Nadal atop the tennis world
August 17, 2008
BY GREG COUCH Sun-Times Columnist
BEIJING -- It was clear even from the way he walked out on the court, mixing long, proud steps with a little shadow boxing, while fans squealed. Before him, Fernando Gonzalez walked out to polite applause. But when Rafael Nadal traipsed out? The crowd went nuts.
Tennis is Nadal’s now. He’s a rock star at the Olympics, not only to the fans, but also to the other athletes in the Olympic Village, supposedly signing autographs for them all day long. He arrived at the finals Sunday wearing a bright red sleeveless shirt, yellow headband and wristbands, long hair flowing, muscles bulging.
He won the gold medal easily, ripping through Gonzalez 6-3, 7-6 (7-2), 6-3. He dropped to his back on the court in celebration, tried to hit a ball into the upper deck, but in his excitement hit it all the way out of the stadium, threw his drenched wristbands to the crowd.
And today, he overtakes Roger Federer in the rankings. Nadal is No. 1. After nearly 240 weeks, Federer is not.
It’s a new era for tennis, and Nadal brought it in well in Beijing. But I wonder how he’s going to handle it, how it’s going to handle him. Can he take his international popularity, build on his classic Wimbledon win over Federer, and now Olympic gold, and make it work in the U.S., too?
So I asked him if he thought there would be different pressure at No. 1 than there was at No. 2.
"Different pressure?" he said. "No, I don’t think so. For me, it doesn’t change too much from two weeks ago to right now. The pressure is the same because I will be No. 1 tomorrow, but at the same time, I want to continue to win the same titles (as) when I was No. 2."
And then came a question from a reporter from Bangladesh, asking if Nadal, at No. 1, feels more responsibility to develop the game in underdeveloped parts of the world, for instance, Bangladesh.
But no new pressure. Just be No. 1, try to win and be the tennis Messiah in Bangladesh.
"If I can help with something to Bangladesh," he said, "the people just have to tell me and it’s going to be a pleasure for me always."
Nadal has all the characteristics and qualities that Americans want in athletes: flare, athleticism, muscle, good looks, relentlessness.
Will that fly in the U.S.? I don’t know. Somehow, we just don’t relate to him, even though he’s giving us everything we seem to be asking for. Maybe it’s the language barrier _ he’s Spanish _ or that he’s too nice.
But he’s doing something we haven’t seen before in tennis, playing a different style, sort of bloodying up the court. Tennis now is hoping to have a classic rivalry between Federer and Nadal, but I think Nadal has simply blown right past him.
Whatever, Federer’s grace and fluidity, admirable as they were, don’t sell. But Nadal’s act would play a lot better it he were from the U.S.
You should have seen the young girls swoon over this guy. : inlove: Tennis needed the change. The shelf life of a tennis champion isn’t usually that long, but Federer’s went on and on.
Nadal’s hunger is still there, and it shows in his attitude, his body language.
Federer chose not to stay in the Olympic Village. He had done it in previous Olympics, and loved the experience, but no thank you. Not anymore. Too many athletes asking for autographs.
Nadal? He credited his victory to the people he met while staying in the village.
"I did some photos; I did some autographs," he said. "But always (it) was a pleasure because I did it with another sport man. That’s always a very good feeling, having a photo with another sport man like me.
"I arrived very tired after flying directly from Cincinnati. And the reason probably that I won. . .is because I had a fantastic time here enjoying a lot in the village. I enjoyed it a lot more than a normal tournament."
During Federer’s shelf life, he became packaged. His agent, IMG, tried to do something with him that his play and personality weren’t doing: Turn him into an American star beyond the confines of the tennis world. They choreographed a relationship with Tiger Woods. They fixed up Federer some, dressed him better, put him on the road for an exhibition series with Pete Sampras, lined up appearances with Bjorn Borg.
Federer was to be the icon, drawing on the past to show his role in history. The problem is that he has bought into the idea of his grand artistry. Now, his confidence is wobbly.
And if Federer wants to come back, he’s going to have to role up his sleeves and get dirty.
You don’t have to add the pizzazz to Nadal. Watching him at the Olympics was to see something much more thrilling than artistic mastery. He always seemed to be storming the court, storming the ball.
But he’s not going to sell tennis to America by himself. He needs Federer. Also, he needs an American fighting him, and James Blake is the only hope.
Nadal said he’ll continue to improve, and that the key is staying humble enough to know you’re not perfect.
We’ll see how No. 1 affect him. But I’m pretty sure he can be tennis’ Messiah in Bangladesh, anyway.