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Home   News   Tebbutt: Rafa’s amazing numbers

Tebbutt: Rafa’s amazing numbers

Jun 11, 2019
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt

To win 12 titles at the French Open as Rafael Nadal has done was simply unimaginable a couple of generations ago. In 1981, Bjorn Borg won his sixth Roland Garros and the belief then was that it would be a long time, if ever, before anyone equaled the legendary Swede’s record. Any suggestion that a player could possibly double Borg’s number of championships on the terre battue in Paris would simply have been viewed as heresy.

But the 33-year-old Spaniard’s 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 victory over Dominic Thiem in Sunday’s Roland Garros final has raised him to a position above any player, male or female, in the history of tennis in terms of single Grand Slam event victories.

Margaret Court’s 11 titles at the Australian Championships (1960-66) and the Australian Open (1969-70-71-73) has been surpassed, even if the number of Court’s titles is sketchy because those events lacked a legitimate international entry and had draw sizes as small as 32 players.

The most notable other dominant players at a single event that Nadal has overshadowed are Martina Navratilova with nine titles, and Roger Federer with eight, both at Wimbledon.

Mauricio Paiz

In 15 French Opens (93-2), Nadal has lost only twice – to Swede Robin Soderling in the 2009 round-of-16 and to Novak Djokovic in the 2015 quarter-finals. In 2016 he withdrew after his second-round match with a left-wrist injury.

Thiem might have done better on Sunday had he not had to finish his long semi-final battle with Djokovic on Saturday, losing a rest day before the final. Facing clay-surface Superman Nadal at less-than optimum fitness and freshness is obviously a major handicap.

Four years ago in Montreal during Rogers Cup, after he lost to Djokovic in the Roland Garros quarter-finals while attempting to win his 10th title, Nadal said to a reporter: “Maybe I won’t win any more (titles) at Roland Garros.”

The modest master was underestimating himself – but even he probably couldn’t have imagined at the time that he was only three quarters of the way to a dozen titles on the iconic red clay in Paris.

Ashleigh Barty (seen during pre-tournament practice above) is one of the most popular French Open champions in recent memory.

The fair dinkum Aussie 23-year-old is a feel-good story after taking a year and nine months – September, 2014 to June, 2016 – off to essentially find herself. She played professional cricket for a team in Brisbane but all the while maintained tennis practice sessions with her coach.

“I don’t even know if I’d be sitting here talking to you if I was playing tennis if I didn’t step away,” Barty said Saturday about the break she took when she was 18. “It’s obviously a part of my life that I needed to deal with, and I feel like it was the best decision that I made at the time – and it was an even better one coming back.”

Her new ranking of No. 2 is remarkable considering she was No. 325 less than three years ago at the end of 2016. This year she has a 31-5 match record, has won the WTA Premier Mandatory Miami Open in March and had a key role in all six matches of Australia’s 2019 Fed Cup victories – 3-2 away vs. USA in February and 3-0 at home vs. Belarus in April. In November, the Aussies will host France in a bid for a seventh Fed Cup title.

Barty has also struck a blow for players of modest stature. At 5-foot-5, she joins last year’s French Open champion, 5-foot-6 Simona Halep, in proving that tennis success today isn’t necessarily restricted to women who are nudging 6-feet tall.

FERNANDEZ TOPS AT THE FRENCH

Mauricio Paiz

Leylah Annie Fernandez stormed to the Roland Garros junior girls title last Saturday, defeating Emma Navarro, 18, of the United States, 6-3, 6-2 in the final.

In hindsight, the 16-year-old from Montreal had her toughest test in the very first round when she beat Mariia Tkacheva 7-5, 6-3. The 17-year-old Russian actually led 5-4 in the opening set before Fernandez took control. In her ensuing five matches, Fernandez never gave up more than four games in a set, averaged just four games lost per match and won her quarter-final over 16-year-old Elsa Jacquemot of France 6-0, 6-0 – deux roues de bicyclette (two bicycle wheels) as they say in French.

Fernandez became the first Canadian junior girl or boy to win the singles title at the French Open and joined Genie Bouchard (2012 at Wimbledon) as the only Canadian junior female winner of a Grand Slam singles event.

Her emergence is a saga of dedication, determination and family perseverance. The name Leylah comes from a flower – a leila – that her mother Irene liked but chose to spell as Leylah. She moved to Boynton Beach, Florida, last fall from Montreal to join her father Jorge, originally from Ecuador, and her mother, from the Philippines, as well as her 15-year-old sister Bianca. Jorge acts as coach for his two daughters who usually practice on community courts in Florida that are open to the public.

In a documentary on Radio-Canada, Jorge Fernandez cited Richard Williams (father of Serena and Venus) and Yuri Sharapov (father of Maria) as inspirations. “I have maybe 60 percent of what other coaches know,” he said. “But I know my 60 percent 100 percent.”

Jorge made it to Paris to see Leylah Annie win the final, coming from Portugal where he had been with Bianca at a junior event. Hugo di Feo of Tennis Canada had been present and helped Leylah Annie during the tournament.

A lefthander with an aggressive baseline game, the 5-foot-6 Fernandez already has a WTA ranking of No. 373 and plans to skip the Wimbledon junior tournament to play next month’s $25,000 ITF event in Saskatoon, Sask., followed by the National Bank tournaments in Gatineau ($25,000) and Granby ($80,000) in Quebec.

Mauricio Paiz

Fernandez has begun to establish herself among the pros and in March played two ITF $25,000 tournaments in Canberra, Australia, where she won a total of four matches at both – qualifying and reaching the quarter-finals.

