En-route to Paris — Paris, the year’s second major, looms, along with a guy who may be more monumental than the Eiffel Tower. That would be Rafa Nadal of course, and here’s my advice to Messrs Federer, Murray, Djokovic, Roddick and anyone else who would hope to flatten him: Show up in a tank equipped with flame throwers.
Rafa has become such a striking landmark in Paris, where he has won the last four French Opens, that he rivals one of Rodin’s statues – and is as tough to dislodge. They ought to give him a gold key to the city, and a rent-free apartment at the top of Notre Dame alongside Quasimodo. If Quasi is the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Roundhouse Rafa is the Punchback with those big, powerful swings.
Opening May 24, the 84-year-old French Championship seems the private possession of Nadal, the virgin lefty — never overcome in Paris – creeping up on the records of a guy we shouldn’t forget: Bjorn Borg. Borg won 6 titles (1974-75, 78-79-80-81), surpassing the homeboy, Henri Cochet (1926, 28, 30, 32). Lighter-armed with wooden racket, the Swede, eminently quick and competitive, was every bit as feared on the dirt as Nadal. Bjorn’s stunning transition from clay to grass, conquering both the French and Wimbledon in 1978-79-80, puts him up in the clouds – but last year Rafa cashed the possibility as the first since to emulate him.
Borg winner of 49 matches at Roland Garros (Rafa has 28), was stopped twice, 1973 and 1976, by the nifty-volleying, assault-minded Italian, 1976 champ Adriano Panatta. Maybe it takes that kind of daredevil approach to discomfort Nadal.
This is a year of significant triumphant anniversaries:
10th – In 1999 Andre Agassi beat Andrei Medvedev, becoming only the fifth man to win all four majors. And his roommate-to-be, Steffi Graf, won the last of her 22 majors, beating Martina Hingis.
20th – In 1989 the 17-year-olds shone, Michael Chang beating Stefan Edberg and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario beating Graf. Chang, youngest of major male champs was the first American guy to win in 34 years (since Tony Trabert).
30th – Sometimes somebody nobody’s heard of comes along to turn the tournament upside down. That was lanky unseeded Paraguayan Victor Pecci in 1979, who beat the Nos. 15-6-3-2 seeds in succession (Corrado Barazzutti, Harold Solomon, Guillermo Vilas, Jimmy Connors) to land in the final where Borg said, “Enough!”
40th – Rod Laver completed his second – yes, second!) Grand Slam by beating arch- antagonist Ken Rosewall. His first was seven years previously, 1962. No man has done it since.
50th – Nicky Pietrangeli beat Ian Vermaak in 1959. They’re all still with us. Wouldn’t it be nice if they showed up as distinguished spectators?