Sunday, May 24, 2015

Rafa Nadal probably won't win the French Open this year, but so what?

[Did this for the Daily O]

Pilgrimages aren’t my thing (to put it mildly), but early last year I went for one in, of all places, a quiet nook of Paris. The venue was the Roland Garros stadium where the French Open, one of tennis’s four Slams or majors, begins each May. I was visiting in March, two months before the start of the 2014 tournament, and not the best time for a guided tour: the players’ locker rooms were being renovated and the main arena, the famous Court Philippe Chatrier, looked a shadow of its elegant self – none of that gorgeous, shimmering red clay I had been viewing for years on television, just craters in the ground and plenty of dull, regular-coloured mud that I could easily have seen back home in Delhi just by looking out my balcony, thank you very much.

And yet, the visit was totally worth it.

This was the motivation for it: since 2006 I have been a huge fan of Rafael Nadal, who had (as of early last year) won this most prestigious of clay-court events a record eight times. Watching Rafa slide his way to title after title during this part of the tennis season has been a highlight of my sports-watching summer for years. Having resigned myself to never seeing him play at Roland Garros in person, I felt I should at least go and do some good-old-fashioned matha tekna at the grounds while he was still their reigning champion. Sit on the press-conference chair. Examine the players’ signatures on the wall. And so on.

It also seemed urgent, because how much longer could the reign last? Rafa’s great rival Novak Djokovic needed only the French Open to complete his own haul of major trophies, and he had plenty of support and goodwill to supplement his all-round game. Every one of the Roland Garros staff I spoke to during my time there, including the guide, wanted Novak to win in June; they were fed up of Rafa’s dominance.

When the 2014 tournament began, I was back in Delhi, of course, and even more convinced that the RG darshan had happened not a moment too soon. Rafa had had a mediocre clay season (by his standards), losing early in tournaments he had dominated for years and then unconvincingly winning the Madrid Masters final when his opponent Kei Nishikori was undone by a back injury. Then, in Rome, in the last tournament before the French Open, Rafa lost the final to Djokovic. The Ultimate Dethronement seemed ordained.

It wasn’t. Two weeks later, sitting in the home of a friend (who, as a Roger Federer devotee, has been affably ruing Nadal’s very existence for years), I watched Rafa win a tense French Open final for his ninth title. (That’s 50 percent more than the legendary Bjorn Borg, who was once considered the last word on this surface.) “Well, there you go,” said my long-suffering friend, “There was only ever going to be one result. Rinse and repeat. This was boringly predictable.”


Philippe Chatrier in March 2014, looking none too glamorous
- and a little bit like Rafa's future
But this year even he will probably concede that Rafa isn’t the tournament favourite. Having struggled throughout 2015 – with a match record that is easily his poorest since 2004 – and not having won a title during the European clay season, it seems very likely that a 10th RG is not on the cards. Djokovic is looking stronger than last year too, and the draw, announced yesterday, has him and Rafa in the same quarter, tantalising and dismaying tennis fans in equal measure.

I haven’t had much time to worry though, since I’ve been too busy giggling at some of the narratives being propagated on sports messageboards and media, and endorsed both by Nadal-haters who are drunk on Schadenfreude AND by Nadal fans who think he is a machine that will go on winning till the end of time. Here are just three of those narratives, which are closely linked to each other:

– Rafa’s game has been figured out by the other players; he is losing more often because he no longer has the “locker-room aura”, and more players “believe” they can beat him,

– So he needs to “evolve” with the changes in the sport, by retooling his own game,

– He has plenty of time to do this because he is only 28 and should have lots of time left as a top player.

That second statement is arguably the funniest: I don’t know any player who has adjusted and evolved his game more often than Rafa has. But the thing is, he has done this many times over the course of a decade – and sports fans’ memories tend to be very short-lived.

It certainly isn’t the case that players have conveniently started figuring Rafa out only now. Opponents who could execute a certain sort of game well HAD been “figuring him out” as early as 2006 (go back and look at his matches against players like James Blake, David Nalbandian, Nikolay Davydenko and Tomas Berdych). He came right back, found new ways to face the challenges posed by different conditions, surfaces and opponents. In the process, he achieved things that many of his fans didn’t expect him to achieve. My own Nadal fandom has been about being pleasantly surprised time and again: by the 2008 Wimbledon win over Federer; the career Slam with a US Open final win over Djokovic (who is unquestionably the better hard-court player overall); the hugely successful comeback in 2013; and many others triumphs over the years.

But of course, if you only started watching tennis (or acquired the wondrous gift of consciousness) in the past two years, you would think he has plenty of adapting and learning still to do; that he is obliged to not just keep the rampaging Djokovic (whom he has already beaten six times at Roland Garros) at bay forever, but also hold off any other contenders who may emerge in the future. Well, sport doesn’t work that way. There is an age and decline factor at play here.

Which brings me to that “He is only 28”. (Twenty-nine next month, actually: his birthday is on the very day that potential quarter-final against Djokovic is scheduled!) But as Dharmendra growled in Johnny Gaddaar, “It’s not the age. It’s the MILEage.”

When Rafa first began winning big, in 2005, critics looked at his arduous, physical game and said “It can’t last. No longevity there.” A judgement that became more confident when the first of his many injury-related breaks occurred.

What actually happened since then? Despite the timeouts, he has played close to 900 matches for an overall win-loss percentage that is still marginally the highest in the men’s game. He has spent nearly 10 full seasons ranked in the top 4, most of those in the top 2. And he holds the record for most consecutive Slam-winning seasons (10). All this from someone who was never supposed to have a long career!

So here’s a tip, based not just on defensive Nadal fandom but also on knowledge of tennis history (and the oldest rule of sport and life, that nothing lasts forever): forget that youthful-seeming “28”. Instead watch Rafa on clay this fortnight, or however much of the fortnight he survives – and then, regardless of what happens, whether he loses in the quarter-final to Djokovic, or in the first round to someone you never heard of, or something in between, ignore the shrieking, sensationalist, eyeball-seeking newspaper headlines and the gloating comments on messageboards and remember this: the amazing thing, the unthinkable thing isn’t the loss but the fact that he won so much and for so long.

In a recent piece, the generally excellent Rohit Brijnath wrote, somewhat over-dramatically, that “the French Open is all that Rafa has got left”. That may be true in the short term and on the small scale (the scale at which too many narrative-seeking journalists and attention-deficient fans operate). In the big picture though, he has one of the most exciting, inspiring careers the sport has seen, and no one is taking that away from him. Not Djokovic, and not even paranoid fans who go on stadium pilgrimages because they don’t expect to see their favourite’s name on the winner’s roster a few months later.

[More fanboy pieces about Rafa here and here and here]

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