In April, she was on the Canadian Fed Cup team that played in Prostejov, Czech Republic, and she held her own in a 6-4, 6-1 loss to this year’s French Open runner-up Marketa Vondrousova.

Fernandez impressed her Fed Cup teammate Gabriela Dabrowski who said: “Leylah’s a very hard worker, very intense but positive on the court. You can tell by her demeanour on the court that she means business. At Fed Cup she played really, really well even if she lost. She was very close in a lot of games and really took it to Vondrousova. I thought that she was able to maintain her focus consistently through the match which is something you don’t often see from a junior. She’s a really nice girl also – very personable so that made it really fun to have her on the team.”

Describing her approach to tennis, Fernandez summed up: “It’s very competitive. Every point is important for me. I play the first point like it’s the last point. And even if I’m about to lose, I’ll never give up.”

PAST JUNIOR CHAMPIONS

Mauricio Paiz

It was a terrific accomplishment for Leylah Annie Fernandez to win the French Open junior girls title this year. But junior success, whether a winner or a runner-up, is not a guarantee of eventual success in the pro ranks.

Considering their respective pro tour results over the past 25 years – which of the groups below is stronger? Answer at the end of the blog.

Martina Hingis                                Kim Clijsters
Amelie Mauresmo                         Dinara Safina
Caroline Wozniacki                        Maria Sharapova
Ashleigh Barty                                Ana Ivanovic
Jelena Ostapenko                          Elina Svitolina

DABROWSKI DOUBLE DISAPPOINTMENT

Mauricio Paiz

For the second year in a row Dabrowski and partner Mate Pavic of Croatia were beaten in the mixed doubles final by Latisha Chan of Taipei and Ivan Dodig of Croatia. Chan and Dodig won 6-1, 7-6(5) after prevailing 6-1, 6-7(5), [10-8] in the 2018 championship match.

There may have been an element of good fortune running out for the second-seeded Dabrowski and Pavic after they had won their quarter-final and semi-final rounds by scores of 1-6, 7-5, [10-8] and 6-7(4), 6-1, [10-8].

In this year’s final, there were two key points, both won by Chan/Dodig in the decisive second-set tiebreak. At two-all, there was an entertaining back-and-forth rally that was eventually decided by a Dodig backhand winner. Then, trailing 4-2, Pavic went for a big inside/in forehand service return that ended up well wide.

The 25-year-old Croat was not as consistent as his 34-year-old compatriot Dodig, and that was probably the difference in the match.

In women’s doubles, Dabrowski and Xu Yifan of China, seeded No. 4, went a round further than in 2018 at Roland Garros but were beaten 6-2, 5-7, 7-5 in the quarter-finals by the Chinese pairing of Duan Yingying and Zheng Saisai.

Still, Dabrowski moved her WTA doubles ranking back into the top 10 at No. 10 (her highest was No. 7 in March, 2018) and she took home a combined 70,250 euros (almost $80,000 US) in prize money for both events.

LAWN TENNIS FOR CANADA’S BIG THREE

Milos Raonic, Félix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov are playing this week in the ATP 250 event on grass in Stuttgart, Germany. Raonic, Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov are respectively seeded 6th, 7th and 8th, marking the first time in history that three Canadians are seeded at an ATP or Grand Slam tournament.

In action on Tuesday, Raonic advanced with a 6-7(6), 6-4, 7-6(4) win over 19-year-old Australian qualifier, No. 103-ranked Alexei Popyrin, and will next play No. 79 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Raonic leads the head-to-head with the 34-year-old Frenchman 4-2 and has won their last four meetings dating back to 2014.

Auger-Aliassime won the first grass-court match of his pro career, defeating No. 90-ranked Ernests Gulbis 7-5, 6-3. “I was happily surprised because maybe I thought it was going to be even tougher,” Auger-Aliassime said about the match and his adjustment to grass. “It was tough in the first but I think I was able to serve well (86% of first serve points won) and that was a key today. As soon as I found my rhythm and started putting more returns on his serve, things went my way. I’m happy with the victory. It feels good to be back on grass after juniors (Wimbledon 2016) and to get a first win.”

In the second round, Auger-Aliassime will play the winner of No. 120-ranked Peter Gojowczyk, 29, and No. 37 Gilles Simon, 34.

Denis Shapovalov faced No. 38-ranked Jan-Lennard Struff for the third time in two months (Monte Carlo and Roland Garros) and lost for the third time. The score was 7-5, 6-4 for the 29-year-old German.

Shapovalov, as well as Raonic and Auger-Aliassime, are entered in next week’s Queen’s Club ATP 500 event in London.

JUNIOR CHAMPIONS:

Here’s the list from above – which group has been more impressive?

Martina Hingis                                Kim Clijsters
Amelie Mauresmo                         Dinara Safina
Caroline Wozniacki                        Maria Sharapova
Ashleigh Barty                                Ana Ivanovic
Jelena Ostapenko                          Elina Svitolina

The answer is debatable – but the catch here is the fact is that each player in the group on the left won the Wimbledon junior girls title. The group on the right? – each player there was a runner-up in the Wimbledon junior girls event.

ANA IN PARIS

Ana Ivanovic was in Paris last week as indicated by her tweet here. The 31-year-old was the Roland Garros champion 11 years ago in 2008. She’s now married to German footballer Bastian Schweinsteiger and they are the parents of a son, 15-month old Luka.

(Feature Photo: Mauricio Paiz)