Beauty on clay

Photo by Beth Wilson

Tignor’s latest article is up and it’s an ode to the beauty that is watching Rafa on clay and how that beauty and aura alone can crush opponents. Who am I to disagree?

In regards to the way Ferrer couldn’t seem to handle being ahead on Rafa’s serve, got tight and played a few bad shots:

Nadal, given new hope, won the next two points and eight of the following 10 games.

You might say he was lucky, that Ferrer handed it to him, but it’s not that simple. Famous players create their own luck; their success shimmers darkly around them, like a force field, and extends all the way across the net and into their opponent’s head. A player’s name and reputation are part of the sport like anything else.

Man, that’s true. How often have we seen players collapse against the likes of Rafa or Federer? I love the players who don’t let those auras bother them. It’s one of the reasons I like Rafa: even when he was a young tot on the tour, he walked out onto the court every match respecting, but not fearful of, his opponents’ game no matter how low or high their ranking. It’s also why I don’t mind players who say things that others might find to be disrespectful – such as some of Soderling’s comments after last year’s Roland Garros match or Gulbis after the Rome semi. I think they are just being confident in their ability and doing their best to not let the aura of the other players influence their thinking.

(I’ll spare you the long version of the story of how I fell in love with Mats Wilander, but suffice it to say it was when he was pretty new to the tour and refused to die in a 6+ hour match against then #1 John McEnroe who had an aura that made most youngsters pee themselves at the thought of playing him.)

The Rome final ended anti-climactically, after two lengthy rain delays, under night skies, in front of a sparse crowd. But while there was a lack of tension and drama in those latter stages—Ferrer had blown his best chance and he wasn’t going to get another—there was still an opportunity to see Nadal in his element, relaxed again, moving well again, swinging from the heels again. This version of him made me think of the old question about whether he has an “ugly” game or not.

His game is unique – I’ve never thought it it as ugly.

Near the end, Nadal slid out wide and extended his arm on his forehand side just far enough to scrape a desperation slice over the net. On the next ball, he slid out in the same direction, but this time he was there a little sooner, soon enough to take a full topspin cut and curl it over the alley and just inside the sideline. With that shot, the rally was turned around, and Ferrer could do nothing more than flail the ball into the bottom of the net. The replay of the point was an isolation of Nadal. We saw him skid a long distance along the baseline and reach wide. He didn’t lose his balance, and he let himself come to a natural halt. Then we saw him do it again, this time with a completely different stroke and a much more aggressive result. Immediately after he hit the second ball, Nadal turned and was moving forward at full speed for the next shot, which never came.

That nano-second when he manages to stop his slide and change direction on the slippery clay will never cease to amaze me.

Clay highlights the particular beauty of Nadal’s game. It’s a beauty of energy, of the vitality, rather than the elegance, that can be exhibited in tennis, and which is embedded deeper in the sport’s core. It can be found in the parabolic bend of his forehand when it crosses the net and peaks in the air—few players have ever hit with his combination of high-arcing trajectory and heavy-topspin propulsion. In his accuracy with each stroke. In his point construction, which often leaves him with a single easy volley to put away at the net. In his ability to slide unimpeded over long stretches, without losing his balance, and catch up with a ball that had seemingly already passed him. In the way he enlarges the playing surface in all directions. In that little anticipatory, frenetic jump forward that he made as Ferrer was dumping the ball in the net. The desire is there in the movement.

The desire to compete and win is in every fiber of Rafa’s being – tennis is just a way of expressing it without him becoming a menace to society. That desire is palpable when he’s playing and is a huge part of what makes him exciting to watch.

20 Responses

  1. Silhouette says:

    What a great article! Thanks Miri for the link. Rafa is an absolute delight to watch on the clay!

  2. Atch2 says:

    Beautiful piece of writing Steve. You So GET Rafa.

    That replay of the point with Rafa in isolation and sliding from 1 side to the next was beautiful to behold. That and many other points show that ‘never die’ attitude in Rafa’s veins, and basic ‘make the opponent play another shot’ tactic.

