Nadal On Clay May Be Hardest Test In Sport
The Straits Times, Singapore
21 April 2009
NADAL ON CLAY MAY BE HARDEST TEST IN SPORT
By Rohit Brijnath
Rafael Nadal can make you sweat on clay without a point being played. Because you think: how does one play a man who doesn't let up. He will err, as he did often last week, but from an opponent you want something more, weakness, a lapse in intensity, a dip in desire, laziness, anything to give hope. But on clay, against him, there is almost no hope.
OK, fine, in the past four years in the claycourt spring, he has lost. Twice in 98 matches. Once a blister the size of Kansas sits on his foot and he loses to Juan Carlos Ferrero in Rome, once he falls to exhaustion and Roger Federer at Hamburg.
But that's it. So maybe it's better to irritate the Cleveland Cavaliers at home, take on Tiger Woods in a play-off, challenge Michael Phelps to a butterfly swim, race Lewis Hamilton (in a good car) in the rain. As hope goes, there's more there.
Against Nadal, hope flees in stages.
Maybe it departs the moment he starts hitting shots like this. Novak Djokovic, playing masterfully in the Monte Carlo final, hits a brilliant forehand down the line. Djokovic stops moving, point over. Lesson for Djokovic: never stop moving against Nadal because he doesn't. Nadal hunts down the ball, flicks a forehand on the line. Now the point is over.
Maybe it starts leaking before the match itself, with the inhumane reading out of his clay resume: "In 2005, he wins Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, Roland Garros. In 2006, he wins Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, Roland Garros. In 2007, he wins Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, Roland Garros. In 2008...till a rival might understandably plead "stop, stop".
Maybe hope fades the day before the final, like Djokovic being cruelly asked: "Tomorrow is it 'Mission Impossible'?"
Nadal can win on every surface now, but clay is his personal planet. Here, he said, "you have to play with more control", "you have to play more angles", "the movement is important" and he is the perfect fit for this, a sliding geometrician, a precise, athletic bully.
Here, in his favourite position way behind the baseline, and allowed to run like an un-lassoed horse, he's so comfortable that Andy Murray calls him "the greatest clay-courter ever". Bjorn Borg admirers will understandably disagree.
So much of Nadal can be measured. We know his career winning percentage on clay (94.2 per cent) is higher than Borg's on clay (86.2 per cent), Federer's on grass (87.1 per cent) and Sampras on grass (83.4 per cent).
We know, too, about Nadal's forehand, which clears the net by two metres, then dips abruptly and kicks. One study noted his forehand generates an average of 3,200 rpm (700 rpm more than Federer's). What this means, says Leander Paes, who has played Federer, Sampras, and Nadal in doubles, "is that his cross-court forehand jumps at you, and also moves away from you, which makes it really tough if you're a right-hander".
We know also that Nadal is fast, and no stopwatch is required for the eyes are proof enough. In the third set on Sunday, a Djokovic volley dies as it crosses the net. Nadal is too far away, he should not get to the ball. He does. He should be too late to do anything with it. He isn't. He flicks it for a winner, and Djokovic looks at it and drops to his knees. How? How?
But what we can't measure is his intensity, and this is what separates him on the gritty shale, where sweat oils the hair and points are like discussions. He never eases up, he inflicts pains by his ability to wear pain, he comes at you again and again like Rocky come to tennis life.
Says Bob Brett, former Boris Becker coach: "His ability to sustain a long rally, one after the another, is remarkable. On clay it's difficult to finish points off quickly, and players can sustain (a certain quality) for a set against him but not three, not five."
Nadal doesn't throw rackets because his uncle once told him "there are a lot of people who cannot afford them" and there is about him the fervour of a man on some pure, athletic crusade.
Rivals feel this, and as Djokovic said: "You could see him at 5-1 in the third set, he played like it's 5-all. He really doesn't care about the result. He just wants to give his best every single point."
But is there hope? Yes, there always is. It's why wer buy lottery tickets and believe one day a beautiful blonde will get the plane seat next to ours. So Nadal will lose, maybe even this week. He once went 81 wins on clay, but then he fell. But always he gets up and fights.
Murray attacked and wounded him briefly last week, so did an aggressive Djokovic, and they will see some hope in this. Let them. It would be unfair to remind that the Nadal in Monte Carlo wasn't close to his best.
Djokovic after his Madrid 2009 Semi with Rafa: “Next time I’ll probably take two rackets on the match point and try to hit with both of them. It’s frustrating that when you play so well you can’t win.”