We’ve had the Persistents and the Dominants: What’s the best co-word to describe Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams now? The Inescapables? The Undeniables? The Irresistibles? The Inevitables*? The Amazins? All of them apply: This weekend Rafa and Serena each made good on their pre-tournament favorite status and wrapped up the clay season with a fitting image. She had the French Open winner’s trophy over her head, and he had it between his teeth.
Before we make the brisk shift to grass—actually, it’s being made in Queens and Halle as I write this—here’s a look back at a few of the memorable performances from the last two weeks in Paris. It wasn’t, in case you’ve forgotten, all about Rafa-Rena.
As always, though, I can’t get to everyone. If you see someone you think deserves a grade, go for it.
Serena 1.0 peaked in 2004, when she was 22 years old and won four consecutive major titles. Serena 2.0, the 31-year-old version, reached another peak with her win at Roland Garros. In recent years, she has switched strings, switched coaches, and partially switched countries. Her win in Paris makes sense; that’s where she's trained for the last year, and you can see the changes and improvements in her game. She plays with controlled power now, and balances pace with consistency. She’s a more polished, and ultimately better, version, of the women who won the Serena Slam nine years ago. The last time a player was so far ahead of the field was Roger Federer in 2004-’05. But Serena still had one person left to conquer in Paris: Herself. She won this one from that most nerve-wracking of positions, that of the Overwhelming Favorite—anything but a title would have been a disaster. At the moment, only Serena can stop herself. A+
Would Nadal’s comeback have been “complete” had he not won the French Open? Yes, even without this capstone, his return has gone better than anyone, including himself, could have imagined. Rafa should take seven months off more often; no one finds as much inspiration from the low moments, or creates as many high moments out of them. Now he’s back at an all-time peak, with his 12th major, record eighth French Open, seven wins in nine events in 2013, and a spot in London already clinched. Maybe someday he’ll get his ranking inside the Top 4.
In January we wondered whether Nadal would ever be the same; now we wonder how many French Opens he can win—11, 12, there seems to be no end in sight. Even at 27 and with his knees as they are, it appears that he’ll be a major factor at the top of the sport for years to come. We talk about Federer’s continued love for the game after 30; I think it’s a safe bet that Rafa will feel the same way. His eighth title at Roland Garros was more emotional than his first. As for the immediate future, Nadal got an important win over Novak Djokovic and raised his game higher in the final, as champs are supposed to do. He even played with his beloved “colm” when the French came after him with fire. But that’s old hat for Nadal by now. Rafa has been defying the tennis fans of Paris for nearly a decade. A+
Was her 6-4, 6-4 loss to Serena a good or a bad sign? On the one hand, she played about as well as she can against Serena, and held her own the whole way. On the other, that wasn’t enough to get her a set. A smiling Sharapova took the positives from it, of course, and she should. Even if she didn’t find a way to play better than Serena, she found a way, with her deep ground strokes, to play with her. As a whole, her Paris title defense may also point to a new long-term consistency. This was the first time she had reached the final of a major that she won the previous year. And with her restrained but sincere concession speech, she remains a model of professionalism in defeat. A
Daveed said he was nervous for the final, and that he didn’t show us his best. He was right; he played Nadal much closer in Madrid and Rome. Otherwise, Ferrer did what he was supposed to do. While he only faced one player in the Top 20, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Ferrer didn’t drop a set to any of them. Like Serena Williams, he’s playing his best tennis, and breaking new ground, at 31. Bonus points for his usual humility; there’s nothing fake or forced about it with Ferru. Double bonus points for bringing his parents, who are normally too nervous to watch in person. There was nothing old-hat about their reaction to seeing their son in a Grand Slam final. A
This must be one of Djokovic’s toughest defeats, for at least three reasons. He had made Roland Garros his biggest goal for the year. He had been chasing Nadal here since 2006, when he had pronounced him “beatable” after their first match. And he was inspired by the memory of his late coach Jelena Gencic, who passed away during the event. Novak was just a few points from beating Rafa in a fifth set and most likely winning the tournament when...he ran into the net. Still, that net aside, he’s moving in the right direction. Last year he won a set from Nadal at Roland Garros for the first time. This year he won two. Someday he’s going to win three. A-
As with Maria, you can look at Vika’s tournament two ways. By making the semis, she advanced farther at Roland Garros than she had before. But when she got there, she lost her second straight match to her rival for No. 2, Sharapova. By the end of that one, Vika didn’t look, or sound, all that pleased. A-
The game was as smooth as we remembered, but the grit and the emotion were something new for many of us. A run to be remembered. A-
What is this, Tommy 9.0 or so? He must be nearing the end of his nine tennis lives by now. But he’s not there yet, as he proved by beating John Isner on his 13th match point and hanging tough with Djokovic in the quarters. A-
Predictably unpredictable, the former French champ came out of nowhere again to remind us what she can do. That is, hit with, and almost beat, Serena Williams. It will likely be forgotten, but she was a point away from being up 3-0 in the third set on her in the quarters. Is this a sign of things to come for Sveta? I’m not betting on it. B+
As with Robredo, it was nice to see this veteran’s game back near its best. The fluid movement, the down-the-line elan, the running commentary—she’s still a character at 28. In this age of the aged, maybe she can still be a threat, too. B+
The American Women
Four of 16 spots in the fourth round isn’t bad for a U.S. women’s contingent in Paris. Sloane Stephens reminded us why we believed in her; Jamie Hampton had a career-best win over Petra Kvitova; and, aside from Serena, Bethanie Mattek-Sands might have played the best tennis of all of them in her upset of 2011 champ Li Na. Which brings up a new and unexpected question: Can the Americans win on hard courts? B+
In a tournament of comebacks, his was the most dramatic of all. From Andy Murray on down, the tennis world remembered what we loved about La Monf. And why, when he had lost to Robredo after holding four match points, he can be so hard to love. B+
Stan Wawrinka/Richard Gasquet
With one-handers blazing over five flat-out sets, they gave us the second-best match of the tournament, and one of the best of the year so far. B+
The young German, who lost to Radwanska in the third round, is a heavy-hitter to watch. B
We were ready to believe. Jo showed as much confidence and poise as he ever has in dismissing Federer in straight sets in the quarters. Then all of the issues—with calls, with consistency, with pressure, even with shadows and noisy fans—resurfaced against Ferrer in the semis. “Today I’m the loser,” Jo said, with no understatement. B-
The good news is that Federer reached his 36th straight Grand Slam quarterfinal, so he’s still not losing to players he hasn’t lost to before at these events. The bad news is that, for the first time, it felt like Tsonga was the favorite against him. Federer didn’t do anything to persuade us otherwise. C+
Monfils, and the crowd, were a tough second-round draw. Off-court, Gulbis criticized the Big 4 for being boring, which was wrong. But he may have accidentally done them a favor in the process: Now, if and when they speak out on a topic, we can say, “See, at least they’re not boring.” As for Ernie himself, I hope to see and hear more from him. C+
*Hat tip to Kristy at Overhead Smash.