Rafael Nadal as secular experience

 

I‘ve been a lover of tennis pretty much my whole life. For me it combines the excitement of direct confrontation – the psychological, individualistic and gladiatorial aspects of boxing – with the hand-eye co-ordination, whole-body athleticism, dexterity and skills of the best of any games involving a ball. My earliest defining tennis memory was listening on the radio to Boris Becker winning Wimbledon for the first time in 1985 when my family was on the way back from a camping trip in Dartmoor. I remember sitting on a rug amongst the dry, floral-smelling, sun-blasted heather as Becker defeated Kevin Curren in four sets. Since then I have followed the game almost constantly. Yet in terms of being a fan of a particular player, or being drawn into the (essentially silly) debate over who is the greatest male tennis player of all time (or – to use an acronym I have always hated – the GOAT), I have always stayed well clear. On the odd occasion that I do look at reader comments when I’m reading online articles, all I generally see is a lot of tedious, tendentious polemics about why Roger or Rafa or Nole or Andy is so great – the first sure sign of a tennis superfan is that they always call their idol by their first name or an affectionate nickname. Just to be clear: I will use the conventional system of writing out names in full on first mention, then surnames afterwards.

 

For all the superficial fandom around tennis, the best thing ever written that supports the idea of Federer being the greatest of all time, is also one of the deepest and best written pieces that you’ll ever read about sport. David Foster Wallace’s Roger Federer as Religious Experience was written in 2006 – while Federer was still rising to the zenith of his incredible career. The reason that I wanted to write this piece is because, for all of his undoubted greatness, the tennis era that is at last reaching its close, has not just been the era of Federer – it has been, primarily, the era of Federer and Nadal (with Novak Djokovic not far behind and deserving of an honourable mention) – and I believe that Nadal deserves an essay that is a counterpoint to Foster Wallace’s. One of the inspiring things that I have learned from Nadal is to persevere, even when the odds are against you. It strikes me that I most likely cannot emulate Foster Wallace – my essay will be a poor relation to his – but I owe it to Nadal to try.  This is where he and Federer are similar – they both excel in the thing that I believe most people really love to watch sport for: the art of the impossible. In short, when we watch sport we are looking for miracles, and this is what Foster Wallace was writing about Roger Federer – the religious experience he mentions in the title of his essay is of witnessing the creator of something miraculous; a magician who with little apparent effort does things with a tennis racquet that were unthinkable in the exact moment that he hit the ball. I guess that’s something that all writers want to try and pull off too – that quality of putting something on a page that was unimaginable to a reader before they read it and wondrous after they had done so. I am not interested in arguing the toss over who is the greatest player of all time. Instead I want to explore the opposite of ‘religious experience’ – if a gift has not been given to you by the gods, then how do you go about inventing something out of the debris that lies around in a godless universe? The first answer to that is that you rely on industry over faith – and that can be a blueprint for life as well as for tennis.

 

People have inevitably often compared Nadal and Federer to one another; and a common framing of the two players’ styles is to juxtapose Federer’s seemingly effortless grace and beauty with Nadal’s very palpable effort, power and intensity. Roger Federer glides noiselessly across the court like a ballet dancer and barely seems to sweat. Nadal by contrast is – and it will seem like a charmless and uncomplimentary description, but I think he would understand – a ‘grunt’ – the noun used by American soldiers in the Vietnam war to describe an infantryman. He is a soldier. He goes on the court to fight and he will not stop fighting until all hope has disappeared. As the modern cliché goes, he leaves everything out there. He literally grunts with effort as he pounds his heavily spun forehands into his opponent’s side of the court.  Foster Wallace casts Nadal as ‘war’ and Federer as ‘love’. The battle between them is brutality versus beauty. Many would argue that there is no genius in Nadal’s brutality – just a lot of physical effort, fitness, resilience and determination. But for anyone who really studies the game, they know that Nadal is much more than this – in fact, for me, he has altered the definition of what genius can be – and effortlessness has nothing to do with it.

