How about Rafael Nadal at this year’s French Open? I have always been impressed with the Spaniard’s mental tenacity and toughness. Before he won any Grand Slams, I remember watching him play his first ATP final. It was against a fellow Spanish player who was a veteran. Rafa had won the first set easily and was on his way to the title in a tight second set. The second set came down to a tie-breaker, and Rafa had some match points to win. Rafa didn’t necessarily choke, but he did squander those winning chances and found himself in a third set.
It was at this point I remember saying to myself, “Now I’m going to see what this Rafa kid is all about.” Tennis is tough and most of winning is how you take a punch in the gut when you are not playing your best. In the final set, Rafa regrouped and destroyed his opponent 6-0. That same positive and intense focus is still true today.
I believe winning the singles title at the French Open is the toughest major to win in the modern game. Most of the players on Tour grew up on red clay and know how to play the slow court tactics. Players who grow up playing on the red dirt also know how to slide and recover on the slippery surface.
My idol growing up was the great Swede Bjorn Borg. He won six French Open singles titles. Rafa has 11 Roland Garros titles and has set a standard of excellence that it is hard to even define! The great Pete Sampras won 14 singles Grand Slams titles ... Rafa may win 14 French Open majors alone!
Now the race is on between Roger Federer and Rafa. Fed has 20 titles and Nadal now has 17 majors. I believe this will be a fight to the career death to see who finishes on top. There is no doubt in my mind that Fed feels Rafa on his heels … the key is going to be a smart schedule that primes each player for each major to stay healthy and fast, while age will always rob an athlete from a valuable step or two.
I will finish with this … Rafa has many championship qualities. One that he uses that many often overlook is his ball placement. Rafa is constantly looking to hit shots to the sidelines. This forces his opponents to cover more court and pulls opponents out of position. The next time you play, use a little Rafa in your game. Tactically, use the sideline as a placement weapon and dominate your opponent!
Go for the lines!
Raised in Ludington, Mich., Luke Jensen’s resume includes 10 ATP Tour doubles titles. He was also a member of the U.S. Davis Cup teams that reached the finals in 1991 and won in 1992. His ambidextrous play, including his ability to serve the ball with either hand at 130 mph, earned him the nickname “Dual Hand Luke.” Luke is currently director of racket sports at West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y. He may be reached by phone at (315) 403-0752 or e-mail LukeJensen84@yahoo.com.