The Rome Masters Part Three: The Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal Factor
In the laid-back, take-it-in-your-stride tournament that is the Rome Masters, there is no such thing as a site plan, nor signposting to courts, nor programmes with orders of play to guide the inexperienced.
The trick is to arrive early and head for the two practice courts. Surely everything will become clear.
As if preordained, Roger Federer chose this moment to sashay onto the closer of the two courts, and I found myself, one grown woman amidst hundreds of young people and small children, crowding the fence for an unimpeded view.
It was a similar story at mid-afternoon when Federer and Yves Allegro were scheduled to play doubles. An hour to go, and the outlying court was already a chaotic mass of people, even while Lleyton Hewitt attempted to finish his singles match.
For the naturally reticent spectator, this is nightmare territory, but it required emergency action.
When in Rome, as they say…
So I pushed and trod and squeezed with the best of them to secure a perch just five rows back.
It was, it turned out, a perfect spot. The camera developed a life of its own, and the Roger and Rafa Rome experience got under way.
No Place To Hide
In practice and in play, there is no hiding place for the superstars of men’s tennis.
In the human scale of this Roman forum, it proved impossible for Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer to move without their presence being heralded by hundreds of voices.
Practice courts are in short supply, and the concrete bleachers slant up from within feet of their circumference. So when Nadal appeared with his team for a half-hour knock, the accompanying screams soon drew passing fans like worker bees guided to a rich source of honey.
He’s amiable, as always, with the noise and attention. When the knock was over, he jumped the low wire fence to sign autographs for almost 20 minutes.
He then vaulted back onto court, gathered his bags, and apologised to the guys who had begun their own warm-up.
Needless to say, they were perfectly happy. It’s hard to imagine anyone objecting to the generous Spaniard.
Calm Eye in the Centre of a Storm
When it was Federer’s turn to practise, the roar was deafening. The smirks on his team’s faces said it all: "They're here again."
The Foro Italico pounded to the shouted rhythm of “Roger, Roger, Roger.”
He waved in acknowledgment, and then drifted to the baseline as though this was entirely normal.
After so many years at the top, perhaps it is, but there was nevertheless a hint of embarrassment in the smiles he cast at teammate Yves Allegro at the far end.
It was the same when he and Allegro appeared for their doubles match. The semi-circle of concrete bleachers that sweep around the pair of outlying courts are open to anyone with any kind of ticket. So every inch of space had been packed for an hour.
But another doubles match, featuring Juan Monaco and Pablo Cuevas, was also getting underway on the adjoining court. They watched, grinning, as the roar of the crowd around them rose with Federer’s arrival.
The players on both courts sat just a meter apart in the center of the hubbub. They shook hands, chatted, and laughed, before Roger said: “You’ve got some noisy fans!”
Rafa: Back to Basics
Once upon a time, the “pirate” set the trend for sleeveless shirts.
And why not lay your credentials bare?
Those shoulders and arms put the fear of God into anyone within a court’s length of the Spaniard.
Then with his No. 1 status came a revamp of the Nadal image. Serious ranking, serious responsibility, serious look. The tee took over, much to the disappointment of many a female admirer.
But there has now been a welcome modification in the shirt region. The Rome look was sea blue, tapered to the torso, and short and tight of sleeve. No distracting stripes, just pale insets down either side to emphasise the breadth of shoulder and narrowness of waist.
The styling was, of course, designed to emphasise his already formidable physique. The shirt has been tailored down to fit a body that has bulked up to fill it.
Intimidating might be the appropriate word.
Elegance in the Sun
The final Federer/Allegro doubles match, against eventual finalists John Isner and Sam Querrey, was placed on the second show court—Pietrangeli—a delightful, low-lying, small arena, open to all, and a mini suntrap.
As the appointed start time approached, and the seats began to fill, there came an announcement, all in Italian.
Cheers went up, but the non-Italians looked blank. Only the word “Federer” was understood.
Neighbours began to seek out English-speaking Italians or Italian-speaking English. Eventually word spread that there was an award—made by whom, nobody knew—for “the most graceful and elegant player.”
No matter how appropriate the recipient, the hows, whys, and wheres remained a mystery.
The rapturously received man who made the award was also a mystery—at least until that evening, when an inside source suggested it was Nicky Pietrangeli himself.
All that said, it warranted a photo.
If it's a trophy, and it's Roger's, it must be good—though he, too, looked thoroughly bemused!
Fun in the Sun
The match itself was one of the fun events of the tournament.
The award ceremony over, and the trophy set aside on the drinks dispenser, Federer and Allegro embarked on the daunting task of containing the Querrey/Isner serves. It was only going to end one way, but the progress towards that inevitable conclusion was a joy.
