The King of Clay frustrates
Federer’s Grand Slam bid

Jun 13, 2006 1:14 AM

While the rest of the world watched 22 guys running back and forth on a huge field last Sunday bouncing balls off their heads and knees and kicking them to and fro, I watched The Ecstasy of Victory and the Agony of Defeat.

The original, uncut version.

Except for one thing.

Until it was over, there was no ecstasy and no agony.

The world’s two best tennis players fought like automatons, without expression, without emotion, showing nothing except an occasional punch of a clenched fist after a winning point.

Then, when it ended, 20-year-old Rafael Nadal, the King of Clay but made of steel, reverted to childhood, dropped to the red dust of a packed Roland Garros stadium and rolled around in it like a 6-year-old. He had beaten the world’s number one player, Roger Federer of Switzerland, for the sixth time in seven meetings, five of them on clay, and now he had won the big one of Europe, the French Open, for the second consecutive year. He said later that he didn’t remember rolling in the dirt, but if he looked down, his tennis whites, now red and white, were evidence.

Although Federer saw his chances for a Grand Slam go up in Garros’ red clay dust as Nadal rolled in it, he maintained the same stolid impassiveness he had throughout the match and the other three events that make up a Grand Slam in tennis that he had won in the last year: Wimbledon in England; the U.S. Open at Forest Hills, New York; and the Australian Open in Melbourne.

There was no way to tell what was running through his mind, but he must have at least given a thought to the very select company he had just joined. The great Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg all had won three Opens, but were frustrated by the clay of Roland Garros in trying for a Grand Slam.

To give you some idea of how tough the Slam is, consider that only two players, of all the greats of tennis, have ever held all four Open titles at the same time. It is 37 years since Rod Laver of Australia pulled it off, and 68 years since the all-conquering American hero Don Budge did it before that. Federer came within two sets of being the third.

He was supremely gracious in defeat, and had the consolation of leaving Roland Garros $600,000 richer than when he walked in. Young Nadal, less than two weeks past his 20th birthday, picked up a cool million and a half.

As for those 22 guys running back and forth in Germany, kicking a ball around, they play a game that fascinates the rest of the world, but is almost as boring as baseball. Both are national pastimes, they tell me, but both are like caviar. You have to develop a taste.

Baseball, with its stops and starts between the pitcher shaking off signals, hitching up his pants, taking a chew on his cud, and throwing, wins hands down.

Soccer, at least, provides almost endless play. These guys win the gold for endurance, aside from their obvious skill, playing 45-minute halves, with 15 minutes to treat their bruises between those sessions. Try running back and forth on any sized field for 45 minutes without stopping, and you can appreciate the toughness of these cookies, without having to know anything about the game’s arcane rules.

It is, of course, the greatest game in the world in the spread of its appeal, and in promoting nationalism. Before the first kick in the current World Cup, English and Germans were fighting again, this time on the streets of Frankfort, 140 miles from where the first game was to be played.

Much was made of helicopters flying overhead, riot squads poised for action, and of course the mad flag-waving of the crowds. These are not New York Yankee or Dallas Cowboy fans. These are passionate nationalists, rooting for a nation as much as a team.

In that regard the World Cup is without equal, and if they all survive the next three weeks, they’ll go home to their drab pursuits, the winners exultant and the losers sullen, and leave Germany to the clean-up crews.