Wednesday, June 09, 2010

From a Rafa fanboy

[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]


  1. His relative lack of success in US Open and Aus Open (besides the 09 win) reminds me of Borg who never won these two tournaments.

    I haven't been following Tennis all that closely this decade. How do you account for the domination of most slams by a couple of players over the past 7 years or so? Is Men's Tennis less competitive than it used to be in the 90s?

    I cannot think of any similar period in post War tennis history where the Grand Slams have been so completely dominated by two players. Maybe Gonzales and Laver might have been similarly dominant had they not turned professional in the 50s and 60s respectively.

  2. Jabberwock: I am curious; do you play tennis as well?

  3. "How do you account for the domination of most slams by a couple of players over the past 7 years or so?"

    Shrikanth: I think Federer in his peak years has simply been the most dominant male player of the Open Era, and certainly the greatest Grand Slam player of the last 40 years. (That record of his that just ended here - 23 consecutive GS semi-finals - has to be one of the most absurd streaks in sporting history. I don't see anyone coming remotely close to it.)

    Don't usually like comparing eras, but a case can certainly be made that if Fed had been born 20 years earlier and played at this same level, we would today remember Becker, Edberg and Wilander as journeymen/one-Slam wonders.

    Of course, Rafa has been fairly dominant himself, when compared to most great players of the past. He was ranked number 2 for over three years behind Fed; in most other eras he would have reached the number 1 spot much earlier.

  4. Nigam: no, am purely an armchair fan. Last held a racquet when I was 12 or so. Hit three spectacular cross-court shots, sprained my wrist, retired from the sport heartbroken.

  5. I think the decline of the serve-and-volley game has contributed to the increased predictability of the results in this decade.

    The Serve-and-volley style, by its very nature, increases the element of risk and luck in the outcome of each point. Which is probably why we used to have more "upsets" back in the 90s.

    That's probably the reason why some of the most consistent players of all time have not been pure serve-and-volleyers - Borg, Tilden, Budge, Connors, Federer, Nadal.

    In contrast, there's always a fragility associated with the great serve-and-volleyers. You never feel a sense of security when you're watching a McEnroe, an Edberg or even Sampras..

  6. Did you not see how Soderling took this mug apart at the World Tour Finals? 6-4 6-4. Had I been Nadal, I'd have been gracious and let Soderling win by default in the next match. Fuck Nadal. Ungracious mug.

    Who watches French Open anyway.

  7. Rafa is a mug: welcome! Do I know you from TW?

  8. ewww at the spaniard in the works pun :D I am actually happy that Fedex wasn't born in the same era as Boris/Edberg/McEnroe (being a big Boris fan ). I kinda like the variety, in terms of personality (on an off the courts) and game , that they bought to the sport.Not to say that Fedex doesn't have any but....On the other hand , do you think with the greater variety in terms of serve and volleyers , fedex might not have had it as easy as he sometimes seems to have now ?

  9. ulcers. you forgot to add that Rafa fanboys and fangirls have to deal with those too.

  10. I am an unabashed Federer fan and have no more words to describe what he brought to tennis. He is still up there...but maybe a lot more vulnerable than he was a few years ago. But, what most people fail to realize, as you rightly pointed out, is that Rafa is not just blood, sweat and bloody doggedness alone...he has an acumen for the game that is second to none. And like they say about Federer and the clay sure if he was not a part of the Federer era, Rafa would have had a few more Grand Slams by now and may have had been the year end number one for at least 4 years. But Rafa and Fed in one era is just a gift for the tennis enthusiasts.
    Come Wimbledon.

  11. Capital post! Missed it earlier.
    And quelle coincidence, the frantically-trying-to-follow-the-match-while-travelling ordeal! :)