May 26, 2011 -- How was it that Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal dug themselves out of trouble at The French Open today and Kim Clijsters didn't? The answers might appear simple. But they aren't.
Up a set and holding two match points at 5-2, Kim Clijsters' momentum stalled, along with her competitive edge and confidence. She lost the match -- 36 75 61 -- to Arantxa Rus of The Netherlands. The 20-year-old had just won her 12th match on tour. She's ranked 114.
The fact that Clijsters has hundreds of match wins plus four Grand Slam titles makes this an odd loss for the #2 seed. She won the last two Majors: The U. S. Open and The Australian Open. But if you remember Kim had a knack for folding before she took her break to start a family. Has that trend returned?
"I started doubting myself a little bit," Clijsters began. "It's bad to do that on any surface, but for me especially on clay it's the wrong attitude. She gained confidence and started playing better. I couldn't play my aggressive tennis late in the match. I was on my back foot."
Kim plays fast tennis matches, moving quickly from one side of the court to the other. Toss the ball, hit the ball, next point please. Today, she never slowed down. She didn't seem to try other tactics, once the air went out of her tires and her athletic ability couldn't pump her up again.
We saw an uncomfortable Kim display all those traits from her previous career life... pre marriage and Jada, her 3-year-old daughter.
Her injuries weren't a factor, "I wouldn't have come if I wasn't ready," she said.
Maria Sharapova was flat out getting her backside whipped today. The 17-year-old wildcard Caroline Garcia, playing in her first French Open, dominated the court. She stood her ground near or inside the baseline, none of that ten feet behind the baseline stuff for her. She took balls early, capitalized on second serves with returns that whizzed past Sharapova, leaving with nothing to do but watch them sail by.
Sharapova stood on the brink of disaster. She didn't have match points on her racquet, the way Clijsters did. Sharapova was down a set and 4-1 in the second.
"I never felt comfortable," Maria said. "I was trying to find my rhythm. I had to make some changes."
Sharapova decided to stop obsessing about the conditions and get on with her game. From then on she slowly -- one point at a time -- dug herself out, and ran off the next eleven games to win the match 36 64 60.
"I never think a match is over until it actually is," Sharapova said. "I'll never give up out there."
Rafael Nadal admitted, "In general the match wasn't too good for me. I am unhappy, but I'm here." He got the 'w,' and honor of moving into the third round.
He felt the wind swirl and red clay in his face. He felt the heavy ball. "If there was wind, there was wind," he said. "Better to find solutions within myself."
So how did he close out his match in three sets against Pablo Andujar, a rising star and compatriot? Nadal won the first two sets 75 63, but got down 1-5 in the third. That set ended in a tiebreak, which he eased through at 76(4).
For Sharapova and Nadal the day was a difficult one. It was for Clijsters, too. However, Sharapova's mind was clearly on the game after she realized she was spending too much on weather conditions -- something she couldn't control.
Nadal's match was a roller-coaster. He'd go up a break and Andujar would immediately break back. Nadal couldn't get his nose in front enough to feel 'the calm' he uses on the offense. He said he got lucky. And that's part of it.
However, Nadal and Sharapova have a mysterious mode on a tennis court. That they thrive on competition isn't a mystery. But what's bundled up inside their competitive spirits is mysterious.
Winning isn't the goal, for them. Playing each point well is the goal. They swing out under all conditions and situations with unparalleled nerves, pulling their best strokes and tactics to the surface to spill it all on court until nothing is left.
Sharapova had zero room for error today. She had to play full out and find the path of least resistance, or go home like Clijsters. Sharapova's mind did not waiver.
Nadal had to accept the ups and downs of his match against a tough opponent. He had to make peace with his assessment of his game. "I practice well, but not doing well playing in matches," he said simply, adding, "No excuses."
The simple answers: stay in the moment, practice a lot, ask questions, learn new things, and move on.
The not-so-simple aspect of coming from behind lies in an inexplicable and perhaps innate quality champions possess, which doesn't seem to come from a coach or parents or millions of hours on court hitting millions of tennis balls.
"Maria Sharapova's mind is so tough, she could do anything in the world," Mats Wilander said in a recent interview.
"Rafael Nadal is favored to win Roland Garros because he lives for five-set matches," Wilander said on a video posted on the Roland Garros website.
They live to fight. The love the fight. And when the competition is over... they are satisfied. At least until the next match.