There’s a camaraderie that goes with doubles play, so there were lots of whispered messages, slaps on the back, smiles, and not a few jokes.
By the end, the Swiss pair pretended not to see the bullet serves at all, and Federer began looking skywards as if to find where the bombs came from, arms raised, grins everywhere.
And the fun in the sun had a little extra ray of warmth for this British spectator who got into conversation with an English couple in the next seats.
Suddenly, the daughter asked: “Are you, by any chance, Marianne?”
It was a fellow Bleacher tennis member who put two and two together—Federer lover, Brit, alone at the tennis—and came up with the right answer.
Good to meet you, Frankie!
Short on Style: Rafa Does It Again
It’s been said many times this season. It’s even been broached by interviewers in press conferences. Where did you get the shorts, Rafa?
O.K., the new iteration may not be as outrageous as the Indian Wells brown trellis, but he continued to sport the boldest checks in sport—and that includes golf.
Not content with a big pattern, the checks did not align at the seams, nor did the pocket. Either Nike was skimping on the fabric, or they ran out of time!
Whatever the thinking, it’s time to ditch them and use the training kit.
Now that looked the business…
A Lion Ready to Pounce
Federer has the kind of all-court game that suits doubles play. A deep, outward swinging serve, a neat volley action, a killer drop shot, touch, and speedy reactions.
He was also trying out some uniquely doubles-focused moves during the Rome tournament.
Always a clever tactician, he frequently adopted the I-formation when his partner served, crouched down on the center line ready to intercept the returner’s cross-court drive.
Federer has, at the best of times, the movement, and fluidity of big cat. Ready to pounce, taut, and stretched, with eyes focused just over the net, the coiled figure was enough to draw numerous mistakes from the returners.
Long on Style: Rafa the Sophisticate
The world has become used to Rafa in Technicolor. Hot yellow, lime green, and cerise pink have all had their day in the sun.
They suit him, to be sure. His swarthy Spanish skin is the perfect foil for Mediterranean hues.
But in a vivid counterpoint to the pattern and the color of his match strip, Rafa carried off an altogether subtler look in practice.
Plain cut, plain white, storm grey, and it looked very good indeed.
Nobody Does It Better…
Talking of style, no one does it better: Federer in white and ink-dark navy exuded class from head to toe (well, maybe not quite to toe, where orange made a surprise appearance).
Everything was crisp, everything was simple, and even the neckline has now been stripped of a collar.
Less is more: It could be the Roger mantra.
Rafa Storms to Victory
Nadal had few struggles during Rome, but one came against the multi-talented and rangy Ernests Gulbis.
Nadal looked pressured, stressed, and a little non-plussed by the lights-out tennis produced by the Latvian. He cast constant anxious glances to his team, positioned several rows back.
He got tetchy with some of the line calls, and looked decidedly irritable with the turn of events that took his match through three closely-fought sets.
At the point of victory, that pent up anxiety found vent as only the Rafa volcano can. It could have been the final, judging from the leaps, the pumps, and the roars that this particular win elicited.
Who could doubt the intense passion this man has for his tennis, or the pent-up frustrations he has now been able to unleash?
Roger's Rome Farewell
Federer would have to wait until this week’s Estoril to score his first singles victory on clay in 2010.
It has, without question, been a slow start on the red grit for the world No. 1.
While the press works itself into a lather about his early exits in Indian Wells, Miami, and Rome, the man himself appears pretty relaxed about the whole thing. With something near a 3,500-point margin in the rankings, he has no need for alarm bells just yet.
But his decision to play doubles in Rome—and rumors that he may do the same in Madrid—suggests that he knows he needs to get some matches under his feet before the next big challenge of the year: defence of his Roland Garros title.
Rafa is on a roll. Roger is heading for a record number of weeks as No. 1.
So there’s quite a bit at stake in the coming month, though you’d never know it from his Rome appearance.
The Closing Signature Shot: Nadal's Forehand
Only Nadal can produce that fearsome bull-whip of a forehand to routinely tear apart his opponent’s resistance.
Pounded back to every point of the court, bouncing away at a height impossible to contain, accompanied by that contorted face and heavy groan, it’s a shot that wears down the most resilient of foes.
Many have tried to emulate it. Few have succeeded.
Rafa’s left arm, curled around his head, is the signature of the mightiest clay-courter of all, and the Champion of Rome.
This is the third and final Rome Masters piece. Part One: Traveling in Hope looks at the tournament and players. Part Two: The "Ciao" Factor is a slide show that looks at the very Italian style of the tournament.