Re: •°o*Ye Olde Castle vol.30
Special Effects 05/03/2010 - 3:14 PM
What's the one weapon that all great players share? It’s not a serve. It’s not a forehand. It’s not speed or power or hand-eye coordination or even the ability to “raise their games when it counts.” What they all share is an opponent.
This is obviously true for every player, not just the champs. But no one affects the person on the other side of the net like a star, and they don’t have to lift a finger to make it happen. I remember a fellow junior who arrived late for a tournament, didn’t get a chance to look at his draw—where he would have learned that he was playing the first seed—and went out and won the first set without much trouble. One by one, every kid in the club began to make his way to the viewing area above their court to witness the potential upset. By the time we filled the seats, the match had turned around completely and the top seed would go on to win the third set at love. His opponent, the kid who ran into the club late, told me afterward that when he saw everyone watching, he remembered that the guy he was trouncing was actually really good. Naturally, he fell apart.
David Ferrer, of course, knew all about Rafael Nadal, his opponent in Rome on Sunday. He also knew, presumably, that he'd lost to him five straight times. At first, as is often the case when a player takes the court against a more accomplished opponent, Ferrer didn’t seem too worried about it. He had, as they say, nothing to lose.
Ferrer ignored his opponent right up until the point where he couldn’t keep him out of his mind anymore. That is, he ignored him until it mattered. Leading 5-4 in the first set, Ferrer went up 0-30 on Nadal’s serve. He got a look at a second serve, moved around to hit a forehand, tried to put a little more juice on it than he normally does, and drilled it in the net. OK, that’s understandable, everyone can tighten up once. On the next point, Ferrer started better and engaged Nadal in a rally, the kind of rally he’d been winning over the court of the set. Then, for no logical or tactical reason, he attempted a backhand drop shot from the baseline. After a feeble and nervous little stab, the ball fluttered harmlessly into the net. 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. Nadal has a particular mastery over his fellow Spaniards. For Roger Federer, it’s the guys from his own generation that he count on taking to the woodshed. Against Youzhny, Ljubicic, Roddick and Davydenko, to name four, Federer is a combined 54-7.
Nadal won his 17th Masters title on Sunday, tying him, at 23 years old, with Andre Agassi for the all-time record. Twelve of those titles wins come on clay. This doesn't make Nadal a specialist in the traditional, slightly derogatory sense of the word—no player can be called that who has won Wimbledon and the Australian Open. Still, from a statistical standpoint, it's true that Nadal has been especially, historically dominant on this surface. Clay produces champions—Borg, Vilas, Wilander, Courier, Bruguera, Muster, Kuerten—who are, typically for a fleeting few years, unbeatable on it. The slow, grinding, stamina- and consistency-oriented clay game minimizes unpredictability and cools off the hot hands of an underdog. The best dirtballers loom like mountaintops that have never been scaled. Nadal, despite the annual round of talk about his body breaking down—we may still be talking about it when he's winning titles at 28—is likely to loom as a towering figure on clay for longer than any of his predecessors. With six titles in Monte Carlo, five in Rome, four in Paris, and a 93-match win streak, he has already surpassed everyone other than Borg.
But let’s forget the records and the parlor games and the my-favorite-player-just-happens-to-be-better-than-your-favorite-player debates for now and look at what it’s like to watch Nadal play on his favorite surface. 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.
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.
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.
On hard courts or grass, Nadal can be just as good, and even more vicious in his attack, but he’s never as smooth and self-assured, never as complete and artistic and at his ease, the way he is on clay. On hard courts, he must go to the edge of his comfort zone; on clay he’s within himself. Maybe clay-court special-ist is the right term for Nadal, after all. There is something pretty special about watching him play on it.