vendredi 17 mai 2013
Why Rafael Nadal is the man to beat -- and not just at the French Open
Remember Bo Jackson? The 1980s and '90s superstar was an expert at every sport under the sun -- at least in Nike's popular, rose-colored-glasses TV campaign. "Bo knows tennis," John McEnroe told us, after Bo crushed an overhead into powder.
No one has ever made the same case for Rafael Nadal.
From the moment the Spaniard arrived on the scene in 2005 as a stringy-haired, pirate-garbed 18-year-old, he was tennis' Primitive Man, a hunter-gatherer with a racquet, nothing more.
The venerable tennis writer Peter Bodo dubbed him "Jet Boy." Rafa rocketed around the court with endless adolescent joy, like a tipsy teenager cruising Main Street in his father's sports car. He was tireless, brilliantly so, but he won with that tirelessness, not with skill and smarts.
Rafa's older rival, on the other hand? Roger Federer was "The Rajah" -- the tennis genius, the sport's royalty.
It was easy to see how these personas became set in stone. The 31-year-old Federer is tennis royalty; the remarkable natural variety in his game and the dedication he brings to his craft put him in an exalted place, above mere elite players. Just when we were beginning to think this was no longer the case, he bested the new best player in the world, Novak Djokovic, and then finished off Andy Murray to win Wimbledon for the seventh time.
But he didn't beat Nadal during that incredible return to glory last summer. Federer hasn't beaten the Spaniard at a Grand Slam event since 2007. That's right, it's been almost six years.
Nadal earned his Primitive Man reputation on Europe's slow red clay. The left-hander did it by running everything down, thus making his opponent boil with frustration. This retrieval ability came on top of his tennis version of the Chinese water torture. Against any right-handed player, he would do the same thing over and over again: heavy forehand to the ad corner, boom, boom, boom. He would break down his opponent's backhand with his huge topspin, and soon enough the rest of the poor guy's game would crash down along with it.
Except it never actually was as simple as that. OK, it was that simple against, say, Jose Acasuso. Because that's all it took, and Rafa loved the rhythmic monotony of the cross-court forehand ritual. But against the better players, the best players, he would employ variations on the theme. When Andre Agassi faced Nadal for the first time, in 2005, he wasn't intimidated by Rafa's massive spin. "I played lefties who have a lot of spin and like to be on offense if they can," he recalled. Andre knew what to do. He forced the action, came right at Nadal's strength, looking to take away his time, to rattle him into hitting short or making mistakes. "He went up with (his forehand) and then I would take over the point and win the point," he recalled. But then the young Spaniard did something he wasn't supposed to do: he shifted his approach. He adjusted. Inexplicably, Nadal "went higher and shorter," Agassi said, "so he would push me to commit even further. And then he would play around me up the line. I'm like, 'What the hell am I looking at here? This is different.' " The teenager beat the legend that day, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2. And he did it not on a clay court but on the legend's favorite surface, a hard court at the Canada Masters in Montreal.
Nadal would do the same thing against Federer on the Swiss' favorite surface, grass. He adjusted to the conditions and his opponent's unique skill set. He bulked up his serve; he moved closer to the baseline; he made surprise raids into the forecourt. With the serving performance of his life, Federer hung in there by his fingertips during the 2008 Wimbledon final -- until finally, inevitably, with the light fading, he lost his grip on the edge. Nadal became Wimbledon champion, something that was unthinkable back in 2005.
Nadal did it by being a smarter player than he's ever given credit for, by being a student of tennis.
Now he's facing another challenge. The 26-year-old's sore knees knocked him off the tour for the second half of 2012. They will never be the same again -- which means Rafa will never be the same player again. At the same time, Djokovic has grown and matured into a truly great player. He has shown he can even beat Nadal on clay. He can exploit vulnerabilities that no one knew Nadal had on the red dirt.
No one except Rafa, that is.
"I need a little bit more with my backhand; I need a little bit more with my movements," he said earlier this week. "I need to keep finding a little bit more calm, more confidence on my movements."
His explanations of his game and where it needs to be are clipped, at least in English. But it's clear, from listening to him as well as watching him, that he's not just some mindless grinder. Ever since his comeback began in February, he's been recalibrating, figuring out new ways forward. He understands that Djokovic has the best two-handed backhand since Jimmy Connors, perhaps the best ever. He understands that he has to shift his approach, make some ever-so-subtle adjustments, to stay on top of the clay-court mountain.
Some fans and odds-makers believe Djokovic can win the calendar-year Grand Slam this season. Indeed he could. Others are convinced Federer has another Wimbledon title in him, which he might. A few even insist this will be the summer of Andy Murray. Hey, anything's possible. But it would be foolish to count Nadal out -- not just at Roland Garros but at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open as well. Because no matter what condition his knees are in, this much should be clear by now: Rafa knows tennis.