 

Nadal is a pugilistic competitor; all muscle and bustle and intensity – his backhand is a hard, compact right hook; his forehand a scything left uppercut. Yet unlike so many of the trash-talking boxers of the modern-day, Nadal’s intensity is concentrated on his opponent only in an abstract way – as well as winning on his own terms, his aim is to break down his opponent’s game and their physical ability to play their game, but there is almost never any direct psychological confrontation – eye-balling, sledging and the like. That is a strange apparent contradiction in Nadal’s character. In match-play he is perhaps one of the fiercest competitors in any sport and of any era. But as soon as each game has finished he seems quiet, polite and unassuming. Off-court he is charming and boyish, even a little meek and naïve-seeming. At those sometimes awkward meetings at the net in a changeover between games, he always lets his opponent cross in front of him. It is almost as though, in order to balance out the ferocity and intensity of his match play, he needs to be studiedly polite and calm when he is not playing.

 

His competitiveness and his refusal to give in, allied with his shot-making ability and athleticism, means that he ranks as one of the greatest defensive players of all time, if not the greatest. I have lost count of the number of times I have watched a Rafael Nadal match and felt in awe of his ability to rescue a point from an apparently hopeless situation. He wins points that he has no right to win; points that were running in his opponent’s favour right up until the moment Nadal hit the final shot of the rally and changed everything. There are many other great defensive players of recent years – like Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Leyton Hewitt and Gael Monfils – but none have the same consistency and ability to switch from defense into attack so quickly and decisively. I could use any number of points as an example but a few stand out in my mind. Like against his compatriot Fernando Verdasco in the Australian Open in 2009.

Nadal serves pretty much in the centre of the service box to left-hander Verdasco’s backhand and gets a hard bunt back that sends his momentum backwards. He whips a forehand back to Verdasco who in turn absolutely pummels one of his prodigious forehands right down the middle, forcing Nadal to practically kneel on the floor and scrape a backhand reply. Nadal spins 360 degrees clockwise to prepare himself for Verdasco’s next shot – another booming forehand that lands halfway between the service box and the baseline to Nadal’s right hand side. Nadal hits a weakish mid-court backhand, allowing Verdasco to hit deep again but onto Nadal’s forehand side this time. Nadal’s pressured topspin reply is far too short, landing closer to the net than the service line, and it allows Verdasco to storm toward the net and land what looks like the killer blow – he absolutely leathers a topspin forehand deep and hard to Nadal’s backhand side. Miraculously, Nadal, who sprints across the baseline and lunges for the ball, somehow manages to get it back, forcing Verdasco to play yet another shot – and it is one of the most extraordinary shots I have ever seen – a sliced forehand smash hit about as hard as a tennis ball can be hit and that rises no more than a few centimetres above the ground. In the clip on YouTube you can hear a gasp from one of the commentators which seems to say ‘not even Nadal is going to be able to do anything with that.’ But, unbelievably, Nadal scrambles it back over the net again with a dexterous backhand flick on the run that seems almost casual but which requires absolutely ridiculous, machine-like timing, and then, when Verdasco hits his next shot deep to Nadal’s forehand and stands at the net, Nadal strikes a crisp half-volley cross-court winner as though it was the simplest thing in the world and almost immediately raises his arm to the sky to take the acclaim of the crowd. They love it. This is what they have come to see. He should not have won that point; Verdasco played brilliant attacking tennis and didn’t make anything that could remotely be called a mistake. In hindsight you might think that he could have played his final shot to the other side of the court – but at the same time he must have been stunned that it had come back to him at all.

In the same match, Verdasco plays another brilliant shot in another rally which he seemed to have almost total control of. The shot is a vicious, sliced backhand which lands virtually on the sideline and has so much sidespin that it jags sharply outwards and stays wickedly low. Undeterred by the brilliance of the shot, Nadal sprints from the other side of the court and rasps a whipped forehand down the line, past the stranded Verdasco, who stands with a bemused, disbelieving smile: ‘How did he do that?’ his smile seems to ask.

Against Ryan Harrison in the US Open in 2013 Nadal puts up a weak lob and Harrison, moving on to a high-bouncing ball that has only just landed on his side of the net, smashes the ball into Nadal’s forehand corner. The point looks finished but Nadal sprints at least six or seven metres beyond the edge of the court, and as far back as he can go, leaps and counter-smashes into the open court around the outside of the net post – a swerving, banana shot of a winner. The commentator on the YouTube clip says, in awe: ‘He can do anything with a forehand.’

