To the tune of 'Ole Man River': Old Man Rafa, that Old Man Rafa, he must know something, but ain't saying nothing, he just keeps rolling, he keeps on rolling along!
Rafa has just won his seventh straight title at Monte Carlo— a gigantic accomplishment. Rafantastic! (to quote commentator Robbie Koenig). Only four other players in history have won more than eight Masters 1000 tournaments overall— Federer, Agassi, Sampras, and Muster. Rafa has won more times in Monte Carlo than 99% of players have in their career in Masters 1000 tournaments. [Rafa said it was waaay more difficult to win consecutively at the same tournament than to win a single grand slam tournament]
But it wasn't pretty. It wasn't elegant like last year, when he lost just 14 games the entire tournament.
Or was it?
Rafa pooped out for the 3rd time in as many tournaments (at Indian Wells and Miami, Rafa lost to Novak Djokovic in the final while showing signs of fatigue), and Rafa - well he did 'say something.' He admitted to being more tired than usual. And in his epic semi-final with Andy Murray at Monte Carlo, Rafa admitted to being dead at the end of the second set.
Rafa says that everybody is fit these days and it's usually not a matter of him being more fit and able to outlast his opponents at the end of a match. (But that's only true for the top guys – clearly Rafa can outlast lower ranked guys in the early rounds).
It may be that Murray and Djokovic—two guys who have really worked on their fitness, have gotten on a par with Rafa and he can no longer count on them failing at the end. These two guys are going to be his top rivals in the near-term, not Roger any more. And that's as it should be.
In Monte Carlo, Rafa said something surprising—which is that he started thinking about the third set as the second set wound down. I've never heard Rafa say something like that before.
So I'm starting to think—Rafa's not 22 anymore, when he would run down any ball and never give up on any set. He looks older. He's playing differently. After the tendinitis in 2009, I think his whole game changed—he had to do something to keep in the top 10, take more risk with his serve and groundstrokes, and run less.
At 18 he had nothing to lose and everything to gain by playing all out. Now he's playing for history, for his legacy, as much as being in the moment. From his body language while playing, I'm sure he's aware of the consequences of losing more than before and it takes away from the abandon with which he used to play.
And he's starting to look human. Sucking air at the end of long rallies, etc. Running out of steam in the 3rd set (makes you wonder how he's going to get through a 5th set?)
At the same time—in the Murray match those rallies were 19 minutes long! Two were 14 minutes! You can also look at it that this is the very best of clay court tennis that we've seen in a long time. I think that final with Ferrer also ranks up there as a really good clay court match—both players doing some virtuoso stuff out there. The other guys on the tour have to be aware that to take even one set off of Rafa you have to play virtuoso tennis too!
Which is Rafa's best season - the one that most represents Rafa's talent?
Andy Murray said that he trained with Rafa in Monte Carlo in the hopes of learning a few things from him. He's using Rafa as a model for how to be the best tennis player he can be. (Rafa also said that he's watching old tapes of himself to remind him how to play on the clay!) Andy's also using Rafa as a model on the toughness issue—how to play all out day in and day out, and not just pick and choose the weeks that he'll be consistent.
Rafa has said that he fears Murray most of all of his rivals.
I think when a guy is using you as a model, then bringing his own talents into the mix, then its going to be a tough row to hoe if that guy is any good at all.
So, on one hand you can sit there and say OMG! Rafa is failing at the end of matches like he never used to do (and admitting to being tired). Is he starting to get old?
But its got to be a mental struggle when your rivals are finally arriving on par with your own skills, gotten over their own tendencies to choke, and have learned to wait you out and take it to you.
Rafa will either collapse and fade away, or he will rise to this challenge and improve his own chances of beating his rivals. Which do you think it will be? (smiles).