This article has originally featured on Tennis Musings.
Watching Australian Open in the United States is difficult, equally hard as watching U.S. Open in India. It is nice to have Grand Slams across the world, but it is a given that you will have a nightmare following at least one of them due to difference in time zones. I missed watching the thriller between Hewitt and Nalbandian due of some morning commitments the next day, and many other night matches at Laver (or RLA, as it is called in Australia). I had a firm willpower to watch the teenage sensation Bernard Tomic battle his funky ground strokes with the heavy top spin of Rafael Nadal, but I accidentally dozed off at around 1AM, and when I woke up, Nadal was one point away from victory. Sigh.
From what I have heard, Tomic gave quite a few punches of his own to the world No. 1 outlasting him in winners and the ace count by a healthy margin (and of course, in unforced errors as well, which ultimately made the difference). Even though Tomic claims that he loves to play the funky cat and mouse tennis reminiscent of Miloslav-the-cat Mecir and Andy Murray, he has the ability to turn the heat when situation demands—unlike the two players he reminds us of. Murray is often criticized for the lack of offense in his game, but Tomic showed the willingness to hit a heavy ball after the 6-2 blowout in the first set. And he made Nadal sweat for most part, especially in the beginning when he raced to a 4-0 love before pressure started to creep in. Will this talent help him to achieve what his predecessors Mecir and Murray (till now) have not achieved?
Of course, as Nadal himself confessed in his interview, it is a different ball game when you are 17 or 18, as you have nothing to lose, even if you lose. He stressed on his own match against Hewitt at the same venue seven years earlier when he impressed everybody at the stadium and declared himself at the future of tennis. I promptly searched for these clips, and it was a very different Nadal than what I have seen in the past five years.
—The YouTube ID of the poster is "federermagic," and there is a "bonus" at the end of the title. Nice to see some Federer fans being equally appreciative of Nadal. Read the summary of this clip by the poster to get a better picture.
—Even way back in 2004, one of his knees was taped. As he started playing, and winning, more, the pressure on his body increased, and so did the tapes on his knees, which finally crumbled in 2009 after Madrid. Since then, though, it is a completely different Rafael Nadal. He plays more efficiently, is not afraid of losing a few points, and games, towards his path to victory, and hence does not plays every point as if it is a match point. Many say that his level of play is not as spectacular as it was in 2008 and early 2009, but he is winning more too. And of course, the knees are no longer taped.
—That forehand! It was not like the one we see today. Very hard, as today, but as flat as have seen much like Del Potro. And he was not only hitting winners when he was on top of the ball, but even when the bounce was low. He was able to generate enough spin to keep the ball above the net, and yet, enough pace to not allow one of the best retrievers in the game (and at his peak), to have a sneak at that laser.
—Back then, Nadal’s technique on his forehand was adept at hitting flat. The massive follow through that goes above his head in a circular motion today, was not there. It was tailor made for hitting fast, flat forehands. And it was this same forehand, which helped him towards his first major breakthrough in the ATP—a win against the no. 1, Roger Federer, at Miami, just a couple of months later. Some time late during the year, he made a decision to add more spin to that laser and that resulted in the development of one of the greatest clay court players we have ever seen.
—This also explains why his transition from a clay court specialist to a supreme all court player was smooth. He always had that flat forehand—that aggressive game—ingrained in him. As he matured, he learned to find the right moment to pull the trigger from defense to offense. It made him a less attractive player to watch, but a much better one.
—I have not watched pre-2009 clips of Nadal for a while now. It was a welcome change to hear the expressive fist pumps and loud yells of “Vamos” once again. It was never a secret that Nadal is always booming with energy on the tennis court. The utilization of that energy has changed with time. He is still as expressive as 2004, but in a different, mature way.
—Nike had not yet spotted this teenage sensation. The fiery bandana was still there, but the sleeveless was missing. The ‘pirate’ was still an infant, but with the same luxilon strings of Babolat.