 

Of course it is entertaining and inspiring to watch Roger Federer’s seemingly effortless brilliance, but I always find it strangely emotional watching these points where Nadal is apparently reeling and has no chance, yet somehow manages to turn the situation on its head. Something inside me switches when I watch him convert doughty defence into devastating attack – it’s like Mohammed Ali in Kinshasa, swinging on the ropes as George Foreman pounds his body and head, only to come off the ropes and deliver the knockout blow. They’re goosebump moments – it feels like the art of the impossible. I’m going to confess something here – sometimes the beginnings of tears even well up in the corner of my eyes. The feeling doesn’t last for long, but in that moment, Nadal has taught me a kind of beautiful lesson. He has demonstrated the triumph of perseverance, the potential rewards of not giving up, and the value of fighting when everything seems lost. I’ve taken spiritual succor from that in my life.

 

Nadal is not always the outsider in a rally, though – he is often the bully as well, something that is perhaps suggested in an odd facial tic of his – the Nadal sneer, which, strange though it may sound, is not an entirely unattractive thing. I think it is not entirely unattractive because he is not sneering at his opponent; my feeling is that it is a look of almost carnal pleasure in his own game when he is playing his most ruthless and uncompromising tennis, and when his competitiveness has reached a kind of fever pitch.   At this highest level of intensity he often does tend to bully his opponents and can run through matches very quickly, especially when he is dictating points with his phenomenal forehand, which has been a – possibly the – major factor in his overall success as a tennis player. It is a remarkable stroke, quite unlike any other in the game. Many great forehands (like that of Thomas Berdych or Juan Martin del Potro) are flat and hard; some are hard and precisely controlled with enough topspin to make for perfect placement (like that of Roger Federer), but Nadal’s greatest forehand weapon is the extreme spin – and consequent bounce – that he uniquely manages to generate with an extreme grip, open stance and wristy, whipping action, which in its most extreme variation ends with a lasso-like twirl above his head (usually called ‘the buggy whip’). His forehand bounces so high because it is revolving at a faster rate than any other tennis ball hit by anybody else, probably in the history of the game, averaging somewhere around 3,500 rpm, but sometimes getting up to 5,000 rpm. That is why Nadal’s grunts of effort sometimes look misleading – the ball does not always seem to travel quite as fast as you might expect, but velocity is only part of what Nadal imparts when he hits a ball on his forehand side – the main thing is the spin. When he is able to place these fast-spinning topspin forehands deep in his opponents’ half of the court, it is very difficult for his opponent to counter effectively. Commentators often talk about Nadal’s ‘weight of shot’, which sounds like it might not really be a thing – but it actually is – the difficulty of hitting a heavily spinning ball is far harder than hitting a ball with no spin. You can test this yourself by throwing a tennis ball against a wall with different types of spin. You will notice that if you impart extreme topspin on the ball with your fingers, it will angle sharply downwards on impact. Imagine that the wall is a racquet and you realise that it is necessary to compensate for that spin, which would otherwise tend to drag the ball towards the ground. Nadal’s opponents have to contend with this and the many variations of the degree of topspin he imparts.  It is probably the biggest single factor in his dominant head-to-head record (23-15) against Roger Federer who has historically struggled to cope with Nadal’s high-bouncing forehands on his own backhand side. (Federer has recently been more successful in negating this, though, and has won the last four encounters between the two men.) In general, though, even if his opponents are struggling with his forehand, Nadal does not tend to go in for the quick kill – he is better at grinding an opponent in to the dust by maneuvering them around the court, using his groundstrokes to gain incremental advantages with each shot, and tiring his opponent out by moving them around until he can either force an indirect error, or hit a shot that is impossible for his opponent to return. This is the classical clay court style and one of the reasons that Nadal is so brilliantly suited to clay more than any other surface.

 

There is not a weak part of Rafael Nadal’s game – he has a strong and reliable serve, an epic forehand, a punchy backhand, great recovery shots, a wonderful volley and one of the best smashes in the game. His athletic prowess and power is astonishing, his competitiveness and commitment are practically unparalleled and his reading of the game is invariably smart.  But he is more vulnerable on some surfaces than others and his challenge at Wimbledon in the later part of his career has faded spectacularly – since last winning the championship in 2010 and losing in the final in 2011, he has lost in the second round, first round, fourth round, second round and fourth round. In 2016 he didn’t compete at all due to injury. On grass, a quick, slick surface with skiddy bounces, the ball tends to stay lower, the points are much quicker and there is not the same opportunity to manoeuvre opponents around the court. Nadal tends to sit very deep on returns and although this strategy works well on clay, it is far less effective in faster surfaces. His own forehand is also less effective because the bounce is so much lower – whereas on clay and hard courts the Nadal forehand rears up to startling heights; on the grass it instead falls into players’ ordinary hitting zones, probably making it much easier to hit than on other courts. Recurrent tendinitis in his knees have not helped either – as being able to bend the knees to get down to low balls is one of the essential skills for a grass-court baseliner.

