A player to watch

Photo by KARIM JAAFAR/ AFP/ Getty Images

In his latest column Steve Tignor asks, “Can Rafa regain his No. 1 form?”

He starts the article talking about when Rafa was at his top form: the 08 Wimbledon final which he happened to catch by accident over the holidays.

Seeing them again made me think two things. (1) Any idea that this match ended up as a crapshoot in the dark, that it was little more than good fortune that elevated Nadal over Federer that day, is nonsense. At the end, late in the fifth set, he was both the gutsier and the smarter player. (2) Nadal is, more than any other Hall of Fame player I’ve seen, a creature of confidence.

Indeed. In that match, he was 100% confident that he could and was going to win. The end of last year? I don’t think he was sure he could win a game, much less a match, much less a final of such importance.

But confidence means even more to Nadal than it does to just about everyone else. Even his resourcefulness, his on-court intelligence and thinking process, are dependent on it. By the end of 2009, when Nadal had no belief in himself whatsoever, it wasn’t just that he’d stopped hitting the ball well. What was strange was that he wasn’t using all of his mental and strategic resources to try to turn matches around. At the final event in London, where he lost six straight sets, Nadal did little more than get to the ball and hit it back over the net. Like I said, it’s hard to think of other players of his stature whose level—whose belief, mood, even the effectiveness of his signature shots—varies so wildly.

An interesting thought and, I think, clearly puts into words what a lot of us were saying at the end of last year.

Maybe, on second thought, Nadal isn’t unique for his varying levels of confidence, but for how consistently he varies from year to year—he always goes up, he always goes down, and then, just when you wonder whether his psyche or knees are permanently fried, he always goes up again. Before 2009, Nadal’s hot streak usually started with the clay-court season, or just before it at Indian Wells, and sustained him until the dog days and hard courts of summer in North America. Last year, it started earlier, in Australia in January, but lasted about the same amount of time, until the end of May in Paris.

I have to disagree with this a bit – I think the confidence died before the end of May – or at the very least went on life-support during the Miami tournament.

Has Rafa shown any signs of his old form this week, in his two early round wins in Doha? I caught about a set of his match against Simone Bollelli, and I thought he looked OK. He stepped around a few forehands, but not as many as he does when he’s feeling good. He hit a few backhand winners, but he also hit some so poorly that he was doing shadow backhand swings after missing them, telling himself to extend through the stroke more. He was spending most of his time well behind the baseline. Overall, he seemed to be closer to late 2009 form than prime 2008 form (the orange shirt doesn’t help, either), though he showed much more determination than he did in London. After his long, involuntary mid-season ’09 break, he didn’t want to take any more time off at the end of the year. You could see against Bollelli that Nadal wants to work his way out of this slump.

And I agree – the difference in the Davis Cup and this early part of the season has seemed to be the will to improve and stick around in the match for as long as it takes things to start clicking.

We can’t know the future, but if we take the past as a guide—what else can we do?—we can only say that Nadal will reach his best form sometime in 2009, and that he’ll stand at the center of at least one Grand Slam winner’s circle. He’s been there in each of the last four seasons, a period of time in which he’s never fallen out of the Top 3. He owns winning records against virtually every player of consequence. And there are question marks surrounding the other guys near him in the rankings: Can Djokovic keep it together for two full weeks? Can Murray become more proactive? What’s Federer’s motivation now? Is del Potro ready to shoulder the expectations?

I can live with this prediction. :)

Nadal’s 2010 will depend on one long-term element and one short-term element. The long-term issue will be his knees; he’s playing a similar schedule to last season, when they betrayed him halfway into the year. The short term issue will be his ability to find that match, that moment, that shot, that tournament, the one which will allow him to find his old confidence, his old aggressiveness, and his old resourcefulness and become temporarily unbeatable again.

Let’s hope that match happens soon and with long-lasting effects.

In the meantime, tennis fans can enjoy watching him search for that moment. Nadal’s ups and downs make him, more than most other players, worth watching for the journey as much as for the end result. Where Federer, the ultimate in consistent excellence, barely lets us see him sweat, Nadal takes us for a ride with him as he plays—sometimes it’s scary, other times it’s exhilarating. The guy has the gift of transparency; few, if any, current players photograph as vividly on court. In his walk, in his face, in his eyebrows, even in his backhand, he can’t hide how he’s feeling. I’ll predict just one thing about Rafa in 2010: He’ll be a player to watch.

And we’ll definitely be watching.

32 Responses

  1. Nada H T says:

    OMG Great article ! deep analysis , and so true

    especially the ‘ JOURNEY’ part :)

    because watching RAFA is always a new experience !

    Thank you miri :)

  2. Necitas says:

    He has always been a player to watch…always exciting! It was always a good ride watching him do what he does best, tennis, regardless if he’s playing at his worst or at his best.

