Rafael Nadal speaks glowingly of his greatest rivals, doesn’t make excuses for his losses, and long ago learned from his uncle that better athletic ability, by itself, would not make him a better person.
These qualities aside, he’s still long been tennis’ resident punk rocker, and its leading rebel.
His forehand technique is the kind that most tennis academies try to drill out of their students. His on-court celebrations take the histrionics of Jimmy Connors to a new, even more energetic peak. And, while players had worn sleeveless shirts before, Nadal was the first tennis player whose arm circumference suggested that no sleeves could ever contain him.
Like a punker who swore by the DIY-ethic, Nadal brought a distinctive style of play, wardrobe and mentality to tennis. From 2005 to mid-2008, he couldn’t lay claim to the No. 1 ranking, but his niche was secure: Not only was he thoroughly dominant on clay, but his physical, unorthodox play attracted unconventional fans, for whom adjectives like “brutal” and “grinding” were not derogatory.
But sometimes punk rockers go gold, or even platinum. Their songs make it onto the pop charts, fans start filling arenas to see them, and smooth-talking reps from major record companies start thrusting contracts in their faces.
Faced with such offers, a punker has a pair of choices: Embrace their newfound fame and try to duplicate it on future records, or refuse to risk their credibility and alienate their core audience.
Some bands play it safe; others try to transition permanently from underground to mainstream. Choosing to “sell out” can bring great rewards even if it means sacrificing your early fans, but fail to hold the fickle mainstream audience and you may have nowhere left to go.
For Nadal, winning Wimbledon last year was his crossover hit; his first platinum record. No one could accuse him of being a niche player or a single-surface threat anymore; it made his ascendancy to No. 1 inevitable and, for a time, he had the spotlight to himself.
This brought obvious changes: The on-court celebrations were toned down, the biceps were covered and the knees revealed, and he began playing to a much wider audience.
Trying to make a punk rocker into pop star isn’t the only metaphor that fits; one could also compare it to taking a rabble-rousing activist and making her the chairman of the ruling party. In each of these cases, the establishment offers the outsider benefits they can’t have while they stay outside; all they have to give up is part of what made them special to begin with.
For a time, it actually looked like the transition would take: Nadal started this season by winning in Australia and in Indian Wells, and maintained his dominance for the first three-quarters of the clay court season. Going into Paris, he was No. 1 by a wide margin.
At the final lap the flaws in the transition were revealed: Tired from his exhausting schedule and perhaps from knowing that the target was on his back, Nadal slumped, first in Madrid and then, more shockingly, Roland Garros.
Then came his long absence from the game, which was attributable to his knees, but also, he later said, to his fear of losing “the drive.”
Nadal is finally back in action in Montreal. In his first doubles match, he showed that the time away has not dulled the action on his groundstrokes, and his straight sets win with an aging coach at his side against the team of Novak Djokovic and Dusan Vemic wasn’t too taxing for his fragile knees.
What’s more, the sleeveless shirts are back. As Nadal is no longer No. 1, does this signify a reversal in his perspective? Will he relish not being the favorite at the US Open, and that zeal translate into a better performance?
Furthermore, will he now resist overbooking, knowing that the dash for more points may be detrimental to his well-being?
These are among the many questions that will be answered soon. The first is whether his rust will be too thick to overcome compatriot David Ferrer, far from the easiest of intros back into competition.
For the long term, his disappointments this year don’t change the fact that he has won four RGs, only two short of Bjorn Borg’s record, and that he lacks only the US Open to complete a rare career Grand Slam. If Nadal is (like any real punk rocker) true to himself, rather than prioritizing ranking points or marketing dollars, both of those targets are attainable.
It will be good to have Nadal back in any form for the first time in two months. It would be better if we see Rafa the punk rocker back in action. He’s the one we came to love in the first place, and we haven’t seen him for quite awhile.