles, pushing him past Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors for sole possession of 5th place in the Open Era.

If Djokovic can win this tournament, he will creep into the “Greatest of All Time” discussion. He is narrowing the gap in his head-to-head rivalries with Federer and Nadal, and he is playing at a much higher level right now with no signs of slowing down. No young players appear to be serious challengers, so his run of supremacy could last for years to come.

The Golden Era of men’s tennis has seen magical runs by Federer and Nadal, and now it is Djokovic’s time to shine. When all is said and done, these three players might go down as the three greatest to ever play the sport. First, Djokovic has to take care of business this weekend.

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