  3. sia says:

    Tignor’s last paragraph says it all … Rafa does take us with him when he plays … it’s irresistible.

    • mary says:

      took the words straight out of my mouth sia!!
      It’s amazing how when you look back over the previous year,Rafa’s confidence is the ‘key’ to his success.

  4. kefuoe says:

    For the most part I agree with this analysis, but I also feel that the issue of motivation also seems to come into play. Especially after that 5-match-points-saved victory against Nalbandian, I’ve felt that a healthy Nadal wins just about any match he really wants to win (maybe it’s also my penance for giving up and turning off the tv before the match was over).

    To me, it’s seemed a bit like the latter half of 2009 was a search for motivation as much as for confidence. I found that comment he made about the sort of let down he experienced after the AO to be telling. In London at the WTF’s he mentioned the importance of Davis Cup several times.

    • tiemyshoe says:

      Agree about the motivation thing. Honestly, I thought Rafa tanked the WTFs. Straight up. I know it’s verboten to associate tanking with Rafa, but as much as he’s capable of it, he didn’t really fight to win. He had his eye on DC and the off-season, and WTF just wasn’t worth pitching in all his remaining energy.

      Although he says that every tournament is important, I also think that some are more important to Rafa, and part of the reason that he wins so damn much on clay – aside from sheer skillz – is that he values every clay tournament sooo much, from Barcelona to Monte Carlo to the French. Of course, defending points is part of this, but there’s a sense that that is HIS land, so to speak. So, despite the lessons of ’09, I still hold out no hope that Rafa will 1) skip any clay tournies, or 2) “save himself” for the majors during that part of the season.

      I also agree that there was a post-AO letdown – the sense that there wasn’t anything left to fight for. What I wonder is – did seeing Federer break down at the trophy ceremony have to do with that letdown? This isn’t a ‘blame Fed’ thing, only a curiosity. Did seeing someone he admires go crashing into a (temporary) abyss of sorts kind of pull Rafa down, too? ‘Spose we’ll never know, really … until the autobiography.

      • CC says:

        tiemyshoe, I completely agree with you on the WTF. At times it felt like Rafa was hardly there in person at all.

        • tiemyshoe says:

          Yup. Although … I just realized I was talking like I know exactly what Rafa is thinking – ha! Oh, the perils of projectile psychoanalyzing. :)

          • An says:

            I gave my opinion on Rafa and the WTF before:
            Altough i don’t think he tanked it consciously…. he didn’t, for even one minute, believe he could winn it!
            His mind was on DC final all the time iff you ask me…

            So Tiemyshoe i agree too!

            • mary says:

              I may not have quite put it the way you did tiemyshoe, but I did make a mention how he really was concentrating on the DC & not WTF!!!! He just got some much needed practise in on a hardcourt.
              I believe he will come out guns blazing at the AO. Something will stir inside him. He couldn’t defend his last title at Wimby, So he’s not gonna let the AO slip through his hands without a fight. He has something to prove. Maybe that is the motivation he needs.
              We’re behind you in spirit & wishing we were underneath or on top (take your preference)in body. ;-) ;-)

      • Ch F says:

        Still, he can also save himself during matches. No unnecessary chasing down of impossible shots, even though it can be spectacular, unless it’s crucial for the outcome of the match. I think he does that already, or at least he tries to, cause he’s not naturally made to function on energy-saving mode.
        WTF was a combination of lack of confidence and energy-saving for the DC.

  5. Atch2 says:

    Always like reading what Tignor has to say, and agree with him most of the time.

    Watching Rafa play tennis is like taking the ride of your life. It has its ups and downs, but he makes it fun and memorable.

  6. faeaki7 says:

    absolutely brilliant again from Steve tignor. Love the comments Miri, couldn’t agree more.

    Tignor describes what we all experience with Rafa perfectly, he’s ups and downs that ultimate unpredictability that he brings to tennis, taking us with him on that ride of our lives. Thats excatly how I feel when I am watching Rafa, mesmerized, transfixed as to what he is going to do next and flooded with joy for him when he wins. Amazing article all round.Thankyou!

  7. Suzanne says:

    One thing I have to say, however, is that in the clips I’ve seen of the first two matches so far, his demeanor has been so mature and confident. He seems so grown up and hungry. Admittedly I’ve only seen clips, but in my gut I feel his desire to win and win big. I tend to be optomistic by nature, but also have a bit of a gift of discernment about people and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a happy Rafi. He even sent out a Facebook message saying that he’s happy (such a cutie pie). I actually think he seems more confident and “with colm” than I’ve ever seen. I hope for all our sakes, especially his, that I’m right and this is his best year EVER!

