[Did a version of this Nadal tribute piece for Business Standard]
Watching Rafael Nadal lift the French Open trophy at Roland Garros for the fifth time, I thought about the little ways in which the Spaniard’s extraordinary clay-court performances in the past five seasons have intersected with – and injected a dose of stress into – my summer outings. In April 2007, on a cruise in Southampton, I managed to besiege the ship’s slow Internet connection for long enough to confirm that Rafa (for such is how most fans refer to him) had won his home tournament in Barcelona. In Kandy, Sri Lanka the following year I briefly eluded my vigilant wife to get online and check the just-released draw for the French Open … and then fretted for the next two hours about the dangerous David Nalbandian being in Rafa’s quarter. (I needn’t have worried. Rafa would win the tournament without dropping a set, beating his great rival Roger Federer by the unthinkable score of 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in the final.)
Memories of the marathon four-hour semi-final Rafa played against Novak Djokovic at the Madrid Masters on May 16, 2009 still make me shiver: I had a flight to Germany the next morning and needed to sleep early; instead I stayed glued to my computer screen, scoreboard-watching (there being no TV coverage) until midnight, feeling nearly as physically and mentally drained as the two buccaneers assaulting the red dirt from every unthinkable angle. Checking scores in Frankfurt the next day, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Rafa had lost the final to Federer. (This year, mercifully, my trip to Bhutan began the day after the Madrid final where he reversed that result. It was a very relaxed flight!)
Most casual tennis fans tune in exactly four times a year, during the second week of each of the Grand Slam tournaments. But the incurable tennis nutcase, like yours truly, follows his favourite players throughout the season, in every Masters 1000, 500-level and 250-level tournament, watching matches on TV or on the Net while simultaneously participating in fevered discussions with other nutcases on websites like Tennis World. I’ve been a Nadal obsessive since late 2005, the year he brought such energy to the men’s game. By forging a winning head-to-head against the otherwise all-conquering Federer, he kept some interest alive in the tour – you might say he was the Spaniard in the works – but I loved his game for other reasons. The famous mental strength, of course, but also (and this is something that often gets lost in pat, polarising narratives about Federer’s “natural talent” vs Nadal’s “gritty determination”) the tennis skill: the matchless court coverage; the ability to turn a seemingly hopeless defensive position into an attacking one in the blink of an eye; the absurd passing shots from behind the baseline; the delicate lobs and drop-shots when required; the small but important alterations he makes to his game for the grass-court season.
It’s been a difficult fandom, because Rafa’s matches – even when he’s in top form – tend to be long and tiring to watch. Outside of clay, he isn’t a fluid, efficient match-winner the way Federer is: he scrambles for every point, takes hours to win against tough opponents. If you’re invested in watching him, you need strong nerves and a good supply of eye-drops.
As any fan knows, storm clouds gathered around this time last year. Rafa won three big tournaments in consecutive weeks (and I manipulated my appointment schedule during a work-trip to Mumbai so I could see the Rome Masters final) but already he was looking distracted and weary; whispers were spreading in media circles that knee tendonitis, a recurring injury, was starting to plague him again, and that he had been affected by the divorce of his parents. There was something inevitable about his first-ever loss – to Sweden’s Robin Soderling – at Roland Garros, a tournament he had owned since he was eighteen. He then missed a couple of months because of injury and didn’t win another title for 11 months. My eye-drop expenditure decreased.
Much of the frisson in sports-watching comes from seeing a fallen champion reclaim his domain, slaying his private demons along the way, and the 2010 clay season couldn't have supplied a better script. Nadal's titles at Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid marked a unique sweep of the three clay Masters, and then, most importantly, he reclaimed Roland Garros without dropping a set. His opponent in the final: Soderling, who had beaten him last year. I usually scoff at the human tendency to look for patterns in everything – to search for meaning and order in a purposeless world – but the way the cards aligned at Roland Garros gave me brief pause for thought. The circle had been completed in the most fitting way possible. It was the stuff of a good fairytale about fall and redemption.
Not that I’m taking this as a portent of great things to come. Rafa’s strenuous playing style isn’t conducive to career longevity and there’s no telling how long he stays at his peak. Some observers are already murmuring about his good chances at Wimbledon this year, and then at the US Open, the one Slam he hasn’t yet won, but the one thing Nadal fans know all about is being pragmatic and taking it one match at a time. (As he often says in his press conferences, “We gonna see, no?”) At least he’ll always have Paris.
[Some older tennis posts: the human Federer, mixed singles, in praise of Rafa, how to make men's tennis less predictable, perceptions]