Of eyebrows and clay

Eye on the ball

(Photo by REUTERS/Eric Gaillard)

Tignor is at it again. This time he talks not only of his love of Rafa, but of his love of the current state of clay court tennis. I have to admit: I didn’t use to like clay court tennis. Keep in mind, this was way back in the day when players were using natural gut and playing with wooden rackets. (Yes, I’m that old.) These days, however, I’ve come to realize that clay provides an excellent balance to the power and speed that modern day equipment delivers.

This is the point each year when Rafael Nadal begins to make life as difficult as possible for us. How many different ways are there to say “wow,” anyway? On Sunday, Tennis Channel commentator Robbie Koenig was forced to plead to a higher power to come up with a superlative when Nadal tracked down a seemingly ungettable drop volley from Novak Djokovic. After the third replay of Nadal’s crosscourt flick winner, Koenig finally gave up trying to figure out how it had been done and cried, “only the good lord above knows.”

It’s always a bit fun when people who have seen and commented on so much tennis are truly gobsmacked by what they are seeing.

Can we now agree, after this weekend’s play, that clay is the best surface for the men’s game today? Seeing Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray hit every shot imaginable and run down every ball possible, I’m willing to say yes. Clay, which keeps topspin from skipping though the court while at the same time enabling players to slide themselves into position for hard-to-reach balls, allows the current generation to show off all of their skills like no other type of court.

First, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray, like most of their peers, hit heavy topspin forehands and back them up with penetrating two-hand backhands. If you’ve ever played on slow clay, you know that, the surface’s reputation aside, you need to generate enough pace and spin to hit a heavy ball that goes through the court—Lleyton Hewitt, a consummate grinder and winner of many hard-court titles, has never been a master of the surface because he can’t push his opponents off the baseline. Second, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray all have touch; clay, even more than a slow hard court, gives them the time not only to set up and hit that shot, but to slide and reach a very good drop from their opponent. Third, these guys can all play defense, which we know is a prerequisite on dirt—Pete Sampras was about offense at all costs, and clay was his bete noire.

Now that the serve and volley is nothing more than a change-up play, clay is the surface that demands the most complete game from players. Instead of an all-world serve—none of these three guys ever hold just by blasting aces—the foundation of the sport today is a mix of accuracy and power from the baseline.

Thank goodness for a reprise from the non-stop ace game – nothing is more boring to me. Not even the old days of early round womens’ moon-ball tennis.

While Murray won without doing much attacking on the hard courts in Key Biscayne, he was forced to show everything he had to stay with Nadal in Monte Carlo. His game became much more varied and entertaining when he did. Ditto Djokovic. In Miami, Djokovic was generally content to put the ball in the middle of the court; Mary Carillo even said he looked tentative. Compare that to how he played the final in MC. The hooked forehands that sent Nadal wide; the frozen-rope backhands that had the Spaniard at full stretch; the ability to change directions with the ball and hit corners from anywhere: This is the old Djokovic, the real Djokovic, and hopefully the one we’ll see again in the future. As for Nadal himself, I don’t need to mention how much clay suits his skills, the same ones that have made him the best and arguably most complete player today. It hardly seems an accident that he developed them on clay and extended them to other surfaces afterward.

Repeat after me: It’s not about the surfrace, it’s about improving your game.

The second instance came in the final. Nadal went down 3-1 in the first set but immediately found his best form and ran off five straight games. Then, as often happens, he lost that form at the beginning of the second set. In the third, rather than try to get back on the attack right away, Nadal stayed with a defensive game and slowly, step by step, shot by shot, began to go for a little more. The damn burst at 0-1 when he ripped a winning backhand pass down the line, the best-looking and most full-blooded shot he’d hit in about an hour. While Nadal kept that shot well within the lines, it gave him the confidence to go for more for the rest of the set.

Or, as Rafa would say: always fight; keep a positive attitude and be with illusion to win.

What else is there for a tennis analyst to add about the humble and gritty man from Mallorca? How about we talk about his eyebrows? Are they ever not lowered to just above eye level, in a look of aggressive concern? I’ve seen a picture of Rafa at age 3 with his uncle Angel Miguel, dressed in a soccer uniform, and he has that same expression. How do you keep that look going for an entire match? More important, how do you keep that mindset—aggressive concern—going for two, three, five hours at a time? When I imagine the mental energy and tunnel vision needed to do that, only one word comes to mind. Wow.

Aggressive concern – I like that.

4 Responses

  1. kefuoe says:

    Aggressive concern or no, those eyebrows are magic.

  2. faecoleman says:

    With reference to the drops shop and flick volley by Nadal, it was an identical get to the one he made against Davydenko in last years semi=final in Monte-carlo, unbelievable, I think that one was the shot of the week as this one might be voted also. When I watched this on Sky Sports commentator Mark Petchey said “No! No way did he get that!, Djokovic can’t believe it”! Thats our Rafa!

  3. Babz says:

    Gotta love Tignor and his Rafanatic love.

  4. rez says:

    Thanks for the amazing excerpts. It was really good. He also had an unbelievable reach on his forehand side in the beginning of the second set (down a break point which eventually lost the point).