  8. tiemyshoe says:

    I love Tignor for always capturing what it is that’s so captivating about Rafa, and why he admits himself that he’s more Team Rafa than Team Fed. Purists quibble about volley technique and string technology – but little do they know the thrill of sweating through many, many epic, seemingly unwinnable matches to see triumph in the end…

    Sometimes I do wish, of course, that Rafa could dominate as Fed dominates, but then, ironically, I probably wouldn’t be a fan of his.

  9. Suzanne says:

    One thing more; I just remembered reading about how Rafa feels that he’s hitting the ball harder than ever. We all know how dangerous our boy can be when his own perception of things is that he’s doing things well…I love it when he’s happy!

  10. CC says:

    Great piece, once again! So agree with the last paragraph, of course. That’s why we all love Rafa, no?
    Then couldn’t help to notice that in the comment section of the actual article someone said that watching Rafa play is nowhere near the “orgasmic experience” of watching Roger play. “HUH!?” is my only comment to that… :D

    • tiemyshoe says:

      Well, it’s kind of fitting, ’cause with Fed fans it’s all about getting to the (easy and expected) climax, whereas Rafa-watching is more like extended foreplay? Like, by the time Fed lights up the cigarette, rolls over, and asks if it was good for you, Rafa hasn’t even gotten STARTED.

      Metaphorically speaking.

      … I’ll stop now.

      • CC says:

        Heh…I love it. And which one do we prefer? Well, we hardly need to ask!

      • Atch2 says:

        *blushes in agreement*

        • CC says:

          And on the “was it good for you?” question, Rafa will hardly need to ask either. He’ll know the answer is “oh, hell yeah!”. ;)


          • An says:

            O hell yes, would he know it!! ;)

            *all concentration for today gone…..*
            Love youre metaphores Tiemyshoe!

      • aRafaelite says:

        Irresistable. Captivating. Mesmerising. A totally addictive ride. With that delightful slow build up of tension that has you on the very edge of bliss, about to tumble… then pulls you back… then builds you up again! Very fitting analogy there CC and tiemyshoe! I hadn’t looked at it that way before (still suffering from a case of FeVer I can’t quite shake off) but spot on… the agony and ecstasy of Rafael Nadal!

        And yes, we WILL be watching, won’t we?! And hoping. And praying. And screaming – sometimes with disappointment – but more often with delight!

        • Necitas says:

          If Rafa is reading all of these, surely he will be very delighted. There’s a lot of poetry and love for him in here…:)

      • mary says:

        Keep the metaphors ‘coming’. *faints*

    • faeaki7 says:

      don’t worry CC you always get the odd Fed fan who will put Rafa down no matter what, such a shame, and I agree, there is no comparison to watching Rafa, his game is unique as is his personality.

  11. minerva1881 says:

    Great piece from Tignor again – he really has encapsulated what it is for us to watch Rafa, and then Tiemyshoe you’ve added another dimension…. am fainting & blushing along with you all!

  12. Carol says:

    tiemyshoe… ggrrr…how can I concentrate on reading SOPs *now*…. :-))

    Oh, yes, er, great piece Steve…

    (no really, it was a very interesting and insightful article and I think the thoughts will in in all our minds for this new season)

    • Karen says:

      Fabulous article,Steve describes the journey as we see it and experience it but are unable to describe anywhere near as well as he can.Wish I was as clever as that! If it wasn’t for Rafa I don’t know who I would support.No other player does it for me the way he does.Even when there’s no tourney on I can’t stop thinking about tennis and Rafa.Hope all goes well today for him. Vamos Rafa. Xxxxx

  13. Maria says:

    Great piece on Rafa from Tignor. As most of the times. Bitter-sweet though. Makes you realize you really need to learn how to live with the constant nostalgia of him showing consistency – doing well, playing great, winning constantly etc.etc. etc. On the other hand, you know that being so unpredictable out there on court makes him so enjoyable to watch. And the dilemma: do I want him to take the match in the blink of an eye, playing tennis inspired from manuals and smoothly sailing towards victory or do I just want to see him inspired and playing like nobody has dared to and, while doing so, stretching the limits of imagination for all those who are around? I wonder – if he were to watch himself while he’s playing, which of the two versions would he enjoy most? Just ramblings before the match…Troicki and Kubolt haven’t sorted out their fortunes yet….

  14. aRafaelite says:

    I love how over the last couple of years some of the male commentators and journalists have become just as fascinated (dare I say ‘fallen in love’?!) with Nadal as we have! The Fed fans I know think it’s just desperate housewives who adore Rafa, but listening to Robbie Koenig commentating in Doha and reading what Tignor and Harman and others write about him makes me realise they find him every bit as compelling and irrestistable as we do and are constantly trying to find ways to explain their own attraction! Loving the rafa-lurve!