It was the least surprising of weekends, it was the most surprising of weekends. What was the best part of it? For me, it was the sight of Julia Goerges's father, Klaus, as he watched his daughter win the biggest tournament of her career before her home country fans in Stuttgart. As a rally progressed, his face would crumple itself into every expression imaginable—one moment he appeared to be on the verge of a stroke, the next he was grinning with sheer relief. He looked, unlike so many highly involved tennis fathers, like any other dad in the world.
What we usually hope for on the WTA side these days is a sense of a building storyline, a budding rivalry, a player turning into the next star, a player we can count on. So far this year, Caroline Wozniacki has given us the closest thing we’ve gotten to that, with her dual quest for glory and popularity. But what we’ve mostly gotten is the old “one thing after another” version of tennis history, where events simply give way to other events. Kim Clijsters wins the Australian Open and disappears; Li Na charms the world in Melbourne and the next thing we know she has to deny rumors of her retirement; Victoria Azarenka runs through two tournaments and then pulls out of the next with a seemingly inevitable injury. Andrea Petkovic looks ready to beat the world No. 1 twice in a row and continue her climb . . . and then she doesn't.
In some ways, Goerges’s win was one more random event. Coming to Stuttgart, she was ranked No. 32, owned one career title, and was 0-2 against Wozniacki. Though if you looked more closely, the last of those things wasn't quite as bad as it seemed on the surface—in their last meeting, she had led Wozniacki 5-3 in the third before losing in a tiebreaker. Goerges was also coming off a confidence-boosting win over Sam Stosur in the semis, in which she had won the first, dropped the second, but saved her best tennis for late in the third set. Goerges used the crowd’s energy to hit a few shots that seemed to stun even her.
That was the case from the beginning in the final. The match had a team-sports atmosphere, and it gave Goerges not so much a boost in confidence as a boost in determination, the determination to take her chances against Wozniacki when she had them. The German’s down the line forehand winners, not easy to hit past Wozniacki on clay, appeared to fly on the collective wishes of just about everyone in the stadium. What was most surprising, and fun to watch, was how Goerges was able to hold her nerve and not let those hopes grow oppressive. She finished the semi with a winner, and the final with a serve that pulled Wozniacki so far off the court that she went out of camera range. That’s as good as an ace in my book.
On clay at least, Goerges matches up well with Wozniacki. She moves better on the surface than she does on hard courts, she takes a big enough cut to get the ball through the court on it, and, most important, she’s tall enough to take Wozniacki’s high-bouncing balls, even her moonballs, and hit them in her strike zone. Still, I never expected Goerges to hit them with such power and accuracy for so long. As solid her ball contact is—she reminds me of Lindsay Davenport in the way she strikes the ball—Goerges has very long and overly elaborate strokes, the kind that seem ready to go haywire at any moment. But Wozniacki wasn’t able to rush those strokes; she was on the defensive and forced to throw up desperation moon shots.
Where does this leave us in the saga of Caro? She reached another final, OK; she played with intelligent aggression in dismantling Agnieszka Radwanska in an entertaining semi, yes. She played an inspired Julia Goerges in the final, sure. But she was also out-hit by a much lower-ranked player, and she had no answer for it. Wozniacki is a smart player who will learn from this, but she’ll also remain vulnerable to the hot hand on clay.
It wasn’t just Klaus Goerges who looked like a normal person, rather than a stage dad, yesterday. Her daughter did as well. There was something very natural and relatable in Goerges’s reactions and emotions all week. And that remained true until the end. She was so genuinely shocked to win the match that she simply laid down in the dirt, which got all over her legs, her dress, and her face. This was one case where a random WTA event felt like the best result of all.
What are the great sustained performances in Open era history? There’s Evert’s 125 straight wins on clay and 48 of 49 Grand Slam semis. There’s Sampras’s six straight years at No.1. There’s Federer’s 23 straight Slam semis, as well as his five Wimbledons and five U.S. Opens in six years. There’s Navratilova’s outrageous record from 1982 to 1989, as well as her 1442 career singles wins. There are others; I’m sure Steffi Graf did something ridiculous along the way.
