Considered by many to be the greatest clay-court tennis player of all time, Rafael Nadal strengthened his case after winning his sixth French Open and tying Bjorn Borg, his only rival for the title. The two champions share several traits. Much like Borg did during his aborted career (he played his last major at 25), Nadal has dominated the red dirt utilising a style based on incredible athleticism and furious topspin. But while Borg's and Nadal's formidable physical prowess cannot be understated — clay, like grass but in a different way, rewards the superior athlete — it's their tremendous mental resolve that set them apart. It's this attribute that was most discernible at Paris this year. The 25-year-old's sixth Roland Garros title didn't feature the overwhelming form that characterised his previous successes. He even admitted to not feeling his best, which the locker-room immediately picked up on. But though he played more cautiously, trying to compensate for the sort of inconsistency he hasn't had to overcome in the past, he found a way to win. Roger Federer did him a favour in stopping Novak Djokovic, who during an astonishing 41-match streak in 2011 had defeated Nadal in two clay-court finals. Djokovic would have known, however, that beating Nadal in a best-of-three-sets match is markedly different from conquering him over five sets.

Federer's renaissance was the other story of the men's event. The Swiss master produced passages of transcendental brilliance in making the final, his victory over Djokovic an exhibition of judicious, sparkling attack. Federer began similarly against Nadal, getting to within a point of winning the first set; his fight-back to win the third set had even Rafa admitting that when Roger was in that touch, no one had a chance. But Federer couldn't sustain those levels, and the contest broke down into the familiar pattern of clay-court matches between the two great champions. The Spaniard's victory was his sixth in eight Grand Slam finals against Federer. It took Nadal's record at Roland Garros to 45-1 and his winning percentage on clay to 92.65. The corresponding numbers for Borg are 49-2 and 86.27. There isn't much between the two. But the world number one has the opportunity to settle the debate if he can stay fit over the next five years. While Rafa's triumph was an occurrence the French crowd has grown accustomed to, they had the delight of a surprise winner the previous day. China's Li Na became the first Asian player to win a Grand Slam singles title. Breaking through demands both independent thought and indomitable spirit, and 29-year-old Li proved she has reserves of both.


The power of perseveranceJune 13, 2012

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