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.