Fanning The Fires: Rafael Nadal Burns Hotter Than Roger Federer

antiMatterSenior Analyst ISeptember 24, 2010

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 14:  Rafael Nadal of Spain, the 2010 U.S. Open Champion is interviewed on CNN International on September 14, 2010 in New York City.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for ATP)
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

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There are moments when inspiration suddenly springs up in your mind, or ones when that very fire is rudely put out.

And as with most people who, in the marathon of life, end up as "also rans," I have suffered more of the latter than enjoyed the former.

Needless to say, I like to think more about the former, probably in an unconscious attempt to bring some sort of balance to life that is intrinsically unfair to, um, well, certain class of people who constitute the majority of this world (starts with an "l").

Case in point, a warm summer afternoon, on a clay court, playing against the captain of the university tennis team; practice drills.

Since we have just had the sun in attendance that day after a few days of heavy shower, we had started playing at noon itself with the sun baking our heads, lest the clouds should rain on our fun.

Now, he was better than me in doing a lot of things on court, but to this day I hold the belief that fitness was not one of them.

He was tiring. When he is in such a state, he has the bad habit of going for winners off rally balls. And he makes it most of the time.

I was finding my shoulders drooping more and more. And there, sure enough to add to my sorrow and to substantiate my worst assessment of myself, he was lining up that Del-Potro forehand of his.

On a clay court, there are not many things that you can do with a borrowed 85" Wilson Pro-Staff, strung with natural gut, when opponents are moonballing your single-handed backhand, other than brag that you have Pete Sampras' racquet and console yourself with that knowledge.

But this one was not a moonball, it was a clean strike flat and low over to the net, aimed for the baseline, and yes, on the backhand corner. You can't do much against those with any racquet.

As I was getting ready to run after the ball and get it after the winner would go past me, rather than attempt to touch it with the racquet and sent it far away over the seven seas, there was a breeze.

Now, the only better feeling in this world than a waft of soft refreshing breeze on your face after you have played your ass off and sweat your skin off, is a glass of lemonade (with salt) when you are in the same state.

It was soothing and it pumped some extra joules into my bloodstream, but not the kind of energy that adrenaline gives you.

Rather, an energy that calms you down; you feel invigorated, but not that gives you a sudden clarity of thought. I suddenly felt that everything's going to be all right. 

A moment of pristine clarity of thought and perception that makes your consciousness alert to every single movement around you.

An almost metaphysical vision that occurs for an instant to every blessed sports buff on earth.

I could almost see Yoda smiling at me and saying, "mmmm, feel the force you must." (Okay agreed, this is shameless exaggeration).

It all happened in a split second (now you surely don't believe me).

Inspired, I moved "a little bit the feet" in a sort of shuffle, making a move from the left half of the court towards the point where the ball would bounce but making sure to give myself some room, then taking my left foot a step diagonally backward opening up myself some space, leaned down and put the racquet face behind the point where the ball bounced off, and instinctively gave a flick to the wrist.

My opponent had moved towards the net, not so much to volley, as to call it a day, confident that I was going to try THAT again and as usual, clumsily.

But to his surprise, he found the ball travelling cross court out of his reach finding the midpoint of the right service line in the ad-court.

As I look back, I can see Roger Federer sitting near the sidelines on a chair with a notepad in his hand, and smiling at me, asking "How does THAT make you feel?" 

Now I have no idea what it looked like to others, but it was my RF moment.

The one of only two moments in my sporting life that I will probably remember forever (the other one had to do with a missed Slam Dunk... all because of a crow flying over my head and burping the wrong way, while others claimed to have not seen it; I maintain that the crow has metaphorical significance, however).

But then again, that has been a bit of my undoing as a Roger Federer fan. The moments when I am able to REALLY appreciate the phenomenon that is RF are few and far between.

Yes, I can admire what he does on court when he plays strokes that no one else can play. You could say, jolted with a bit of surprise, "that's awesome! How did he do that?"

But it is one thing to blindly admire something, which comes in part from ignorance, and a completely different thing to be able to relate with it. Like Dr. House says, it's way cooler to know.

It's a bit like reading a prose of great beauty. But such prose feels hardly as good as it is on the first read.

It gets better and better as you go over it more times, during each iteration, the meaning and connotations getting clearer.

I always feel that the tennis of Roger Federer has as its dominant factor, his game. It is the brilliance that shines through.

Though not precise or correct, it at times gives the impression of a man indulging when watching Federer is play on court.

And of course, the enjoyment Roger gets from playing must far surpass any enjoyment any fan of his might derive from watching him play, or so I would like to think.

Yes, he might be the Neo of tennis, whose forehand is the anomaly that is the negative of the sum of the imperfections of all other forehands in this world.

But then there are a lot of great men whom I hold in awe, but they exist in my head. Whatever has been said about genius, sometimes sheer brilliance does seem to be a hard thing to try to emulate.

And sometimes I wonder whether it is the work of God or that of human spirit. Of course, human spirit also would be the work of God, but then it is human tendency to consider otherwise.

Now, if you remember, there was a period of time in our little universe of tennis, after the reign of Sampras, when one man would win almost all the matches he played.

If you see a 90% winning percentage once in a while, it's fun, since not many people have done that, and such kind of dominance is awesome and it's kind of new; also because you would want to see what kind of new challenges would be thrown at this resourceful man.

