I don’t know that many people, at least in India, follow the Davis Cup. But the Finale of the 2011 edition was something else. Argentina v/s Spain. Rafael Nadal v/s Juan Martin Del Potro…Argentina’s last chance to stay in the hunt for the trophy.
You could have mistaken it for a football clash, going by the electric, supercharged atmosphere. Tennis is famously conservative when it comes to etiquette. So…between literally each point, the players had to wait a few minutes just for the ceaseless chanting of the crowd to ebb just enough to resume play. I have watched tennis since the mid 90s or so and I have never seen anything like this. That, and Rafael Nadal and Del Potro punching the air with passionate fists after every big point, depending on who won it. No bad mouthing or bad manners but a lot of passion. And that’s when I realized just what Rafael Nadal has done for tennis.
As I said in the title, I am a diehard Roger Federer fan. I…uh, can’t help it. It was watching Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf play that got me into tennis so I love the ‘classical’ style and one handed backhands and all that. Federer took this classical game to new levels in the age of power hitting and enriched tennis even more as competitors were forced to raise their own level to stop him running away with the tour. Nadal in many ways seemed to represent a contrast, getting there through sheer determination and energy and the will to compete relentlessly. I admired his killer instinct and champion qualities but not so much his tennis.
But even as Federer has left fans frustrated over the later half of his career, Nadal has made it harder and harder to play sides. It just seems stupid to begrudge him admiration for merely aesthetic reasons. Besides, what we lose sight of in talking up his determination is his phenomenal accuracy, court coverage and reading of the game.
Federer may not give the appearance of being very aggressive but make no mistake, he wants these titles badly too. So Nadal is not just about being aggressive and determined. His court craft, even if not highly elegant, is impeccable. Serve and volley freaks bemoan his being a baseliner but it is in fact his ability to retrieve drops and volleys from virtually any corner of the court that forces opponents to play him in his comfort zone, the baseline! And over the years, he has pulled out the occasional deft touches too. In the 2011 Wimbledon semifinal, he had answers for Andy Murray at the net, all the time. Even his serve, once a severe liability, has improved to the point of getting him free points from time to time.
Above all, his sheer passion is just so endearing, so winsome. I have nothing against players absorbed in the intensity of the moment or feeling too shy or awkward to express themselves through gestures. I appreciate that a Federer or a Graf were generally graceful in defeat and did not disrupt play by getting into animated arguments with officials. It is not very charitable to call players boring for basically behaving.
But Nadal doesn’t misbehave either. How many champions could you imagine giving a shoulder to lean on and cry for the vanquished, as Nadal did for Federer in the 2009 Australian Open final. Certainly not the Big Mac, for starters. But he captures the drama of the moment and his burning desire to win through the range of expressions his face passes through in the match and gestures of aggression and anger. He doesn’t just get the crowd involved, he lets them have a peek at what is really going on in a tense, high profile match. Not just stiff jaws and perspiring bodies, when Nadal is playing, you really know how big each moment is in the context of the match. And you also know just how much he loves the game.
Curiously, by watching Nadal, I can understand why some people were drawn into tennis by a McEnroe or Agassi rather than an Edberg or Sampras. Just the sight of two players playing what is decidedly not a violent or aggressive sport in front of a very quiet and civilized audience may not always be very attractive or convert people. On the other hand, it can lead to an unhealthy tendency to celebrate the bad boys and rebels without proportion.
So, I really dig that Nadal celebrates the passion of playing a great game at its highest level without demeaning his rivals or the officials or lacking grace in defeat. Let it be said yet again that Rafael Nadal is a true champion and a perfect sportsman.