The French Lieutenant’s Slaughter and a Dream Final

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Novak Djokovic attends a press conference after his quarter-final match against Kei Nishikori at the Australian Open. (Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

A Dream Rafa vs. Novak Australian Open Final

Bill Simons

Melbourne

THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S SLAUGHTER: The prevailing generals of ATP tennis are from Spain, Serbia and Switzerland. In contrast, France gives us lieutenants – wonderful but lesser players, just below the elite. French players often are crafted to be flowing artists who tend to give us gracious shots and astonishing leaps rather than championship trophies.

There are few more charismatic players then Gael Monfils. John Isner was not pleased when Americans backed him at the US Open. Former Australian Open finalist Jo-Willie Tsonga, with his big serve and wide smile, Richard Gasquet, with his dreamy backhand, and silky Gilles Simon have thrilled us. But no Frenchman has won a Slam since Yannick Noah in 1983 – what a drought.

Yet, French tennis not only fashions some of the most appealing lieutenants in the game, they provide a deep bench. It used to be names like Clement, Forget, Santoro and Grosjean. More recently it’s Benoit Paire, Jeremy Chardy and a dreamy fellow with blue eyes, a backward cap and an appealing personality.

Okay, prior to this year’s Aussie Open, Lucas Pouille had only once made it to the fourth round of a Slam and he’s only ranked No. 28. But it always seemed as if he was making waves. He scored an epic Labor Day Weekend five-set win over Rafa Nadal in 2016, thrilled his countrymen with his Davis Cup heroics, was a feminist good-guy when he recently hired Amelie Mauresmo as his coach, and said that it was character and knowledge of tennis, not gender, that mattered in coaching. Pouille was also one of most outspoken critics of the new Davis Cup format.

This year he got off to a terrible, winless start Down Under at the Hopman Cup and the Sydney warm-up tourney. But here, he took advantage of a sweet draw to reach the semis.

But then the French lieutenant met the Serbian general. Novak Djokovic, who is No. 1 in the world and has won the Aussie title six times, beats up on French players with lopsided regularity. Last year after Djokovic beat Gael Monfils for the fifteenth straight time, a writer asked him, “You’ve only lost to one French player in 50-odd matches. Do you have something against the French?”

Tonight, on Laver Arena, was a mismatch. The general, who now lives in Monte Carlo, pulled rank and beat the lieutenant 6-0, 6-2, 6-2. It was Nole’s 28th straight win over a Frenchman.

Now, after most all of the Aussie Open dust has settled, now that an icon has announced his retirement, now that all the Next Gen players have again fallen short, now that we are recovering from Serena’s shock defeat, and assorted controversies have died down, the men’s final will give us perhaps tennis’ greatest match-up. Novak leads 27-25 in his rivalry with Rafa Nadal. In 2012 Nole came from behind to beat Rafa in 5:53 in one of the best matches ever. It remains the longest Grand Slam final ever, and, with all the new rules, it could stay that way – maybe forever. And Novak’s epic 5:15 two-day, 10-8 in the fifth at Wimbledon was probably the best match of 2018.

As for the final, Novak is playing great ball. Pouille said, “I was looking for a solution, but couldn’t find any…When he is playing like this, he is the best in the world…You always have a tough shot.”

Djokovic’s slump, that lasted until the 2018 French Open, seems like an eon ago – and he’s had relatively easy back-to-back outings in the quarters and semis against Kei Nishikori and Pouille.

But Nadal is on fire. His forehand has never been better, his serve has improved, and he dismantled Frances Tiafoe and the streaking Stefanos Tsitsipas to reach the final. Goodness, one theory has it that the new “get on with it” serve clock has helped him. So let’s do a deep dive on the singular Spaniard.

HE KEEPS ON ‘VAMOS-ING’: – A NADAL QUOTEBOOK

“He’s the best pure competitor in men’s tennis that I’ve ever seen.” – Jim Courier on Rafa

“He’s ‘vamos-ing’ enough.” – Radio Australia after a fan called out, “Vamos Rafa!”

“[Years ago] I practiced with him for 45 minutes and it took me two days to recover.” – John McEnroe

“FLEX APPEAL – Rafa Outmuscles Tsitsipas” ­– A headline in Melbourne’s Herald Sun

“He’d be very good at the housework when he’s done…His sock drawer will be in order and all that.” Todd Woodbridge on the more-then-orderly Rafa NadaL

“How much pace he generates when he is moving away from his target is just ridiculous.” Jim Courier

“My brain was used to certain angles. But tonight I was always on the wrong foot. I felt very slow. The whole match felt weird…He has a talent to make you play bad. I call that a talent. I felt empty in the brain.” – Stefanos Tsitsipas after losing to Rafa

“The serve clocked helped him. It made him step up to be more offensive” – Todd Woodbridge

“It was very intimidating.”  John McEnroe on seeing Rafa in the buff in the locker room

“It’s a little bit unfair to have that much power and that much finesse. Usually you have one or the other.” – Jim Courier

“He wins so damn much.” – John McEnroe

INSIDE RAFA NADAL – A SPANIARD’S WISDOM

RAFA ON THE IMPACT OF SEEING DEVASTATING FLOODS NEAR HIS VILLAGE IN MALLORCA: “I know the real life, how it tough can be. That day it happened in Mallorca. Few weeks ago it happened in Indonesia. The world is suffering. Not only with this, with wars, with terrible things that are going on.The thing is that this time it happened in the village just next to me, where I have a lot of family. We lost people that we know and people that have been close friends. There are families that lost almost everything. But all the island was together and we received huge support.”