In 2006-07, Rafael Nadal gave us one of his own when he won 81 consecutive matches on clay, the most ever on one surface for a man. But as the years go on, it has become clear that he’s slowly been building another, one that will hold a unique place in men’s tennis—his dominance of the clay-court swing from 2005 on. Since ’05, Nadal is 184-6 on dirt; even his closest historical clay rival, Bjorn Borg, can’t match that kind of percentage. The Angelic Assassin, long considered, and maybe still considered, the best clay-courter ever, was 245-39 on the surface for his career.
I’m not going to try to say what the “greatest” of these sustained performances is. That would mean having to call the others “not as great.” But Nadal’s is special. It isn't a matter of winning one tournament over and over; it's a matter of winning a surface, winning a swing, winning not just a major but its tune-ups, three of which happen to be prestigious events themselves. For more than half a decade, Nadal hasn't failed in this quest. True, he lost once at Roland Garros, in 2009, but that year he also won in Monte Carlo and Rome and reached the final in Madrid, an arduous task in itself and a set of results that virtually any other player would have been happy with. Yes, he has lost other matches along the way—to Federer in Hamburg one year and Madrid another, to Juan Carlos Ferrero in Rome, to . . . well, that's about it.
Somehow the extent of Nadal's dominance has begun to work against him. By now, for many fans he’s just a guy doing his job, using his ridiculous excellence on this particular surface to his unfair advantage—hardly a newsworthy event, or even one worth watching. No wonder Rafa looked a little sluggish at times last week in winning his seventh straight title in Monte Carlo. There has to be slight decline in motivation at some point, doesn’t there?
That’s the thing, though; there doesn’t seem to be any. Jimmy Connors is a Nadal fan, and you can see why; with both of them, their desire to win was as intergral to their personality as the sound of their voice or the color of their hair of the spin on their lefty serves. One of the hardest things for most players in this individual sport, and one that is rarely mentioned, is to get yourself to that place, mentally, where you can compete with all you have. It’s not automatic for most of us, but Nadal, like Connors, appears to reside in that place. More than most pros, I have trouble imagining Rafa doing anything but playing tennis.
Seven titles in Monte Carlo, six now in Barcelona, five in Rome, five in Paris, one in Hamburg, one in Madrid: If he lost in the tune-ups and then waltzed in and cleaned up at the French Open anyway, that would prove his superiority on clay. But Nadal doesn't waltz anywhere. He flies from the trophy ceremony in Monte Carlo to get back on the dirt and start it all over again in Barcelona a couple of days later. And while many fans and observers, including myself, wondered if he were making a mistake in adding this tournament back to his schedule, it seems, for now, to have worked out. Nadal played better tennis this week than he did last. He flattened out his backhand and found the corners with his heavy, rolling forehand. He hit winners on defense and on the run, and he didn’t drop a set. Is this boring? Personally, I enjoyed seeing the particular arc that Nadal found on his forehand; the ball, as it comes off his strings, flies across the net, and dive bombs inside a line, has a life of its own. The trajectory, with its big dip in the middle, is distinctive.
“Stay humble, stay hungry,” is the way Mary Carillo characterized Uncle Toni’s lifelong advice to Nadal. It’s the latter command that Nadal follows most closely at this time of year. Win after win and title after title only testifies to that hunger. There’s a good chance Nadal will lose a match during this clay season; as dominant as he’s been, he’s only run the table of clay Masters once, in 2010. And whether he lets on or not, he has to feel extra pressure when he’s on clay; anytime he loses on it, it’s an earth-shaking moment, the tennis equivalent of a presidential assassination. Like everything else, though, that only adds to his desire not to let it happen.
One reason we watch sports is to see that somebody cares. But there's another reason not to ignore Rafael Nadal’s long-running clay-season excellence: You won’t see anything like it again. Looking at it in the long view, every one of his titles at this time of year is a stunner.