 

But on clay, Nadal has reigned supreme for more than a decade, hence one of his most popular nicknames – The King of Clay. He has won the French Open ten times (‘la decima’) – beating Federer four times in the final and with an overall win-loss record between 2005 and 2017 of 79-2. In three of those victories he went the whole tournament without losing a single set (2008, 2010, 2017).  His overall win-loss percentage on clay is 91.7 per cent – better than Federer’s record on grass (87.2 per cent) and Djokovic’s on hard courts (84.2 per cent).  He has also won two of the other most important clay court tournaments ten times each – the Monte Carlo Open and the Barcelona Open. He has won the Rome Masters seven times and the Madrid Open five times. With fifty-three career titles on clay he is the most successful player of any era on the surface and there is a strong case for saying that he is the strongest ever player on a single surface.

 

As well as the ten French opens, he has also been one of only five players (and the youngest of them all) to achieve the career grand slam of all the major championships at the age of 24. His overall record of sixteen grand slam titles places him second in the all-time list, just three behind his great rival Federer.

 

And yet… and yet… Nadal is not for everyone. People get irritated by his meticulous routines –  the picking his shorts out of his bottom, the micro-adjustments of his hair as he stands waiting to serve, his precise lining up of his drinks bottles, the way he scrapes the lines with his feet on the clay court. They are annoyed by the time he takes between points, which is often seen as a form of gamesmanship, designed to wrest the psychological initiative away from his opponent and break any momentum they may have been building. Perhaps more serious is his propensity for taking medical timeouts and toilet breaks at crucial moments in a match when he is losing, for instance in the Australian Open final against Stan Wawrinka in 2014. And there have also been some unsubstantiated rumours of doping, rumours that Nadal has strenuously denied. In 2016, an ex-sports minister in the French government, Roselyne Bachelot, alleged on French television that Nadal feigned injury in 2012, when he missed the final six months of the season because of knee problems, in order to hide a positive drug test. Nadal is suing Bachelot and the case is ongoing.

 

Then there is the emotional attachment to the player – for many, as Foster Wallace argued – Federer embodies beauty with all the grace and elegance that goes with it. Tennis may have lots of power in it, but connoisseurs of the game also want an aesthetic experience when they are watching, rather than just a lot of bang-bang-wallop-boom. Federer offers angles, subtlety and variation. He renders that awful cliché ‘change-up’ (that makes me want to scream when I hear commentators Andrew Castle and John Lloyd use it) obsolete because he has such an enormous repertoire of shots to call on at any given moment that there is no such thing as a change from a standard variation – there is no standard variation. The excitement of watching Federer is that he could do almost anything at any time.

 

Nadal by contrast often tends to fall into an almost metronomic pattern in matches, especially on the clay, of pounding his forehands down again and again until his opponent makes a mistake. He does not use the same degree of variation and surprise as Federer; he does not have that same extensive vocabulary. That may feel dull in comparison, but I think it is merely a different type of aesthetic that is no less thrilling to watch and which encapsulates the remorseless, relentless passion that Nadal has both for playing tennis and for winning tennis matches. That passion is often evident when Nadal energises himself and the crowd with one of his famous exhortations of ‘Vamos!’ – often punching the air and occasionally kicking his knee up to his chest. And for me, Nadal has the ability to involve me emotionally in his matches in a way that Federer almost never does. Federer produces brilliance as though it has been given to him by the gods and he has a right to that gift – in the face of his own genius he mostly seems unmoved and is coolness personified. Nadal by contrast makes it plain that effort and determination, blood, sweat and tears are at the heart of his success, and when his brilliance comes to the surface he celebrates it passionately as though he himself climbed the highest of mountains to discover the spring from which the water of genius flows. The fact that he has to grunt and grind and pummel and pound doesn’t detract from this genius – it adds to it. In a secular universe in which the gods have declined to come amongst us with their presents of prodigious talents, finding out that you can attain it for yourself with dedication and guts and passion is a comforting and consoling experience that is worth celebrating.