Rafael Nadal vs. Andre Agassi Was a Transition of Tennis Generations

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistSeptember 22, 2013

MONTREAL, CANADA - AUGUST 14:  Andre Agassi of the U.S. (L) and Rafael Nadal of Spain (R) pose at the net before the start of their final match at the ATP Rogers Cup Masters tennis tournament August 14, 2005 at Uniprix Stadium in Montreal, Canada.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Rafael Nadal’s recent episode of hard-court dominance culminated in winning the 2013 U.S. Open. Tennis fans know that the seeds to this success took root in 2005 during a summer showdown in Montreal’s Rogers Cup final when he went toe-to-toe with the legendary Andre Agassi.

It was a transcendent match, one of those moments in time when you witness an aging star make his determined push to hold off a rising young superstar. Given what we know now about the 19-year-old Nadal’s destiny to become one of the greatest players in the sport, the match is extra rich when evaluating his intergenerational clash with 35-year-old Agassi.

The buzz surrounding the match was filled with extraordinary excitement. Nadal was seeking his ninth title of the year. He had already dominated the clay-court season and won his first French Open title. It was merely the first brick of what would become the greatest clay-court legacy ever, but tennis fans wondered if he would be more than another red-clay specialist.

Nadal and Agassi recognized the significance of their meeting. Nadal said through Reuters, via arabnews.com, “I am very happy because I’ll play against one of the best players in history. This is the opportunity to play against one of the legends of tennis before he retires.”

Agassi was equally gracious, saying “I’m looking forward to this match. To watch him play over the last few years has been enjoyable...what he means to the game and how he carries himself.”

MONTREAL, CANADA - AUGUST 14:  Rafael Nadal of Spain hits a shot against Andre Agassi of the U.S. during the final match at the ATP Rogers Cup Masters tennis tournament August 14, 2005 at Uniprix Stadium in Montreal, Canada.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Gett
Robert Laberge/Getty Images

The match had several highlights, but also contained snapshots of their talents and careers. It was a tennis dilettante’s delight and an important link as one generation faded into the rise of another.

Agassi wore simple white shorts and a blue shirt. He was no longer a walking fashion statement, but had become more genuine in his appearance and game.

Nadal was the new young Agassi with the charisma that attracted tennis fans. His long hair and big headband was a fitting look for his competitive countenance. He wore white Capri pants and a tee shirt with cutoff sleeves. He was fascinating to watch and fiercely competitive.

Early on in the match, Nadal leads 1-0 and 30-30. Agassi controls the point from his favorite spot on the center of the baseline. Twice he hits potential winners, but each time Nadal scrambles to keep the play alive.

Finally, Agassi hits a third blast to Nadal’s forehand corner that Nadal still almost returns. It was clear Agassi would have to hit extra shots many more times, something that would torment all future opponents of Nadal.

Hitting extra tennis balls was part of Agassi’s childhood tennis development. It was also a haunting test of his resilience in shaping his future. He recalled in his autobiography, Open, that his father demanded he hit 1,000 tennis balls a day at the age of seven. Agassi explained the torment of developing this childhood talent on page 27:

I hate tennis, hate it with all my heart, and still I keep playing, keep hitting all morning, and all afternoon, because I have no choice. No matter how much I want to stop, I don’t.

I keep begging myself to stop, and I keep playing, and this gap, this contradiction between what I want to do and what I actually do, feels like the core of my life.

If Agassi was conflicted, young Nadal had shown more willingness to put himself through his Uncle Toni’s coaching regimens. It was rarely easy, but he accepted the commitment as explained in Rafa, his autobiography with John Carlin.

One summer, the preteen Nadal had lost a match. His father tried to console him pointing out the fun he had with his friends, letting him know that balance in his life was important. Nadal could only lament the loss and decided then and there that winning was more important than sacrificing extra time with more youthful fun.

It’s 1-1 and 0-15. Nadal sends a tough forehand to Agassi’s deuce corner and follows up with a swinging volley at net—a technically rebellious shot young Agassi made famous when he was playing with flowing locks of hair and garish tennis attire.

Every tennis generation inspires the next one. Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic all have studied the styles and shots of Agassi, Pete Sampras and others. They also make their own technical innovations and improvements. Nadal hits with a kind of heavy topspin that adds a whole new vertical dimension to tennis.

Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras during Arthur Ashe benefit tennis match (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)
Theo Wargo/Getty Images

There were other lessons to learn from Agassi’s generation. Players like Agassi, Sampras and Jim Courier were often alone with the demands of playing tennis. It was not easy to mature, to say the right things and act as a model spokesman. They had their growing pains.

It was only late in his career that Agassi seemed to find his peace with tennis. He has the support of his wife, tennis legend Steffi Graf. He got up for big matches and relished challenging the new young guns of tennis.

