The Mallorcan Marauder. And why he rules.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

My apologies to – well, I don’t know who I should apologize to, but they have been long overdue. I was supposed to write this in the first week of February, but other unnecessary work kept me occupied – stuff like the quizzes and the endsems, the like.

A muscly, fist pumping, grunting and grinding Spaniard won the 2005 French Open at a time when the world, me included, just couldn’t have enough of the Swissmaster Roger Federer. No matter how much, too much was never enough. He was magical, he was sublime, he was winning everything and then some more. He was perfect – there weren’t any real weaknesses in his game, and over and above anything else, he never looked like he had to make himself the finest, and the best in the business or had to become the best the world has ever seen – he was born to be just that. And that’s what made him so special. If ‘poetry in motion’ is a term that could ever be applied to someone who wasn’t a Russian Ballerina, Roger on a tennis court was the perfect example.

When Rafa won his first French Open title against another lefty Mariano Puerta, the majority of us didn’t so much as bat an eyelid. My immediate reaction was, ‘Well, these clay-courters come and go. This guy might be good, but he’ll probably be unable to do much on the rest of the courts. He might fade away into sporting oblivion, for all I care’. I remember telling Puspen and the rest that.

I was justified in thinking thus. I remember so many random players who came good on clay, won the French Open (or at least came close to winning it) – Gaston Gaudio, Guillermo Coria, Albert Costa, Marcelo Rios, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Martin Verkerk, Alex Corretja, Thomas Muster etc etc. And then? Look at what these players achieved after that. They have all frittered away and, to the best of my knowledge, have chucked their rackets or are languishing at the bottom of the ATP Rankings. Why should I have thought any differently in Rafa’s case?

Come to think of it, I was furious, extremely so, when Nadal ousted Federer in the semi-finals of that tournament. I went mad; thinking that here was yet another pretender who has stopped the potential G.O.A.T. from adding the Coupe des Mousquetaires (that’s what the trophy’s called. Eek.) to his mantelpiece. Stupid Spaniard. I hated him. It wasn’t that I loved Roger too much. I just hated Nadal a little more. Anyway, better late than never. Roger would most certainly win the French Open. It was just a matter of time. His mastery would be complete.

Cut to the present day. ‘It was just a matter of time’. Heh. I’d never imagined it would take this long, and with it see the supplanting of the Fedex at the top of the rankings as well as the Wimbledon trophy being bitten on Centre Court by the same ‘stupid Spaniard’. The Aussie Open was conquered too. All this while dominating on the clay courts like none before him. Sheesh. And along the way, he’s also made me a huge fan. I’m sold.

His detractors say his game is too physical and too demanding. That his body will crumble due to the extraordinary demands he puts on it every time he goes out to play. That he is not quite the purist’s chosen one, for his game breaks a lot of established conventions. They don’t find it ‘aesthetically pleasing’ and that it is never a joy to watch him play – that is the exclusive preserve of the ‘artist’ and ‘magician’ Federer.

All this might be true, but why else do you think he’s succeeded time and again against Federer? It is precisely because of this ‘unconventional’ and ‘unaesthetic’ manner of his tennis. Nadal’s genius is just as great as Federer’s, albeit of a different sort. Nobody can beat the Fedex at his own game – that is the reason he so effortlessly dominated men’s tennis for such a long period. That is why opponents like Roddick and Hewitt get routinely thumped by him. Even though they’d been around before him and have played him so many times. It’s not as if they haven’t tried their best. They just CAN’T.

And don’t you lie saying you don’t enjoy watching Nadal on a tennis court. You may hate him all you like, but calling his game unexciting is like saying LK Advani is an eloquent and new-gen, charismatic leader who is fit to be the face of India on the world stage.

What is entertaining about watching him play?

Well, what isn’t? The lightning speed with which he darts about on the court, his dogged pursuit - and return - of every single ball the opponent sends to his half of the court, his lunging and scrabbling all the time, never giving up, that whiplashing top-spin loaded forehand, the way he wields his Babolat like a cutlass, the way he exults and fist-pumps after hitting yet another impossible winner or the way he passes the sternest of tests with the belligerence of a battle-hardened, uncompromising buccaneer, what? (OK, the repeated yanking at his shorts is). If there is one word to describe him on a tennis court, it is 'indefatigable'.

His bellicose, some would even say violent playing style is something Federer hasn’t come to terms with. Yet. This is testimony to his class and his resilience – he has steadily improved since that first French Open title, adapted himself fantastically to the other surfaces (something which so many people doubted he could do). He is probably the greatest counter-puncher the game has seen – whatever anyone throws at him, he’ll invariably find a way to send it back. Another striking facet of his game is that he doesn’t allow himself much of a margin for error. As last nights’ semi-final of the Madrid Masters against Djokovic showed, he is capable of winning matches against the best in the business even when he’s not playing at his best, his footwork is not quite up there, the timing is not coming to him or the shots look a little feeble. That, in my opinion, is what his opponents, most of all Federer, have to worry about. And speaking of his rivalry with Federer – it’s the best thing to have happened to men’s tennis since the days of Sampras-Agassi and Sampras-Rafter. Nadal always finds an extra gear, a way to raise his game several notches against him, and has prevailed with an alarming regularity. The current head-to-head is 13-6, in Rafa’s favour.

His domination over Federer came full circle in the Wimbledon Championships, 2008, where he outlasted Federer in that epic final, finally ending Federer’s 5 year reign at SW19. And his nature off the court is in direct contrast to the raging bull that we see grunting and snorting on court. It’s almost as if there is a switch that alternates him between ‘On-Court Mauler’ and ‘Off Court Captain Courteous’ modes. Despite humbling Federer on surfaces other than clay regularly, he’s always maintained that Federer is the best in history, and it is an honour for him to have been such a worthy opponent. It’s not that I like him for the depressingly kind words he has for the man who finally broke down (Aus Open ‘09) after losing yet another grand slam final to his greatest rival. I say all this because you might start liking him for these reasons!

Sure, he says all that and sincerely means everything he says. But he probably doesn’t realize he himself might be well on the way to becoming the most successful of all time. He is improving with every tournament; he’s giving absolutely nothing away to his competitors and he’s staying fit. Making such a prediction as this might be taking it a little too far, but (a Hammond-esque BUT) you never know, do you? And it’s not just about the idle speculations – he may not actually achieve the calendar Grand Slam, or win the most titles, or stay No. 1 longer than Federer, but that is not the point. The fact that he is forcing us to confront that possibility is.

I’m willing to lay any wager that if he can keep playing at the level he is now for another 4-5 years, he might become the one who replaces every other name in the record books.

If and when he does that, you can count on me rooting for him.