Monday, September 12, 2011

Rafa: the war within?

It’s difficult to gauge exactly how one forms a connection with a particular sportsperson – fandom is a thick brew made up of many secret ingredients – but one possible explanation for my interest in Rafael Nadal’s game and personality presented itself last year...

To read on, go here. This is a piece I did for First Post - it's about Rafael Nadal as perpetual underdog, my own identification with an aspect of his personality, and the frank self-analysis in his new autobiography. Of course, it's a bit ironical that this piece is appearing just as Rafa is almost certain to lose the US Open final to his 2011 nemesis Novak Djokovic (being a masochist, I will be up watching the match later tonight), but that's how things go in sport.

P.S. For any regular blog-readers with feedback on the piece - I'd prefer you leave comments here, not on the First Post site.

[Two earlier tennis-related pieces: From a Rafa fanboy and Deuce: On tennis narratives and rivalries]


  1. That was a beauty! Though, I'm not sure of picking up the book, anytime soon.

    I, particularly, liked the sandbagging part. I've been doing it all my life, at times, consciously too. And that could be a reason why I adore a Sachin or a Federer more, because the walk onto the field with absolute command and confidence. Sometimes you look for what you don't have.

    Thanks for the write-up, especially the first page of it.

  2. Jai, I could relate to your identification with Rafa totally, as I used to have such feelings during student days myself to some extent! I had an inferiority complex even after getting admitted to the Electronics dept of the most prestigious Engg college in my state (JU) and always thought I did not belong in there :)
    Coming back to Rafa, I used to NOT like him (did not hate him ever) simply coz Federer somehow had a mental block against him always, and I still believe Fed is most graceful, most complete Tennis player I have seen in 25 years of watching tennis. But I slowly grew my admiration for Rafa after seeing his never-say-die attitude, utilizing his limited talent (compared to Federer or even Sampras) to 110% and above all, for his humility & respect towards fellow players. To the extent that probably I would not mind if Rafa goes to take the most number of Grand Slams. :)

  3. I have immense respect for Nadal for what he has accomplished, from being a clay court specialist to conquering other surfaces after repeated attempts. You cannot not like a never say die attitude like that and the ability to reach every corner of the court, if you love tennis.

    I usually don't understand the criticisms of the off-court Nadal or his behavior because quite frankly he is as nice as anyone can be in sports. It's probably a self-created facade of modesty but it is still commendable. But in the never ending and nothing-good-will-come-out-of-this debate on GOAT, I get a bit annoyed when they point this aspect to argue against Federer.

    Nice piece, Jai. But I'll confess I enjoyed the rivalries post even more!

    An out and out Federer fan who is still trying to come to terms with the semi-finals loss.

    Do check out Siddharth Vaidyanathan's(another Federer fan ;)) Nadal piece if you haven't yet.

  4. Nicely written as always :) The bit on sandbagging is particularly spot on (and going by the earlier comments) and my experiences a peculiarly Indian phenomenon especially amongst students. I think its partly driven by our innate desire to lower our parental/familial expectations given the pressure most parents put their kids under.

    As for Rafa, I think he's one of the most glorious fighters to watch on the tennis court. I don't see why you're so down on his chances though. If he can forget that he's playing a guy who's beaten him a bunch of times this year, Djokovic could be in for a surprise.

  5. Sometimes you look for what you don't have.

    Purnima: that's a good point, of course, but I'm not sure if Sachin has that quality - among batsmen, I'd associate it more with the great West Indians, Richards in particular. Either way, Sachin is the only other sportsman I've eevr been such a huge fan of.

    To the extent that probably I would not mind if Rafa goes to take the most number of Grand Slams. :)

    Samik: well, I doubt that will ever happen, but always nice to meet a Federer fan who has grown to admire Nadal.

  6. You cannot not like a never say die attitude like that and the ability to reach every corner of the court, if you love tennis.

    Gradwolf: try telling this to the hundreds of commenters on Tennis World who believe that enjoying Nadal's game is in itself a sign of serious deficiency in taste, and that he has never hit a winner in his life; every point he's won has been an unforced error by the opponent :)

    ...a peculiarly Indian phenomenon especially amongst students

    Nandibull: interesting perspective - I've already got a few emails from friends who read the piece, "confessing" that they were sandbaggers too!

  7. nice piece seems i will pick up the book..Jai - have you ever met Federer fans who believe that Rafa has not dominated him. I had to face situation like this a couple of times. This is when reason stands no chance and its just pure love for Fed.

  8. "certain"? I think you might be surprised.

    Used to hate him for all the fist pumping and glaring. Not a "fan" now but I think tennis would be poorer without him. Much poorer. People who think he can only defend basically either have never properly watched him play and/or know nothing about tennis. I haven't seen many players who've been able to dominate their opponents with one shot so consistently. Granted, his forehand generally functions to push the other guy back rather than snapping off winners, but anyone who calls this sort of play defensive is nuts.