Nadal and his generation have learned to surround themselves with more supportive teams. Their tennis training flourishes with support both on and off the courts. They deal more easily with the media and understand how to be champions in an age of social and mass media.

Nadal is up 5-3. Twice Agassi cuts two big angles with his backhand that pull Nadal off the court on his forehand side. Agassi’s second backhand finds a big angle off the middle of the sideline, but it’s too short.

Nadal runs into it with his twisting banana forehand up the line—a shot that would prove to be the greatest running forehand up the line ever seen in tennis. (Sampras was the best with running cross-court forehand winners.) Nadal closes out the set at love, 6-3.

Agassi was always a terrific ball-striker, who had his greatest success under the coaching of Brad Gilbert. He learned to be more patient in moving his opponents from side to side and could dictate from the baseline with his quick reflexes. When his conditioning improved later in his career, he could be lethal.

But there was always a sense that Agassi could have been greater had he applied himself with Nadal’s kind of seriousness. Aging Agassi still dictated most of the offense in his matches.

He’s the kind of player who could have thrived with today’s improved tennis strings and slower courts. Could he have won several Grand Slam titles with draws that included Nadal, Federer and Djokovic? We’ll never know.

The second set is 4-3 Agassi and 40-40. Agassi controls the rally and tests Nadal’s backhand, sending seven straight shots at it with both forehand and backhand. Then he drills a backhand to Nadal’s forehand corner. Nadal tracks it down with incredible speed and gets back on time to lean into another backhand that finds Agassi’s backhand corner for a great winner—the point of the match.

Is Nadal the greatest retriever in tennis history? The match in 2005 showed a major difference in the defense from Nadal and Agassi. Nadal could sap the energy from his opponents by getting back every last ball.

Agassi’s return capabilities were the best of his time. He had good footwork and keen anticipation. Even so, his defensive game and retrieving were never at the level of Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray. He would need to compensate with his aggressive ball-striking.

MONTREAL, CANADA - AUGUST 14: Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates a winning point as he defeats Andre Agassi of the United States by a score of 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 during the final match at the ATP Rogers Cup Masters tennis tournament on August 14, 2005 at the Uni
Robert Laberge/Getty Images

The very next point, Agassi has Nadal on the ropes again. Nadal not only scrambles to save himself on the baseline, but picks up an Agassi volley for a passing winner. He kneels down, gets up with a fist pump and finishes with a scissors kick.

There have only been a handful of tennis champions who win with charisma. Agassi was the 90s version of image and market appeal. He carried a rock star’s appeal, as crowds swooned nearby, wanting to reach out and touch his presence and only then hoping he would deliver with sensational tennis. He could be a showman and tennis savant.

With Nadal, his striking tennis attire and stoic competitiveness struck a chord with many fans. They liked his fire, fight and stoicism, interrupted only by big-point bursts of bravado. He became the immediate counterbalance to Federer’s more graceful ease with beautiful tennis. Nadal was the unconventional pugilist who danced and hit with relentless will.

At 5-4, Agassi works Nadal’s serve to 15-30. Nadal hits a line drive that pulls Agassi off the court on his forehand side. The old man steps into the stroke and smacks a clean winner that curves into Rafa’s ad corner for a winner. He wins the next point despite a weak service return that Nadal plops into the net. The second set is his.

Was Agassi’s late career surge more attributable to better conditioning and improved commitment? Did he win his final five Grand Slams from 1999-2003 merely because the ATP field was watered down with fading veterans and inconsistent young players, most of whom would never reach their potential?

MONTREAL, CANADA - AUGUST 14:  Andre Agassi of the U.S. hits a shot against Rafael Nadal of Spain during the final match at the ATP Rogers Cup Masters tennis tournament August 14, 2005 at Uniprix Stadium in Montreal, Canada.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Gett
Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Whatever the angle, Agassi became the first man to win a career Grand Slam on all surfaces. He started this with a Wimbledon title in 1992, when the grass was faster and slicker and when big servers and talented net players had all but destroyed the possibility of a baseliner winning this coveted title.

He won two U.S. Open titles (1994, 1999), but loved Australia’s softer Rebound Ace surface where the ball bounced into his hitting zone and gave him the proper time to outmuscle his opponents. He won four titles at Melbourne.

Capturing the French Open title in 1999 ensured his immortality. He simply outhit other more natural clay-court players much in the approach used now by Djokovic.

The third set opens with Agassi now in a white shirt. The first point goes back and forth and then Nadal sends his moonball topspin to Agassi’s backhand. Agassi takes it on the rise and blasts it before it can kick up; it screams by Nadal for an astonishing winner.

