The final leg of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film Strangers on a Train has the narrative cross-cutting between two actions, until they converge in an exciting fight scene atop a carousel. In the first of these actions, the suave psychopath Bruno Anthony leaves his house to travel to a fairground where he wants to drop off a cigarette lighter. His purpose in doing this is to incriminate the story’s hero, Guy Haines, in a murder that Bruno has committed. The lighter belongs to Guy and has two tennis racquets embossed on it.
While this is happening, Guy – a tennis star with political ambitions – is playing an important match, but also knows that he must get off the court, and out of the stadium, in time to intercept Bruno and save himself; at the changeover between games, he looks tensely at the courtside clock, and we count the minutes with him.
As the sequence progresses, the cutting between the two narratives becomes increasingly urgent (and visually symbolic: at one point, Bruno must retrieve the lighter from a storm drain it has fallen into, his fingers slipping down ever further into the darkness; meanwhile, Guy’s racquet points sun-ward as he makes overhead shots). There is a hint of character development too. Guy has been a limp-wristed sort so far, not a strong, assertive hero (Farley Granger, who plays the part, had a similarly passive role in Hitchcock’s Rope), but now, facing crisis, he doesn’t have the option of playing the waiting game: he has to speed it up, move out of his comfort zone, take risks.
I have sometimes thought of that match while watching the theatre of men’s tennis over the past decade and a bit: a period that saw the riveting Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry followed by the ascent to greatness of one-time “third wheel” Novak Djokovic, and the continued doggedness of Andy Murray, perpetual bridesmaid in Grand Slam finals, who doesn’t get enough credit for his achievements in such a high-octane era. As a Nadal obsessive who has a great deal of respect for all those other players, I feel like playing devil’s advocate and wondering: what if Guy Haines was Federer, and what if the man he was playing in that scene was Rafa Nadal? Would the hero ever have got off that court? Would Hitchcock’s film have had a chance to end, much less reach its spectacular climax?
We saw a version of this story emerge in the last decade, when Federer fans had reason to view Nadal as the moustache-twirling cinematic “heavy”, always impeding their hero’s progress. Circa 2005, here is Roger, an efficient, confident, attacking player, accustomed to swanning his way through matches and finishing in time to toss out bon mots at the press conference. After which he can go eat a five-course meal on a glacier, or don a cape and rescue Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, or whatever it is Swiss superheroes do. Most of his opponents, much less skilled, play the game on his terms. But now the script changes. Along comes this Nadal, this Spaniard in the works, with his two-handed backhand and almost robotic ball-retrieving, grunting and fist-pumping as if every point isn’t just a point to be quickly won or lost, it is a battle for his very soul. Not only does he make you play endless rallies, he also takes his sweet time between them. (“He towels off after EVERY POINT, even after his opponent has double-faulted!” a friend of mine, no Rafa fan, once wailed. Not so far from the truth.)
In Strangers on a Train, the tennis match is a pit-stop on the road to something much more important – the real game with the highest stakes lies ahead, in the fairground confrontation. (In an impeccably crafted film, those tennis scenes are casually shot by Hitchcock’s standards.) For Nadal, on the other hand, the court itself is the carnival. There have been times, watching some of his longest matches (the epic 2012 Australian Open final and the grueling Madrid Masters semifinal of 2009, both against Djokovic, come to mind), when I have felt that even if he lost, the thrill lay in just being part of something surreal and never-ending.
Those words could describe another cinematic tennis match, from a very different sort of film. Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 Blow Up is one of those cool, avant-garde European movies that initially pretend to be narrative-driven (this one even pretends to be an exciting mystery), before yielding to abstract, enigmatic commentary on modern life, hedonism and flawed perceptions. In its closing scene, the protagonist Thomas watches a group of mimes “play” a tennis match with an invisible ball. At first bemused, he eventually succumbs to the conceit: his eyes move back and forth as if he is watching a real match.
You might call this match existential tennis, where the purpose isn’t to get a result but to go through the same motions over and over. And that is how some exasperated Federer fans describe not just Nadal’s playing style, but also most of the baseline-rally-dominated matches that Djokovic and Murray have played in recent years. For those purists, this is the un-beautiful game, so repetitive and tedious that their eyes glaze over and they can barely see the ball after a point.
Can we propose this binary then: that Federer was like the dashing hero of a Hitchcock thriller – a throwback to the crisper tennis of a past era, before surfaces around the world were slowed down – while Nadal, grinding away for hours, was the lead in a languorously paced film? Well, yes, if you have a very narrow view of what exciting tennis (or stirring cinema) should be. But here’s a caveat. Don’t try telling me that being a Nadal fan doesn’t involve high suspense – I have 11 years’ worth of chewed fingernails and accumulated grey hair to counter that thought.
Some of this suspense has come in great matches: such as the heart-stopping moment during the 2008 Wimbledon final when Nadal – with the match on his racquet in the fourth-set tiebreak – temporarily melted into a puddle of nerves; or the extraordinary see-saw of the third set of the 2013 US Open final, which Rafa somehow stole from under Djokovic’s nose after being nearly a double-break down. However, the bulk of the suspense has been off-court, in the constant second-guessing about his many injuries: how long before his knee, or shoulder, or back, gives way this time? How much is his team disclosing to the outside world? Can he make it through another round after that exhausting last match? When is a comeback likely to occur, and how effective will it be?
Given all this drama, watching Rafa win quickly can feel anti-climactic, even portentous. I was astonished a few weeks ago when I tuned in to his first-round match at the French Open to find that, in only sixty-five minutes of play, he was up 6-1, 6-1, 3-0 against an admittedly low-ranked opponent. It should have been thrilling, but it felt like the usual order of things had been mangled – it was too good to be true. A few days later, just as talk had begun about Rafa being in contention to win his tenth French Open, he pulled out of the tournament with a wrist injury.
Hitchcock once made a distinction between surprise (a sudden explosion that a viewer couldn’t possibly have anticipated) and its more effective cousin, suspense (we know there is a bomb under the table, but we don’t know when, or if, it will go off). For casual tennis watchers, Nadal’s pullout came as a blindsiding surprise. For perpetually jittery, stressed-out fans like yours truly who follow every practice-session report and press conference, it was more like the newest twist in a decade-long suspense series. Following him over the years has been – depending on the context – like watching an “arty” film full of long pauses and silences; or like watching a fast-paced thriller, waiting with bated breath for the moment where the roundabout careens out of control. That’s a good, varied menu if you’re a movie buff, and I’m not complaining.
[Some earlier posts on Rafa Nadal/tennis are here]