Do you hear the whoosh of the wind, the cracking creek of the stadium? Can you feel the upcoming wham of the collision?
It is too late to dodge any of these, says the Spaniard.
In this vampirish tale of the two legends, Ilie Năstase, the character of ill and nasty, may have been expunged from the lonesome underworld of tennis.
Yet, in the absence, Romanian folklore of vampires lurks above. The all-black, sparsely doted with neon yellow, outfit in the Wolf’s body is ominous: He went pink to pink last month and now he is going black to black with the Vampire at the Open.
The scene of the last battle is set under no sunlight on the asphalt, Vampire’s favorite time of day and its natural habitat. Further down, by Meadow Lake, owls are hooting, twit twoo, hoo hoo. And from outside the Ashe, honk honk of locomotives chime in. Humans and non-humans, the escapees from Queens Zoo, have thronged into the Coliseum with their usual oo-ooh a-aahs, oo-ooh a-aahs, and other celebratory screams.
The moon stands still for a second above when the coin is tossed below. Both canine-toothed creatures look into their eyes and they are restless to pull out their weapons, growling in hunger for each other’s blood.
Let me go back in time and talk about the lead-up events, before fast-forwarding to the inevitable future.
The history between the two favors the Wolf. He has ousted the ballerina everywhere he has met, and the last bastion is no longer safe. With Rafa’s easy route of the draw, the time has arrived.
The Swiss saw this coming: "[Despite the surface] if the draw goes his way, he'll be in the finals and have a crack to the title, too. He knows how to win slams. He's won all the other ones."
The thought of facing the Wolf sends chills to the Vampire’s bones: "I think we get excited when we play each other, but I don't think we miss each other when we don't play. We've had that many matches against each other, and the matches are tough and grueling on both of us. There's a huge hype around it, which is also a bit exhausting at times."
Then, suddenly realizing he has sounded soft, the Vampire throws a corrective line, "Look, I hope I can play him at the Open."
Yet, Federer saw the signs in Nadal: "[I knew] he was going to improve also on the faster surfaces because right off the bat he beat me in Miami. He already had signs to show that he was also a capable fast-court player."
Pardon my brief diversion into the stats. Since that '04 Miami, Nadal has won nine of his 41 battles in title matches on hard court, including the '09 Australian Open, five Masters Series, and '08 Olympics. That record already makes a strong case for Nadal's hard-court pedigree.
With two Grand Slams, three Masters on clay, and return to No. 1 ranking by the widest margin against Federer, the year 2010 may have been the second best of Nadal's career, and, with that, the responsibility to not let his fans down.
But his last title on hard court came at the '09 Indian Wells, almost a year and half ago. At the beginning of this year, he reached his only final at Doha, losing to Davydenko. After going down in straight sets at the Australian Open in February, he lost to Murray again in straight sets at the Canada Masters 12 days ago.
But the lead-up results do not mean much in the Grand Slam scheme of Nadal’s: "You can be playing bad here [Canada and Cincinnati] and arrive there [New York] and start the tournament slow, [get] better and better every day, and you can finish playing your best tennis and win.”
If the Vampire and his worshippers are praying for the Wolf’s knee injuries or other physical maladies, your wish is denied for this year: "I am perfect mentally. ... Physically I'm perfect."
If you are thinking that the soft Wilson ball of the U.S. Open is harder for the Wolf to generate topspin, it has found compensation in more powerful serve. He “won the Olympics [and Beijing 500] with this ball.”
To bring Nasty into the cultural context of the rivalry, imagine the ghost of Romanian wolf entering the Spaniard. Then, you would have Rafa repeating Federer verbatim, “No. 2, No. 3—it doesn’t matter much. It’s No. 1 that matters.”
A more Năstase-like response would be: “I permanently reside in your head and you are simply afraid of playing me. I thrive on clay but how would you lose to me at the AO and Wimby?”
Nasty aside, the plan was set in motion long ago and execution shows a certain pattern: Nadal’s steady progress at the Australian Open nearly parallels his USO project, advancing a round further each year. Semifinals last two years means the final this year.
The Swiss is aware of this: "[...] he’s won the Australian Open already; he's been multiple times in the semis of the U.S. Open, so that is the stuff that he does now quite comfortably."
Nadal fans believe that the brute of nature is unbeatable in the final. I concur that even if he might not produce Kantian sublime beauty, his merciless defensive aggression and unyielding mental frame are huge pluses for reaching the U.S. Open final.
To fast-forward to the court, here is what happened on September 12, the judgment day:
The Wolf rendered the Vampire’s chip and charge shots with swift and powerful angled passes. The Vampire’s reliable forehand was countered shot by shot, by running him from corner to corner and pinioning him behind the baseline.
With extreme investment, durability, urgency, expediency and mental fortitude, Rafa, once again, dismantled the Swiss choreography, rhythm, ballet dancing and efficiency. More appropriately, death by anaphylactic reaction or haemorrhagic shock was the sure outcome when the Babolat’s forehand ceaselessly hacked at the Wilson’s backhand.
The Wolf continued asphyxiating his arch-rival until the last few thump-thumps of the Swiss heart were audible in the suddenly pin-drop silence of the Coliseum.
The Wolf’s nastiness is not about verbalization but thrashing the opponent mercilessly, sucking blood out, and leaving him lifeless. The last missing castle is set in place where it properly belongs, in the fathomless dungeon of the Mediterranean Wolf’s Career Slam.
The last words of pain reverberated across the sky, with the body parts floating in flames: “Aarghh,” followed by a flash of an uncanny smile, perhaps a tribute to the conquests of many unsurpassable summits. The “Aarghh” had the late modernist sound of DA, the thunder in Elliot’s Waste Land: Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata (give, sympathize, control).
An honorable burial of the dead was observed, highlighted by the placement of a “Wolf-Conquers” inscribed Babolat racket on the magnesium vault containing the Vampire’s body splinters.
With that, a new era of the sublime beauty of the brute is formally initiated. I wonder how Nasty would feel about it, who once said in the 1970s, "What is behave? Every player like this, not only me, babee. We all nervous, all temperament, all crazy."
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