I also posted this in Rafa's forum, but I know lots of people don't visit (fools - you have no idea what you are missing!!) and I wouldn't want anyone to miss out.
You know who I've been thinking about a lot lately? Rafael Nadal. I suppose this is because of the progress Novak Djokovic made over the past eight or so months, as well as the degree to which Jet Boy has been spinning his wheels over the same period.
So how big does Roger Federer's win at Wimbledon last July look now? To me, plenty big - if not as a career-shaping encounter than as a huge missed opportunity for Nadal. I'm open to the idea that Rafa hasn't been quite the same player since that loss. Certain matches stay with a player much like a lingering cough or cold sometimes remains with us so long that we forget what it's like not to have it.
To attribute Nadal's results in the second half of last season, and so far in this one, to that Wimbledon final would be presumptuous, unless Jet Boy indicated otherwise. But unlike, say, Federer's recent loss to The Djoker in Australia, there's some distance now between us and that Wimbledon final. It looms fairly large in the rear view mirror, although it's more useful as a reference points for events of the recent past than as a predictor for future ones.
Anyway, I've been thinking that Jet Boy is in a bind. A pattern has been emerging over the past few years, and it suggests that Rafa isn't as well designed to compete in an 11-month season as in a six- month one. Throw in Rafa's increasingly frequent struggle with injury and the case becomes even more persuasive. The long year presents special problems for a player whose game is nothing if not "effortful" and whose zest for combat denies him the use of cruise control.
I wrote some time ago that Nadal is a child of the sun and south, while TMF is a man of the chill and hard north. I stand by that, and believe that the actions and sensibilities of both men bear that out. We are each the sum of history, of particular times, places and antecedents, albeit subject to subversion to greater or lesser degrees - and with greater or lesser consequences.
In an earlier era still dominated by Anglo venues, values and game theory, Nadal would have been deemed a "novelty" - an exotic, volatile, idiosyncratic and unorthodox challenger who was as formidable in his natural environment as a leopard on the veld, but as lost on unfamiliar turf as that same leopard in the boreal forest. The game once was choc-a- bloc with such characters, right into the early Open era. You could call them "provincial" contenders ("provincial" really being more about surface and surroundings than specific geography; remember that for a long time European clay was considered an aberration). Of course, when the "provincial" contenders made the long trip abroad, they often floundered. So let me ask you this: if you had to cast TMF and Nadal as the city mouse and country mouse, is there any doubt over who would play who?
We resist this kind of thinking today for fear of causing offense and stereotyping. We also like to think of tennis as a "one world, one game" enterprise, dedicated to a level global playing field. This reinforces certain strivings for "fairness," never mind the big theme of the brotherhood of man. So we conveniently forget that a playing field is only level in a meaningful way if the athletes bring the same skills and mind-set to it. Of course, man certainly is more adaptive than a leopard (and you underestimate the powers of a leopard in any environment at your peril). But it's easier to understand people if you see them through the naturally imposed filters.
Hence, Rafa's clay-court game is still a clay-court game, even when it's played on grass, just as a leopard is a leopard even if it kills a stag on an Alpine peak - something of which a leopard is more than capable. The hard bits for the leopard are navigating the foreign terrain and habits of its prey, and whatever degree of instinctual confusion it experiences while so doing.
Okay, that's a pretty highfalutin' comparison. There are on-the-ground aspects to consider as well. Practically speaking, all players are subject to conditioning, which is why it's usually important for them to establish winning traditions on various surfaces or at a variety of venues early in their careers. Nadal has accomplished this, on a large scale, with his Wimbledon performances and Masters shields.
Yet you could argue that Jet Boy has achieved that mainly on the strength of his fighting spirit and exuberant athleticism; in this interpretation, those have overrun the built-in controls and determinants. In theory, Nadal should not fare nearly as well as he has on those faster surfaces, but then the New York Giants weren't supposed to win the Super Bowl. One of the main reasons we love sports is because of their potential for sedition; we love to see theory ruined and expectations blown up. It tends to reinforce our hope that anything is possible in a way that poses no threat to our equally strong conviction and hope that it is not.
One critical aspect of Nadal's nature is that the non-clay tournaments in which he does well tend to be different from the clay events in which he shines only in the particulars having the most to do with technique and strategy - areas that are of lesser importance to Nadal's genius than others. That is, he does well at events that suit him, in some temperamentally rather than purely technical way.