    I will never tire of watching Rafa bec he is a joy to watch.

  3. patzin says:

    Thanks for the link to a fab article about the essence that is Rafa, and thanks Miri for your comments especially about this being Rafa’s outlet for his personality. I’ve thought about that myself – he is a man born to compete and this is his arena.

  4. tiemyshoe says:

    The desire to compete and win is in every fiber of Rafa’s being – tennis is just a way of expressing it without him becoming a menace to society.

    Ha, so true. If he weren’t an athlete, can you imagine what he’d be like in another job? He could be a cashier at McDonalds, and he’d be trying to sell more fries than everyone else.

    No profession could contain his intensity – and I almost think no sport other than tennis would suit him, just for the individual-against-individual battle aspect of it.

  5. Sujay says:

    I love articles like this!! the content analyses the beauty of tennis, rather than just stating the facts of a match!!! thats one reason why i search endlessly on articles describing Rafa’s rivalry with Federer…some are beautifully written!
    Please keep doing this Miri!!

  6. Fay says:

    Once again Steve brings out the beauty that is Rafa Nadal! His movement and most importantly his change of direction on the clay is what is so remarkable, I loved the “swinging from the heels again” no one does it like Rafa, for me his movement on clay and grass for that matter is a joy to behold… Thanks Miri very inspiring!

  7. aRafaelite says:

    “Clay highlights the particular beauty of Nadal’s game. It’s a beauty of energy, of the vitality…” EXACTLY! This is what captivated me about Rafa from the first time I saw him play. His energy, his vitality, his balance. He’s like the very essence of energy in motion. And it really is beautiful to watch – and not just on clay! I love that more and more people (esp the journos & commies) are starting to get this!

    • dutchgirl says:

      Same here! I fell in love with Rafa’s game when I saw him play on the clay of RG (in 2005), because of that intensity. To me, that is far more beauty than technical perfection of the shots, or elegance of a player.

  8. Maria says:

    Rafa is getting praise for the beauty & not for the beast? Wow…That IS something!

  9. nadalfan says:

    i’ve been following rafa over the years, and i have to say

    his greatest clay-court match is still that Rome final against aganst Coria.

    Back then he had the speed and aggression of shot which he doesn’t quite reach today, despite maximum effort in respect of which Nadal has never faltered).

    And although pure speculation, Coria that day got to every freaking ball and played with ridiculous aggression and in my opinion would have beaten any other player on the planet, including Federer.

    We have to make the most of watching Rafa, cos his body is deteriorating fast, like a star that burns brighter and faster than others, but as a results fades away earlier…

    • ava says:

      Um, no. Definitely no.

      Tennis is not just about lightning quick reflexes and getting to every ball. Back then that was almost all he had. He was quicker than anybody in the game before(except maybe for Borg)but geez, his shots were simply not what they are today. The serve was crap. The forehand does not have the top-spin or accuracy it has now. Same with back hand. Minimal prowess at the net. He survived merely on his super-human defence i.e. pushing the ball back into play. But that was good enough because his defence was indeed SUPERHUMAN.

      Now he’s so much more of a complete player. The serve has more variety and consistency. Same with all other aspects. His tactics have improved and he adapts much easily. Because he has made inroads in HC and grass his game is more offence-oriented now and it helps. He’s definitely less fast than he was when he was a kid. But Nadal, now, on clay is another level of magic. Not merely for chasing down seemingly unreachable balls like he did earlier but for his power of creation. To create opportunities when there are none. Be it the last-minute volley or the forehand winner just on the line, Rafael Nadal in my opinion has become the ultimate clay-courter. It has become much more than his amazing movement. Now he is an artist. In every sense of the word.

