Today, numero uno del mundo, Roger Federer, meets numero dos del mundo, Rafa Nadal, in the finals of the French Open. Federer is Swiss and his style of play has the precision of a well-crafted timepiece, without an ounce of emotion. By contrast, Nadal is dark, brooding, and ferocious on the court. He also dresses in bright colors and sleeveless shirts usually favored by male prostitutes -- at least in this country.
Everyone who has a nodding acquaintance with tennis knows we're going to watch Federer lose because they're playing on clay. Nadal has won their head to head matches on clay eight times. Federer has won only once. On every other surface, Federer owns Nadal.
The French Open is the only one of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments still played on the frustration of red clay, the slow surface I learned to play on in my youth. It's a great equalizer. The clay has a way of affecting the pace of the ball, making it set up when it bounces to neutralize the speed advantage of power players, who tend to be built tall and lanky, but slow of foot. Shorter players who can't match the power angles of the tall guys can rely on their greater footspeed to chase down the high bouncing balls and return shots with an effective array of spins and placement. The clay levels the playing field so they can play the big guys even. David can beat Goliath.
Grass, on the other hand, the original and fastest surface, is not for the faint of heart or weak of serve. It's the surface on the courts of Wimbledon. Over the course of a two week tournament there are worn patches that get to be harder than concrete. The ball tends to bounce low and pick up speed after it hits on a grass court surface.
Hardcourt is what most people are familiar with. Slower than grass, it's a fast, rubberized surface laid over asphalt or concrete. Inexpensive and easy to maintain, hardcourt is the surface on most park district courts in the US. And the surface of choice for both the US and Australian Opens.
Har Tru is a form of clay, called green clay. Developed to replace red clay because it dries faster and it's easier to maintain, the surface acts like red clay to slow the ball down. Also like red clay, you learn to adjust to sliding into your shot on the sandy surface. While there are tournaments played on Har Tru, none of the Grand Slams will ever be. Tradition in tennis dies hard.
I can't think of another sport where the playing surface can be so radically different from one major tournament to another. Volleyball is played outdoors on sand and indoors on gym floors, but teams don't go from competing against each other on one surface and then switching to another next time.
Football and baseball each have two playing surfaces and they are interchangeable for competition. On those playing fields however, the artificial surface tries to emulate the real stuff. Not so in tennis. No attempt is made to have any of the surfaces play like the others, except for red clay and Har Tru.
What I think is interesting, at least in my experience, is that nothing has been done to make shoes for playing on each of the different surfaces. They're usually constructed for the comfort of the player, rather than adding playing effectiveness adjusted for the surface of the court.
Watching these two guys face each other today in the French, I have to remind myself that the struggling Federer is No. 1 in the world on every other surface.
As we speak Nadal has broken Federer's serve twice and taken the first set 6-1. They usually go five sets on clay. Even though Federer usually loses, they tend to play pretty even. But today Roger is looking pretty lame.
Having said all that, the crowd just started roaring because Federer has tied Nadal in the second set, 3-all.
He's still going to lose. Nadal wouldn't look at Federer before the match started. He is on a mission to take Roger out in three sets.
P.S. Nadal beat Federer in three sets. 1, 3, and 0 [he bageled him in the third].
P.P.S. I neglected to mention perhaps the most important aspect of Nadal's success -- he plays lefthanded. If he weren't a lefty, I'm not writing about him beating Federer.
Lefties are represented in greater percentages at the top of the sport than their numbers would indicate. Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Laver, Seles, and Martina are some familiar names.
P.P.P.S. Bjorn Borg, who didn't play leftie, was at Wimbledon last year when Federer beat Nadal for his fifth straight title -- tying Borg. He was at Roland Garros today to see Nadal beat Federer for his fourth straight title -- also to tie Borg.