    On the other hand, yes, I much prefer watching quick-striking, kamikaze tennis, which means Federer, sort of (doesn't play half as adventurously as I'd like). The thing that annoys me about Federer-Nadal matches is not that Federer is always losing, it's that he has never really let himself go. There's always tentativeness (endless shanking), always that slumped air at some point of time that means he's done. Always seemed scared, even after Nadal had taken Wimbledon and No. 1, when you thought he had nothing to be nervous about. In all the Nadal-Federer matches I've seen, Federer has never really beaten Nadal in manner that was satisfactory to me (as a Federer not-fan but "supporter"... something like that)
    (granted I missed the older ones, 2006 Rome and all that) - even last year's WTF. Yeah that was a good win, but really Federer has (/had) to beat Nadal on clay, properly, for me to be happy.

  9. anon - well said, i remember it was Aus Open 2009 final and for a moment it seemed Fed was in control of the match but the way he played last set clearly showed that he had lost it...has there ever been a great player like Fed who was so completely dominated by an underdog?

  10. Anon, Pessimist Fool: honestly, Federer had no business losing the Rome 2006 and AO 09 matches (though the Nadal fan in me is glad he did). That AO in particular - Rafa writes in the autobiography about how exhausted and numb he was after the Verdasco semi-final and how he didn't believe for a second that he could win the final - that he might even have withdrawn if it hadn't been a Slam. I tend not to buy too much into narratives about Federer being mentally weak against Nadal (you don't achieve at the level that Fed has if you're mentally fragile) but the fact is: in any sane universe, Roger should have won that AO final in 3 or 4 sets.

  11. Nadal didn't seem to be particularly tired in the final though. Won convincingly, I don't I'd say Federer threw it away or anything like that. Have to say I don't remember it all that well.

  12. Oh yeah i just forgot that he had a marathon semi final against Verdasco. And oh man, only Nadal could have won that match. Verdasco was like God that day. Very true, how can Fed lose after Nadal was so tired. but i guess, this shows that Fed (only against Rafa) loses his cool (which is his greatest quality).Or like somebody said, "Nadal makes him play that one extra shot".

  13. To all those who bleat about the goat (and I don't count myself out), its great to see Nadal dominating Federer and Djoker dominating Nadal.
    What a cracking match, so far! To me this is the rivalry to watch in today's tennis.
    I used to be a fanboy of Becker, but now in my mid thirties I hardly feel that way towards any player.

  14. ...But why is Nadal out with his autobiography now? So early in his life and career.. I mean, his talking is all on court and that should be enough for now no?...

  15. "I would often come out of an exam hall looking downcast – before eventually scoring among the highest marks in the class"

    Good to see some academic bloggers around-a contrast from the maladjusted "journos" who write about everything, without having a clue of anything!

    Out of curiosity, did you study in a foreign university? Perhaps an Ivy League?

  16. okay, what is the deal with the final? bodo and bodo comments are along the lines of "greatest match ever"/"all time classic"/"could have been 7/6 7/6 6/7 7/6", according to other accounts nadal was outplayed comprehensively/not much of a contest/etc.

  17. (I did not watch it)

  18. Arthi: mid-career memoirs aren't exactly unusual for top athletes - the chief reason tends to be image management and perhaps cashing in at a time when the player's popularity is at its peak. I'm sure the book will be updated - or a whole new one written - after his retirement though.

    Anon: the "one of the greatest matches ever" talk is silly hyperbole in my view (quality-wise I wouldn't even place it among the top 5 matches these two have played) but it was closer than the scoreline suggests.

  19. and stuff like this: "What an incredible game of tennis that was. Tennis from another planet. Another solar system. Just astonishing. You simply can't play much better than these two did at times. The final set was a bit of an anti-climax in the end, but that shouldn't take away from three of the best sets of tennis you're ever likely to see." (guardian)

    I don't get it. should watch replay.

  20. Djokovic always seemed to be able to break Nadal. Nadal knows it. Therefore service holds no advantage versus Djokovic who has one of the best returns ever. You cannot say the same about Federer. Federar plays more classical tennis and his probability of errors increase with someone like Nadal who makes him work for every point. Nadal knows how arduous it is to work every point vs Djokovic. He is not a shirker, but Djokovic has improved his fitness and has more stamina now. Once Nadal is behind count, you can see the pressure on his face. Nadal is a great fighter, and possibly the greatest clay courter of all timer. It is a tribute to his ability to evolve and seek new horizons that made him win on other surfaces. But even he has limits. In a way, he is a bit of everything and nothing outstanding. Opponents prepared to play 50 min sets against him and be patient and cut on unforced errors will fancy their chances. Djokovic is more relaxed and is still evolving. Lack of big serve will hurt Nadal in future. Jai Arjun Singh's marriage also affected his game. He looked up to Jai, and took inspiration from his murders. Jai is more sedentary after marriage and therefore that well of inspiration has died up. If I was Novak D's gf, I would watch my back very very closely. Who knows what kinda plans a dirty mind who plays and replays Hitchcock and BD Palma movies in his mind day in and out can do? Vengence is a funny thing and retribution can often be so misguided.