      My favourite clay court match is actually the Hamburg semi against Djokovic. Djokovic is a guy who gives Rafa constant trouble because he’s the only guy who can stay and rally with Rafa shot by shot and actually outlast him. And that day, you could see two players at their absolute best going at each other. It was also the match where Rafa was literally fighting for his #2 ranking. The result was just breath-taking. I still remember most of the points. Rafa that day personified everything said about him on clay. Be it technical shot-making or determination or sheer grit. It was all there.

      For absolute perfection there are the seven matches in RG08. Each exemplifying why Rafael Nadal is quite simply ‘King of Clay’.

  10. robert says:

    This persistent notion with some tennis purists that Federer’s playing style is somehow beautiful and Nadal’s is ugly – what a bunch of baloney. Tennis is a sport, Nadal is a supreme athlete and on court he’s supremely beautiful.

    Actually, his playing style is more beautiful than Federer’s, because his motion is all about powerful fluidity, while Federer’s is more jerky. Think of a panther versus an ostrich – both are strong and fast, but oh so different.

    • sia says:

      Not to get all woo woo … but their chinese astrological signs are: Rafa – Fire Tiger, Roger – Metal Rooster. I know Fire Tiger sounds more poetic and dangerous but in many cultures the cock is an extremely virile symbol; funny how you picked their animals so well Robert.

      ps miri that photo up above … another beautiful balancing act from Rafa.

    • aRafaelite says:

      Works for me. A black panther (aka leopard/jaguar) is the animal that most often comes to mind when I watch Rafa. Not as regal or powerfully built as a lion or tiger, but sleeker, stronger, and more graceful in his movements.

  11. Maya says:

    I’m always amazed at the degree to which Rafa can lean on clay and keep his feet beneath him. He’s so fluid it’s almost as if he were skating on ice. Fire Tiger suits him just fine. I mean how much virility does one man need.

  12. Fay says:

    Great comments Robert I too get sick of Federers artistic game etc, it find him a little too crisp and cold, and erhum… a little conceited, where Rafas game is more exciting because of his physique, his movement, there is really no one quite like him.. his energy is unmatched… He is a tad slower than when he was young but his game has changed and developed to another level since then.

    • dutchgirl says:

      As I mentioned above, grace doesn’t do it for me either. And yes, Roger’s game seems a little conceited to me too. I still remember what Roger said after Rafa won the Australian Open: the best player doesn’t necessarily win, or something like that.
      To me, the better player is the one that fights harder, that puts more intensity in his game. And that’s what Rafa does.

  13. Isabelle says:

    “Clay highlights the particular beauty of Nadal’s game.” Tignor

    I had not watched tennis in decades, when a few years ago I came across the last few games of Rafa playing on clay (I don’t even know which tournament it was) and it was love at first sight. Here was a young man whose athleticism was astounding. His passion for the game and his genuine display of emotion combinded with the motion of his body making unbelievable returns made my jaw drop. And then to put icing on the cake he fell back on the clay with total abandon when he won. I thought, god this guy is different! He isn’t this perfect little package all in white (tidy, tidy, tidy) with contained emotions, saying “all the right things” at the awards ceremony. He was covered with earth, he climbed up into the stands to share his joy with his family and team and some “royals” as I recall. I loved that he grunted with the sheer effort instead of being so proper as to not display bodily sounds! I was hooked! Then I learned what an admirable person Rafa is beyond the tennis. I have since begun the long process of learning about tennis and appreciating him and his game more and more. Finding Nadal News (thank you Miri) was such a bonus, to get to share the love of Rafa with so many others from around the world. To me, Rafa and his tennis are beautiful!

  14. ava says:

    All of Steve’s writing on Rafa is quite exemplary. For anyone not familiar with them I suggest you head to the archives and dig up the ones during Wimbledon08. It’s beautiful. Like Rafa ;)
    He’s my favourite tennis journalist.

  15. Bebe says:

    yes, so nice to read Steve’s article and astute descriptions of Rafa’s beautiful game on clay. It boggles my mind how anyone (read: Bodo) could think his game is aesthetically displeasing. Makes me want to spit, actually.