ON ANDY MURRAY: “Is very bad news…We shared competitions under-13, under-14. We know each other since a long time ago, no? When he was a kid, he was little bit a bad boy (smiling). Then, of course, you have an evolution on your personality…But when somebody who achieved almost everything…[but] is suffering and you feel that you’re not competitive for the thing that makes you wake up with the passion…Then is a moment to take a decision. Probably…he does the right thing for his mental health.”

ON THE CHANGING LANDSCAPE OF MEN’S TENNIS: “Everyone wants to win…hopefully they can wait one more year.”

ON WHETHER HIS TENNIS LIFE IS MORE SATISFYING THAN BEFORE:  “I can’t say yes because after the first great year I had, 2005, I get injured with my feet. The doctors told me that I will probably never be back playing…[So] for me, every year that I’ve been able to keep going has been a very happy year. Now I’m a little bit more safe after a lot of years. The first year, after 2005, difficult to manage mentally. I really appreciate all the things that happened to me since…I feel lucky to be back.”

ON CHANGING HIS SERVE: “You need to make yourself feel alive. There is always things to improve. I try to improve during all my career all the things. The serve was always a thing I tried to improve, and I think I did…I’m happy with it. I am happy with the motivation…[and] hopefully that will give me the chance to help me on my game longer term. That’s all.”

DAVIS CUP WORRIES: Rod Laver, long a stalwart of the Davis Cup, said, “it just seems like it’s getting lost, you haven’t got someone in there fighting for the Davis Cup, they are fighting for different events.” In that same vein, a quartet of famous singers – Boris Becker, Mats Wilander, Henri LeConte and the guitar-strumming John McEnroe, did a cover version of the Bob Dylan’s song Knocking on Heaven’s Door in defense of the traditional Davis Cup.

Lucas Pouille said he was “200% against” the new format. “It’s never going to be the same. It’s going to be new, but not the Davis Cup. It’s a shame because of the atmosphere you can live when you’re playing for your country at home or even away, it’s just unbelievable. There is nothing to describe the emotion. Maybe it’s going to be a nice competition, but it’s going to look more like an exhibition than a real one.”

A SISTER’S SORROW: On ESPN Bethanie Mattek-Sands reported that there was an intense silence in the locker room when Serena came in after her defeat. Bethanie said, “You don’t know what to say, there’s just this silence…She’s in the locker by me and…talking with Venus and she’s upset…[and] really bummed about this loss and how it went down…Besides the glitz and glamor, it’s just two sisters back there in the corner talking about the loss and how the ankle feels…To me that’s very humanizing, which is the side to Serena we’ve seen these past few days…We see this softer side and as much as she’s fierce…she feels it, you feel the losses still.”

SERENA’S TAKEAWAY: Serena said she’d learned that the next time at crunch time she will “play lights out when I have match points…This is when you go psycho…just like go bananas.”

STEFFI ON SERENA: Steffi Graf returned to Melbourne for the first time in 15 years. There, when the Herald Sun asked her whether Serena is the best of all time, she said, “I would probably say, with the career she’s had…[and] she’s not even finished at this point, then yes, I would say so. I don’t know if she can do it here (equal Margaret Court’s record) but I believe that she can.”

WHITEWASHING NAOMI: Naomi Osaka is of Japanese and Haitian origin. The star does not have a light-skinned complexion. But at times she’s been portrayed that way. The latest example came recently when Nissin, a big Japanese noodle company, had her looking pale in an animated commercial. There were loud complaints, the ad was pulled and the company said they wouldn’t do that again.

REVOLUTION OR SLEEP: After all three of the coffee machines broke in the press room, Australian Open radio reported, “That’s big news. There’s going to be a journalistic revolt or a lot of sleepy people.”

YOU KNOW YOU ARE DOWN UNDER: Here in Melbourne you think, “You know what? Life can be mellow.” The musical bells of Melbourne’s trolleys delight. An airport sign suggests, “Spend eight hours in the sun with nothing on your mind – play tennis.” Beefy 265-pound rugby players in black unies are all over TV. Then you switch channels and it’s a soccer game between Qatar and Iraq…The first magazine you pick up not only warns you to always wear a life preserver when kayaking, it has in-depth coverage of turtle tours, the Cook Islands and Rarotonga’s walking treks…A paper proclaims that the Aussie Open is “unchallenged in its billing as the greatest event in this part of the world.”

FEEL-GOOD DOUBLES: It’s an extraordinary story that Bob Bryan, 40, has been able to come back from serious hip surgery. He and twin brother Mike made it to the quarters before falling to the formidable duo of Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut. The Frenchmen are now in the finals, and if they prevail they will achieve a career Grand Slam. Australian fans were thrilled by the doubles win of veteran Sam Stosur, who teamed with China’s Shuai Zhang to claim the women’s doubles title.

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