Nadal's performance at Wimbledon last year was impressive to me because he kept his desire and spirits up despite the rain and gloom, not because he managed to cobb together a passable game to go with his mental and emotional strengths. The further Nadal gets from the warmth of the sun, the breezes that wash over a court, and the smell of freshly watered clay, the less well he does. Come the Paris Indoors, and he's a mess of conflicting signals - never a good thing for a predator. I think he responds to environment in as significant a way as he does to surface speed, and I know that's a pretty radical notion.
The most puzzling aspect of Rafa's resume is his relatively poor performances at the sunny, warm, colorful US Open. But in this, he's similar to many other players who are essentially provincial. The American major has proven to be a formidable stumbling block for many players from outside the U.S., and often for reasons obviously having nothing to do with the surface - and everything to do with the full menu of New York's famed distractions. In fact, Roger Federer's ability to overcome the habitual European fear of the American challenge is a particularly powerful testament to his versatility and underscores the degree that he has transcended whatever provincial urges once defined him. His most valuable asset in that regard has been his cool temperament; he took measure of the event and then tailored his approach and game to ensure a good fit.
TMF is a problem-solver; Rafa is a problem-attacker.
That suggestion may ring true for those of you who are familiar with all those studies about how little boys tend to try to break through walls while little girls are more likely to navigate around them. Nadal's greatest strength, as well has his most outstanding weakness, is his boyishness. This is a lingering condition that all but defines him to many of us. It is why so many people love him, and why disliking him has always seemed to me a little like disliking a kid brother. Rafa is the Little Engine that Could, never mind that he what he "could" do is blast a tennis ball through your forehead with such force that it would leave a volleyball-sized exit wound on the back of your skull.
But for all his bellicose instincts (does anyone else spank the ball as gleefully as Jet Boy?), he continues to engage us with incredible charm and insouciance. We all know how Uncle Toni insists that Rafa not get a swelled head - that Toni makes Rafa carry his own bags, and has him sweep the court after practice. We all know that the photo ops of Nadal tend to produce images of Rafa blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, surrounded by Spanish journalists in some press room, rather shots of him with a dude all in black on one side, and a ranking fashionista on the other.
Nadal has resisted, or is impervious to, sophistication. If Federer is the game's ambassador to the world, Rafa is its poster boy; frankly, I'm amazed that nobody has come up with a comic strip character based on Nadal yet; instead of lugging around a football or a security blanket, he could drag around a tennis racket. We love TMF for his skill, we love Jet Boy for his exuberance. If there is a caveat to that, it's this: Going forward, it may be increasingly difficult for Rafa to rely on exuberance (and in him, even his stamina, strength and will seem subordinate to it) to the same degree he has so far in his career.
What got me thinking along these lines has been Djokovic's progress. Another man of northern inclinations, Djoker has matured as a player at an amazing rate. I get the sense that he's measured up his mission with a cold eye and concluded, "I can do this. This is what I need to do to make this happen." Yet when I try to come up with a comparably simple (and perhaps simplistic) formulation for Nadal, I come up only with: "I go and play my game and I fight, we see what happen, no?"
That approach is disarmingly honest and touching. And like any child - or, in this case, manchild - Nadal does "touching" very well. I'm not suggesting that Nadal would benefit from an intensive course of Tennis Technique and Strategy, 101. It's too late for that, and the elements at play here go much deeper. The boyishness of Nadal, which has always been such a great source of his appeal, may also hold him back. A comparison with Bjorn Borg seems in order here. Borg, at 16, played like he was 23, and at 25 he played like he was 23. Nadal at 16 played like he was 18, and at 21 he plays like he's 18.
Of course, you can reduce the line items on Nadal's resume to X's and O's. Sure, he could flatten out his forehand, play more from inside the court on hard courts and really force the action. But it would be naive to assume that Nadal and his team haven't thought about that; it's more likely that Nadal's game has changed so little because: a: it works, and, b: he has a temperamental disposition to play the way he does.
Hail, at some deep level, he may enjoy playing the way he does too much to bother with all the rest of it. Leave that to the "students of the game" and to those who are more inclined to calculation. This kid is having fun in a way he has not outgrown yet.
Whatever the case, Nadal is only 21, and - injury aside - he's got plenty of time to figure things out. I've always liked my youth young, if you know what I mean.