Still reeling from a fantastic few days here. The last 3 days have shown all 4 top men in action, and I thank my lucky stars that the trend will continue tomorrow. Tonight’s match was a nice reminder of the Rafa of old. Let’s all hope that trend continues too. 14-4 head-to-head is pretty good for the confidence, no?
Lately I’ve been feeling the need to shoot my own commercial, “It Must Be Love: Practice Courts Edition.” Matches are filled with an atmosphere of tension and of course the battle and result are what it’s all about, but the practice courts offer such a unique opportunity to observe the process of developing the player. I’ve been to see several practice sessions, with an emphasis on Rafa and Roger, and I feel like I’ve come away with a better big-picture understanding of the boys. Last weekend and early this week they practiced on off days. At the time I wasn’t considering the impact that would have on the nature of their training sessions, but now that we’re late in the tournament it couldn’t be more clear that those off day sessions were the real deal, and now that they’re deep in the draw, they’re in preservation mode.
On his off days, Rog showed up at the site early, practiced with a “name” player (does Gimelstob still count as a name?) for 90 minutes or so, and spent much of his time playing 2-on-1. The other day he asked Justin to run him around more, try to hit winners, requested specific shots to return against (“now first serves over 120,” “now second serves way out wide,”), working up a sweat in an empty early morning center court. Today we arrived early to catch his practice session and were surprised to find it was totally different than the early days of the tourney. WAY more people crowding around to watch. He stayed on court 30 minutes, didn’t take more than 2 steps to track down anything, didn’t hardly hit a first serve the whole time (maybe at all?), then zipped up his RF jacket and headed back to the locker room. This was clearly a walk thru, not a practice session.
Rafa’s practices have definitely been more intense throughout the week, but still an obvious difference between off days and match days. Early in the week he booked sessions for 2 hours, arrived on time, and proceeded with the type of practice session he had obviously undergone countless times before. There’s a rhythm to them. Arrive happy, settle in to the chairs, arrange some water bottles, change the shirt (!), stretches with Maymo, rubber band work-out, then slow and easy groundies from the baseline. Very gradually, the intensity picks up. 20 minutes in the grunting starts. Then the running. Before you know it, the lasso forehand is in full effect, and he’s glaring at the ball like he was born to punish it. The boy works his famous ass off. Volleys, overheads, serves, and just when you fear it might be drawing to a close, he says something to his practice partner in Spanish, spins his racquet, elects to receive, and we’re into a practice set (which he promptly loses decisively, if this week is any indication). I got spoiled to this routine, and, like with Rog, was surprised when the routine changed later in the week as he worked himself into the tournament.
Before the Seppi match I skipped out of center court to watch Rafa’s practice session and found that it included less movement, no practice set, and a lot more talky-talky with Roig. I attended with a friend who is originally from Puerto Rico and happens to coach tennis and specializes in the clay game. How lucky to have him around that day. He stood by and tried to pick up as much of Roig’s instruction as he could. According to my friend, Rafa’s native language is like 2 steps away from Spanish, so it was hit and miss for him, but when I watch all I ever get is “ahora” and “si” so this was a huge bonus to have a little translation happening. Once I managed to tear myself away from my little photo peephole in the fencing*, I asked my friend what he had heard.
“They talked about how to hit the ball,” he said cautiously.
“You mean like against Seppi tonight?”
“No, just for himself, in general.”
“Like spin or flat?”
“No, more basic than that. The forehand mostly.”
“Like lasso or across the chest?”
“No… Like how to make contact with the ball. Like you would with a little kid just starting out.”
What? My friend seemed befuddled by this as well. This makes me think that when Rafa talks about how he’s always working on improving his game, he’s talking about improving at a level I hadn’t considered. This guy has probably hit a million forehands in his day, and now he’s at a Masters event being coached on how to make contact with the ball.
OK, what else did they say?
“Roig spent some time on the importance of the no-look.”
“He said Rafa shouldn’t telegraph where he’s going, especially with the pass. Give him a head fake down the line and take it cross-court.”
My friend seemed equally bewildered by this advice. I am a truly untalented player, so I am lucky to make a pass, much less incorporate a tactic like a head-fake into the shot. But my friend seemed to think that this was also beginner stuff, stuff Rafa would have learned long ago. Another example of a really basic strategy being honed here. And sure enough, watch some footage from this week and you see examples of Rafa executing the no-look. Worked on Berdych a time or two tonight for sure.
As Rafa took the court and began warm up that night, my friend remembered another tidbit he’d picked up at the practice session. In the on-court warm-up, we got to the volley part and Rafa netted his first 2 forehand volleys Seppi fed to him. Instead of “finishing on a make,” he quickly retreated and pointed up, indicating that he was ready to move on and take overheads. My friend recounted, “In practice, the forehand volley wasn’t working. At all. Roig had coached him to bend his elbow a little more. Still didn’t work, but whatever. Now he doesn’t want Seppi to realize this shot is a problem today, so he’s trying to change the subject.”
Love those practice courts. Where else do you get the context like this? I will miss them the most when I get back home (well, maybe beside the hotel bar and the elevator).
*For those hoping for some lusty Rafa bits: I was squatted in my customary peephole in the windbreaker netting at the practice court fencing for most of the practice session before Seppi. At one point, Rafa walked straight up to me (ok, to the fence, but you know), turned around, and leaned back. His famous ass landed smack dab where my face had been for the past hour. As he leaned back against the fence, it gave a little and I actually had to MOVE MY FACE BACK to avoid touching his rear end with my nose. I was of course surrounded by dozens of people who had their eyes locked on him, and saw the whole thing play out. Lots of laughter. “You gonna get a picture of that?” was the question posed from the peanut gallery around me. I tried briefly, but damn autofocus wouldn’t take a shot so close up with my long lens, and I was positively beside myself, unable to work the camera controls, and instead simply sat and stared straight ahead at it until I was too self-conscious to continue, and looked down at my lap until he moved away. I have the image of his white shorts poofing out at me through the holes in the chain link burned into my brain. Have we discussed how charmed my life has been this week?