Rafael Nadal is, by every objective measure, the best man playing tennis in the world.
He has already notched up a 29-to-3 win record on the 2009 World Tour, including one Grand Slam and two Masters trophies.
With his victory in Monte Carlo, he’s the first player to win an ATP Masters 1000 tournament in five consecutive years. He needs only three more titles to exceed Andre Agassi’s record Masters tally of 17.
Nadal’s achievements on clay move the story from outstanding to impossible: 138 wins and just four losses since the beginning of 2005.
Most staggering of all, bearing in mind the status of the world No. 2 in the tennis record books, Nadal is now 4,630 ranking points ahead of Roger Federer.
To find fault with the bullish, dynamic, and overwhelmingly dominant king of the courts is asking for trouble. So it is with some trepidation that I reveal a near-heretical opinion: Watching Nadal play tennis feels, at times, like enduring a long-haul flight.
The problem is to do with one’s perception of passing time.
A journey around the world begins in high spirits with high anticipation. It maintains one’s attention through the initial stages of passport control, boarding, eating dinner, and watching the first movie.
Then, gradually, the journey loses its novelty and interest as the hours seems to drag toward the distant destination.
So it seems when Nadal plays clay-court tennis. The match begins with a frisson of excitement. He twitches, bounces, and sprints during the warm-up phase, and his movement and shot-making generate excitement as soon as the match begins.
But then it’s as though some mighty toe has applied the brakes to the Earth’s rotation. The hours continue to tick by, but fewer points, games, and sets seem to be fitted into each sweep of the clock’s circling hands.
It seems counter-intuitive to describe Nadal’s tennis as slow when the individual actions of the man are so rapier fast.
The speed of the whip of his arm defies belief. His sprints toward the net are like an Olympic athlete bursting out of the blocks. The nimbleness of his shunts back and forth across the baseline bear comparison with the training drills of footballers.
But the style of play—and the resulting game that is imposed on his opponent in the process—appears to dull the pace of the tennis.
The main culprit is the huge parabolic trajectory he achieves on his ground strokes and his serve. These deeply placed, looping shots hang in the air just a little longer, and bounce from the court surface just a little higher, than those of other players.
This effect is magnified on the red clay
Even the fittest and most creative of players find themselves pinned behind the baseline, hurtling to wider and wider angles, able only to return in kind.
This, in turn, adds yet more time to every shot, every rally and every game. With both players two or three meters behind the baseline, hitting across the full diagonal of the court, and firing top-spun drives that clear the net by a metre or more, it can take a full three seconds for the ball to travel between racket faces.
Andy Murray in the Monte Carlo semi-final spent the better part of two sets behind his baseline, trying to outplay Nadal at his own game. Many have fallen—or rather have been driven—into the same trap, and it is a lost cause.
Only with his back to the wall, on the verge of losing the match, did Murray take the necessary offensive action, moving several steps forward and attacking Nadal’s drives on the rise rather than as they dropped.
As a result, he managed to penetrate Nadal’s backhand more effectively and move into the net more regularly. It was, of course, too late, but the tactics were noted by Novak Djokovic’s coach.
So the final was a closer affair. Djokovic was regularly beaten back beyond the baseline, but also made many assaults to a more forward position.
Djokovic attacked with a variety of drop shots and lobs to great effect. He may also have learned something from David Nalbandian’s inroads against Nadal at Indian Wells.
Nalbandian drove shots at acute diagonals and, when possible, much lower trajectories. Nadal is clearly less comfortable when he has less height to attack.
But Djokovic’s successes were achieved only through persistence and concentration against the powerful counter-play and defense of Nadal.
The toll of the physical and mental effort—drawn out over long hours—drained the energy from both Murray and Djokovic.
Of itself, the Nadal form of the game is fascinating, and the athleticism and power required to achieve it are truly impressive. With such a deadly and effective style of tennis, he has no reason to do anything other than pummel his opponent into submission with it.
But he also manages to slow down matches in a more subtle way, and impose his own rhythm on the proceedings.
He keeps umpire and opponent waiting at the net for the coin toss. He places his drink bottles with minute precision and infinite care between every end change. Then he sprints to the baseline while his opponent waits to serve—both slowing the game and giving the impression of urgency.
His service routine challenges the time regulations still further.
He adjusts his shorts and pushes the spare ball down into his pocket. He scrapes the loose debris from the baseline and carefully adjusts his hair behind both ears. He wipes his forehead, bats the ball a few times and then bounces the ball upward of 10 times in service preparation.
Finally, he rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet before pausing and serving. In contrast, Djokovic—who has the reputation for time-wasting—merely bounces the ball.
The clock does not lie. The illusion that time is passing increasingly slowly is not merely an illusion.
Not only will each shot played against Nadal last a little longer and each rally comprise more shots, the changes of end and the service routine will push the game’s time rules to the absolute limits.
If evidence is required, Djokovic’s quarter-final against Verdasco comprised 27 games and lasted two hours 19 minutes. His 26 games against Stanilas Wawrinka took under two and half hours.
His 24 games against Nadal took two hours and 44 minutes.
So here’s the dilemma for the genuine admirer of Rafael Nadal.
He has perfected a game that can wear down every opponent. He has developed the perfect physique to implement that game, and has the mental application and toughness to apply it to destruction. He is brilliant at a particular type of tennis and, on clay at least, it’s a killer.
But as a lover of tennis, one longs for something more—or rather, something different. More change of pace, more variety of spin, a greater mix of shot, a quicker rhythm.
The chief pleasure in the semi-final match came from the tennis of Murray (for half a set) and in the final from Djokovic (for half a match).
Let’s hope more players can find a way to disrupt the pace and rhythm of Nadal’s clay-court game soon, or fans might be doing a lot more clock-watching as the season stretches out to Roland Garros.