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Roland Garros 2008

Roger Federer and Rafael NadalAFP/Getty ImagesWorld No. 1 Roger Federer and No. 2 Rafael Nadal have history in their sights entering the next two Grand Slam tournaments.

CHASING HISTORY

In the next six weeks, historic achievements may play out on two of tennis’ biggest stages. We can be confident that Swedish legend Bjorn Borg will be watching.

Spaniard Rafael Nadal can equal Borg’s four straight Roland Garros triumphs by maintaining his perfect lifetime record at the clay court Slam, and Swiss Roger Federer can eclipse Borg's mark of five straight Wimbledon titles as he enters with a 34-match winning streak at the All England Club.

But first things first. After coming up just one win short of the Roland Garros title the past two years, Federer will have another chance to complete the career Grand Slam and join the select group of players to accomplish the feat: Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Andre Agassi. But after losses to Nadal in ATP Masters Series finals in Monte-Carlo and Hamburg, Federer has the job ahead of him.

Should he prevail at Roland Garros, the Swiss will then set the stage to tie Pete Sampras’ record haul of 14 Grand Slam titles – appropriately at Wimbledon, the site of Federer's first Slam triumph in 2003.

But if the first part of the 2008 ATP season is any indication, there could be surprises in store in the weeks to come.

AN UNPREDICTABLE SEASON

Barely a week into the season, Nadal saved four match points against former mentor Carlos Moya in the longest three-set match in 15 years. A day later in the Chennai Open final, the exhausted World No. 2 won just one game against Russian Mikhail Youzhny in his most lopsided career loss to date.

It would provide a preview of a year in which familiar title winners would be severely tested and unpredictable outcomes at ATP circuit stops worldwide would become the norm.

Federer, slowed by a stomach virus and later diagnosed with mono, found himself fighting for survival in his first tournament appearance since clinching the 2007 Tennis Masters Cup. The two-time Australian Open champion was extended to a fifth set at a Grand Slam tournament for the first time since 2001, before ultimately prevailing 10-8 against Serb Janko Tipsarevic in their third round match.

But another Serb, World No. 3 Novak Djokovic, played the role of spoiler as he dominated the defending champion in a straight-sets semifinal. With the Djokovic clan – mom, dad, and younger brothers Marko and Djordje – sporting the letters ‘N-O-L-E’ courtside, he then laid his claim to the title, becoming the first man other than Federer or Nadal to hoist a Grand Slam trophy since the 2005 Australian Open.

The other big story of the Australian Open proved to be Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Twenty-four years after Tsonga’s father witnessed Muhammad Ali in the famous Rumble in the Jungle, the elder Tsonga watched his son float like a butterfly and sting like a bee on the Melbourne courts. Playing in just his fifth Grand Slam tournament, the fearless Ali-lookalike electrified the crowds in a run to the Championship match that included upsets over No. 9 Andy Murray in the first round, No. 8 Richard Gasquet in the fourth, and No. 2 Nadal in the semifinals.

Tsonga wasn’t the only player to make an unexpected showing on a major stage.

March madness, ATP-style, began with American Mardy Fish making a run to the final at the ‘Big Dance’ in Indian Wells. The former Top 20 player, who had fallen to a No. 98 ranking going into the Pacific Life Open, posted consecutive wins in a third-set tie-break over two-time champion Lleyton Hewitt and World No. 7 David Nalbandian, and then handled No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko and No. 1 Federer in straight sets. The five games won by Federer were his fewest in a match since he assumed the No. 1 ranking four years ago.

Another Swiss player created shockwaves throughout the tennis world for a different reason, two months later at Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome. Stanislas Wawrinka found himself not only breaking into the Top 20 for the first time in his career by defeating World No. 8 James Blake in the quarterfinals – but made the leap into the Top 10 by reaching his first ATP Masters Series final.

Both times, Djokovic would get the better of the improbable finalists as he clinched his third and fourth ATP Masters Series titles and moved within reach of the World No. 2 ranking.

American Andy Roddick grabbed headlines of sports and gossip columns alike without stepping foot on the court at the year’s second ATP Masters Series tournament, the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, as he took himself off the singles market with his engagement to 20-year-old Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker. He then earned an emotional quarterfinal victory against Federer, snapping an 11-match losing streak against the Swiss.

Davydenko also vanquished a couple of his own on-court demons, first by defeating Roddick in the semifinals for the first time in six meetings. While Nadal may have walked on water to start the tournament, there was no miracle ending for him in the title match as the Russian finished off the Spaniard for the first time in four career meetings.

Going into the spring clay court swing, the ATP circuit counted 15 different winners – including multiple titlists Murray, Roddick, Nicolas Almagro, Michael Llodra and Djokovic – but Federer and Nadal were not among them, marking the first time since 1999 that the top two players of the South African Airways ATP Rankings had gone the first three months without a title.

They briefly put the tennis world back in balance in April. Federer ended his longest title drought in five years by winning in Estoril, and then reached the final at Masters Series Monte-Carlo for the third year running where he once again lost to Nadal. The Spaniard, who won his first title since last July in Stuttgart, became the second player in ATP Masters Series history (since 1990) to clinch the ‘double’ as he partnered Tommy Robredo to win the team title.

Nadal continued his clay court domination with a historic fourth Barcelona title, but then faltered the following week as the three-time defending champion in Rome. He lost for the first time in the Eternal City, defeated by another former champion, fellow Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero, in his second round opening match. But order was quickly restored when Nadal took out Federer in the Masters Series Hamburg final to clinch his 11th ATP Masters Series shield – before his 22nd birthday, no less!

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

The ATP circuit welcomed four new players to the winners' circle during the first four months of the 2008 season. Japanese teenager Kei Nishikori and Spaniard Marcel Granollers both triumphed over Top 10 player Blake in the final to clinch their respective titles in Delray Beach and Houston. Ukraine’s Sergiy Stakhovsky, a late replacement for Llodra in the Zagreb draw, became the first lucky loser to win an ATP title in 17 years. American Sam Querrey saved one match point in his first round match and knocked out two seeds en route to the title in Las Vegas.

Fifteen-year-old American Ryan Harrison provided a glimpse of his potential, qualifying into the main draw at the US Men’s Clay Court Championship in Houston and becoming the third youngest player to notch an ATP match win behind current Top 10 stars Nadal and Gasquet.

In other early season highlights, Frenchman Gael Monfils became the answer to future trivia questions when 6’10” Croat Ivo Karlovic failed to serve an ace for the first time in 225 career ATP matches. Meanwhile, a five-set epic at Rod Laver Arena, featuring past Australian Open finalists Hewitt and Marcos Baghdatis, turned in the latest ever finish at a Grand Slam event with Hewitt converting on his fifth match point at 4:34 a.m.

A handful of players retired from professional tennis, including American Paul Goldstein, Swede Joachim Johansson, Spaniard Felix Mantilla and Italian Davide Sanguinetti. Former World No. 1 Gustavo Kuerten also announced that this would be his last season, with plans to retire at Roland Garros.

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