If Nadal’s forehand typically chews up right-handers, there are exceptions. Djokovic most famously neutralized Nadal’s forehand because he liked the way the ball sits up high and seems to rest on a tee for his great double backhand.

Agassi is three inches shorter than Djokovic, but usually struck when the ball was rising. It took time away from his opponents and allowed him to hit in his zone from on top of the baseline. He would have presented problems for any of today’s modern champions with his aggressive strokes and ability to cut off angles.

Agassi is serving at 1-1 and 15-15. Once again, he controls the rally, and Nadal is five meters behind the baseline, returning shots that would be winners against anyone else. Somehow, he saves another corner shot, returns to the center of the court and leans into another backhand winner that finds Agassi’s ad corner. The difference between them is their legs—Rafa’s defense is trumping Agassi’s superior offense.

Some tennis critics and fans charge that tennis has become too defensive. They pine for more abbreviated rallies and more offensive variety amongst the players. The serve-and-volley champion is all but extinct. Double-fisted backhands overpower and bully any opponent who tries to build his game on touch and guile. Tennis has become more physical than ever.

MONTREAL - AUGUST 14: Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates a winning point as he goes on to defeat Andre Agassi of the United States by a score of 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 during the final match at the ATP Rogers Cup Masters tennis tournament on August 14, 2005 at the U
Robert Laberge/Getty Images

It’s the Nadal effect. For a few years, he alone stood up to Federer and found ways to attack his smooth skills and talent. It was centered upon hard work and relentless spirit. Its effects are seen in many players, especially Djokovic and Murray. Nadal has arguably done more to influence the training, conditioning and baseline grinding now commonplace in the ATP.

Nadal breaks in the third game when Agassi goes for too much with his forehand and misses the court. It’s clear that Agassi must take chances. His legs are not going to win this battle. This was vintage Nadal.

He forced his opponents to try and hit shots that resulted in more errors than they normally hit. They can’t outlast him and don’t want him to set up his forehand. Agassi is already two years too late to win this match…Nadal breaks again in the fifth game, and it’s all but over.

Nadal has become the great problem solver. He battles on wounded knees, and his time at the top could be determined by just how long his body can hold together for more peak tennis. He has adapted by shortening his rallies and diversifying his tactics.

On nytimes.com, in an article by Christopher Clarey, Wojtek Fibak, the former Polish player hired to be a coaching consultant summed up Nadal’s greatness as he watched the 2013 U.S. Open final:

During the match, the thought that kept coming to my mind was that I was watching a genius. It’s like Chopin who was born to compose music. Nadal was born to win tennis matches.

There are few champions like Agassi who combine excellent tennis talent by fighting great. The difference is Nadal combines excellent tennis with being a great fighter.

Nadal serves, Agassi hits long, and it’s over, with the final score 6-3, 4-6, 6-1. Nadal falls on his back. As they shake hands, Agassi smiles and utters his congratulation. Nadal’s future as, perhaps, tennis’ greatest player is just beginning. Past and future generations rub shoulders.

Agassi didn’t like losing, but could accept it and move on. In his autobiography, he explained that the only time he was completely broken by a loss was his 1995 U.S. Open final to Sampras. He had invested everything to be the best in the game, and it wasn’t good enough to topple his rival. It would be nearly four years before he would recover and continue winning Grand Slam titles.

Nadal refuses losing. He will not accept anything less than a Spartan-like approach to each and every point. Perhaps, this is what separates him from all other players. He’s a solid bet to double the eight majors that Agassi won. If not, he will exert every ounce of his body until he cannot play at his amazing level.

Agassi would go on one more miracle run through epic matches in the quarterfinals and semifinals of the 2005 U.S. Open. He would take one set off Federer in the final before accepting the runner-up trophy.

MONTREAL - AUGUST 14: Andre Agassi of the United States and Rafael Nadal of Spain pose for photographers after their match during the final of the Rogers Cup on August 14, 2005 at Uniprix Stadium in Montreal, Canada. Nadal defeated Agassi. (Photo by Matth
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Nadal would face a crisis with a career-threatening injury to his foot’s tarsal scaphoid bone, something he has had to train around for the past eight years. He would rebound in time for a sensational 2006 clay-court swing including his second French Open title.

He would also defeat Agassi in their only other meeting—the third round at Wimbledon. It was the last match at the All-England Club for the great Agassi.

These days Agassi is one of the countless admirers for Nadal’s epic 2013 comeback, as reported in deccanchronicle.com:

To watch him come back and do what he has done tells you a lot about his psyche, tells you a lot about how he spends time, tells you a lot about his decision making, tells you a lot about his heart, about his work ethic. To miss that kind of time and to do what he’s done, I’ve never seen it.


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