That was when two of history's best tennis players, the John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg of their generation, would renew a one-sided but intense rivalry in the French Open final on the red clay of Roland Garros.
Rafael Nadal, el rey de la arcilla roja, and Roger Federer, les Marquis d'sod, knocked tennis balls lopsided for nearly 3 1/2 hours. It was an intriguing match because Federer was not supposed to be a finalist this year. He is in the conversation for the title of best fast surface player ever. But Nadal is almost indisputably the best clay-court player ever and has won 10 Grand Slams on all surfaces at the age of 25, including a record-tying six French Opens. The shining moment of their rivalry came at Wimbledon in 2008, when Federer outlasted Nadal, 9-7, in the fifth set of a final for the ages.
But Federer, recommitted to a flagging career in which he had become perhaps too dominant on any surface but clay for the good of the sport, reached the French final by ending the epic winning streak of Novak Djokovic at 43 matches in four tough semifinal sets.
It was the Swiss blaster's fifth French Open final, but he had never beaten Nadal. He won his only French title in 2009 by defeating Sweden's Robin Soderling, who had handed Nadal his only French Open loss.
It is tough to look great while losing a four-set final, but Federer managed to take the Spaniard to 7-5, 7-6 (3), 5-7, 6-1. Federer blew a 5-2 set-point lead in the first, but Nadal launched a relentless comeback, pulled out the set and it was a war until the fourth, when Nadal ramped his first serve up to 120 mph and went for his record-setting sixth French title by raising his game to an amazing level.
Take the two best players on the planet duking it out and add the commentary of Johnny Mac, the best ex-jock commentator in any sport, and it was a wonderful way to spend a Sunday morning.
The afternoon's next heavyweight performer, Roy Halladay, appeared on cue and promptly fell behind, 2-0. Fortunately for the Phillies' wet-washrag attack, the Pirates were out of front-line pitching for the weekend and skitterish righthander James McDonald walked the bases loaded with nobody out in the fifth. After reliever Chris Resop drilled Carlos Ruiz, who was hit for the second time, the Phils took a 3-2 lead on the way to a 7-3 victory that ended their four-game losing streak against a pair of National League teams with sub-.500 records.
To put the caliber of the 2011 NL East opposition in proper perspective, despite going 4-5 on the three-city trip, the Phillies actually gained two games on the Marlins, continue to hold the Braves at arm's length and still have MLB's best record at 35-24. Meanwhile, slumping Ryan Howard chipped away for three RBI and with 103 games left, The Big Piece, definitely a heavyweight, has 46 RBI. The Big Arm has eight victories.
Perhaps the most positive development to emerge from a disappointing trip was Dom Brown hitting the baseball harder and more consistently than anybody in Charlie's scuffling lineup. That includes a just-foul grand slam swing yesterday, a laser shot off second-base umpire Chad Fairfield that cost him an RBI and a double that missed being a solo homer to right by the width of a railing. And he is doing it with his natural swing, which is neither Spalding Guide, nor the paint-by-numbers pass various people were trying to teach him.
So my hunger for heavyweight-level action was sated Saturday night by a terrific middleweight title fight between Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and tough German titleholder Sebastian Zbik. Both came in unbeaten. But young Chavez pounds the body with the same savagery as his dad, the greatest fighter in Mexican history. Zbik landed more than twice as many punches as Julio, but if Zbik's midsection had been a piñata, there would have been goodies spilled all over the ring.
Speaking of punches . . . The Phillies still don't have a home run this month. Tee up the piñata.
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