But the press and the people around, gave the impression that any challenge that this man faced on the court was the challenge that he set for himself, for example to find the most beautiful version of a particular passing shot.

It was a picture of complete domination and people liked it. And they kind of made other players on tour look superfluous.

I was losing interest in following the competition and wouldn't follow news of tournaments that they wouldn't show on TV. I mean Sampras had Agassi right, Meth or not?

It was French Open 2005. Federer had started his dominance over the tennis empire.

Except for an uncharacteristically disciplined few hours from Marat Safin, no one could challenge him on the hards or the grass.

He was getting better and better on clay and he was predicted to soon break-through. Everyone else appeared to be listless.

I was leafing through a newspaper and accidentally hit the sports-page. There was a quarter-page sized photograph of a, well to borrow from the me of the past, "new kind" of player.

Pirate pants and sleeveless shirts were the least of it, though they underlined what the face told me. He was executing a two-fisted backhand.

The face was in convulsion, and one side of the mouth was drooping as if he were paralysed by his own effort. It was a picture of pain; a picture of audacity.

I had a sort of premonition that I would see something unprecedented that year in tennis. My interest was ever so mildly roused.

The picture of Rafa has not changed one bit since then. Of course the dashing apparels have been replaced with more conservative ones a la Federer.

But however hard Nike tries, Rafa will never be the alpha of the tennis world. He will always be the player in pain.

I remember watching Rafa eagerly in that French Open. Phrases like "unstoppable force," and "force of nature" sprung up in the mind. It was a good show, an electrifying show, what with all those retrievals and passes hitherto unimagined.

Each time he pounded away on the ground hurtling after a ball, it seemed it was not the clay that was taking the blows, but the opponent. No one I had seen had used defence in such an offensive way.

But once he ripped the field apart, memories of the former "clay" courters came to mind who considered the one month and a half around summer the whole tennis season.

And it seemed he would be no different. He seemed to have the same goods that these other guys had - speed, retrieval skills, and great passing shots, only he did everything better than those players, and was stronger and fitter.

"Well, a new generation clay-courter." But there was something nagging away at the bottom of the mind. Something was different about this guy.

Well, then came Wimbledon. The time of the year when the game's purists start regaining their composure, and start looking all superior again.

The clay-courters would go into hiding. And here we had a French Open champion, who was as inexperienced on grass as tennis players come.

He should surely take a holiday and go enjoy the prize money with his girlfriend. 
When you see someone doing what comes easy for him, the "effort" in it goes unnoticed.

The motions through which the player goes in the execution would be perfected through long stints of practice and muscle memory would take over even in a moment of distraction.

But when he is doing something completely new, you start to notice the mental and physical effort that goes in, partly because errors creep in and the effort to correct them are unmistakable.

So it was for Rafa at the French Open. The long drawn out rallies and the running passes did not seem out of place.

The intensity that he brought to the court seemed to be the natural intensity of a winner, or one that arises from the excitement of doing well in his first slam.

But all this gained prominence at Wimbledon and was seen in a different light where he reached the finals. There was a spring in his step sort of like that of a kid that has found a new toy to play with.

Still, how did he do it? In a technical sense, I mean. I remember discussing this with a friend. Rafa did not have a great serve, or a good return of serve.

Of course, he could run and move well on grass unlike so many others, but he did not have the strokes to go with it. It was amazing that he did what he did at the first Wimbledon without a good hold or return game.

But then that question is always asked in the background regarding Rafa's career. Even the most prominent fan of his would be thinking in the back of his mind, "how did he pull that off?"

Of course, the way he is making improvements to his game (the volley, the forehand inside out and down the line, the flat backhand cross court, the positioning on court, taking the ball early) with such a pace and consistency that it is not possible to say when he is going to peak.

If his body holds up, there maybe no end to the number of dimensions he may add to his game.

But the more important aspect is the struggle he undergoes on court and how he overcomes them, even with all these added weapons.

Rafa is a player who visibly struggles whether in his QF/SF match at Wimbledon, or his final vs Djokovic at US Open.

He is never completely superior to his opponents, and rarely pulls away from them like a Federer or a Sampras could. These matches could swing either way, which is one reason why he is such an exciting player to watch.

He gets tight when he is ahead. He starts playing defensively when attacked. He doesn't have unbound resources at his disposal and starts panicking when his opponent finds a chink in his armour (like against Roddick at IW). But that doesn't deter him.

There is that belief that the best shall be whatever, winning or losing, would be the outcome of giving one's best, more or less pulls him back into the game.

It manifests itself in the form of fist pumps, not so much at having won the point, but at having done justice to the point he played.

It also manifests itself in the way he finds that one running pass at 30-30 or that one wide spinning serve out of his opponent's reach when set-point down.

You see him playing, you cannot miss him flying in the face of adversity.

As and when he hangs up his racquet, Rafa's greatness would be etched in the minds of his fans, not by his Slam count or his Master's shields, but by his unrelenting commitment to give his best. For himself.

That single minded commitment and the simplicity that emanates from it is what makes him such an admirable character, and his strokes their quality. Rafa's game, from the way he serves to the shots he selects are visibly and inseparably interwoven with his character.

Rafa would never be the most superior tennis player. But he is in the pantheon of greats. As the last among the fittest to be there, but the first among the fighters. As a Darwinian anomaly.


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