So I know it’s a bailable offence to talk about tennis while the football WC is on, but what about Marcos Baghdatis’s superb showing against Lleyton Hewitt in the Wimbledon quarter-finals yesterday? Amazing mix of skill and confidence, and did anyone see that return of serve in the fourth set? He really is a player for the future, as was first suggested by that great run at the Australian Open early this year.
There’s a chance now that Baghdatis will play Rafael Nadal in the semi-final, and what a match that could be! Two incredibly talented youngsters: Baghdatis brilliant on his day but still a bit mercurial, still susceptible to the follies of youth; Nadal much more focused and disciplined, but can he progress much further in a grass tournament?
To my own surprise, I’ve become a Nadal fan in the past few months. First, obviously, there’s the sense of gratitude and relief about his bringing some competitiveness to the men’s game, which had become painfully predictable (what with everyone slogging it out for the second spot, behind Federer). Even if Federer wins every single title in the rest of the year (as he might well do), we’ll at least know that he was beaten in four consecutive finals in the first half of 2006 - and all by one man.
Second, I enjoy many aspects of Nadal’s actual play. I think he’s a much better all-round tennis player than is suggested by the epithets “force of nature” and “brutal power”, which are repeatedly used to describe him. It’s easy to see why his clashes with Federer are labelled “Beauty vs the Beast” (Federer’s grace can make anyone seem beastlike by comparison), but Nadal can be subtle, and very effectively so, when the occasion demands it. And what about the work ethic. And the discipline (which is at such odds with his flamboyant personality). How many people do you know who had all this at age 20?
Best of all, his attitude, in terms of wanting to become a more complete player. It’s been common in the past for clay-court specialists to take it easy during the grass season (and even part of the hardcourt season); to stay in their comfort zone. But this guy says “Wimbledon is a great tournament and I want to do well in it, even if it takes a few years” - and then he puts himself out there, in the face of the danger that he’ll do badly on an unfamiliar surface (and consequently lose some of the respect that his number 2 world ranking and his wins over Federer have brought him).
This year it’s paid off: despite being an admirer of his, I never expected him to move beyond the third round this Wimbledon. But he’s in the quarters now, and who knows what more he can achieve in future. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him win the tournament sometime in the next 3-4 years. For now though, set your sights on the possible Baghdatis-Nadal semi-final tomorrow (that’s only if Nadal wins his rain-delayed quarter-final today).
P.S. Here’s another reason to like Nadal: he has a blog! It was set up by ATP a few months ago and was maintained throughout the French Open, though it’ll probably die a natural death now.