THE POWE AND THE PASSION
By JOEL DRUCKER
Intensity, passion brute strength and extreme fitness make Rafael Nadal one of the most intimidating warriors tennis has ever seen. A fourth consecutive Roland Garros title in Paris in June would strengthen his claim to the title of greatest clay court player in history.
The late Arthur Ashe used the word "snap" to describe the exceptional urgency - an arresting, commanding swagger - certain players imposed on the game. Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker and Steffi Graf were among those at the top of Ashe's list. And then there is Rafael Nadal…
Even off the court, there's a bounce to his step, a heightened alertness radiating not just through Nadal's body, but even in his eyes, which are at once narrow and welcoming. Eyes that are on guard but always engaged as he jokes with friends, greets the many acquaintances that comprise the pro circuit and tosses off kindly winks to those he recognizes but can't quite recall by name.
In his press conferences, when the wear and tear of his latest match is thick in his body and mind, Nadal in conversation is often self-effacing and humble when speaking about his tennis. On the verge of earning a record fourth straight title at Masters Series Monte-Carlo in April, Nadal demonstrated the genuine humility you'd expect from a young man who still occupies the same apartment building as his family.
Yet once Nadal steps on the court, he transforms. From the minute he enters the arena - and that metaphor is exceptionally fitting for Nadal given the matador-like qualities of a Spaniard who excels on clay - his focus is total, his feet bouncing, his eyes sharply on the target.
Occasionally there have been champions who cast tennis in a utopian light. Roger Federer, Pete Sampras and Rod Laver struck the ball with such brilliance that the presence of an opponent was often a non-factor. But at heart, tennis is an interactive game, less an art form and more a battle. "It's a game of errors," says Federer's current coach, Jose Higueras, "and your job is to force them out of your opponent." The history of tennis is filled with attrition-based warriors who grind opponents into physical fatigue and subsequent mental capitulation - from the days of Don Budge in the '30s, on to such recent greats as Connors, Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi.
Nadal is the latest exemplar of this tradition. The premise of this playing style is relentless focus and a willingness to slowly tighten the noose as the point grows longer and longer - an urgency to conduct the point oppressively but no hurried need to end it. "I'll tell you," says Courier, "to beat this guy you better be ready to take some serious chances." In some cases, that can mean stretching Nadal wide to his forehand as a means of exposing his backhand. "But you better really get him out there or else he can rocket that shot," says ex-pro and longstanding coach Brad Gilbert. In earning three wins over Nadal, James Blake has often taken advantage of Nadal's second serve by launching massive returns in an effort to take immediate control of the point and rush the Spaniard out of his comfort zone.
The cornerstone of Nadal's game is his topspin forehand. ESPN analyst and Agassi's former coach Darren Cahill says "it's chasing you, pushing you with all that work he has on it. The ball ends up playing you."
The combination of Nadal's whipping forehand and flat, forceful backhand is aided by his off-the-charts court coverage, the problems posed by being left-handed (though a righty in all other activities) and, most of all, his sheer love of the competitive cauldron. Says Gilbert, "What I love best about Nadal is his body language. Most times in tennis you look at the court and you can tell by a guy's body language what's the score. Not with Nadal. His competitive nature is great."
While it's impossible to tell if people are born with that kind of spirit, family ties have played a major role in Nadal's ascent. One uncle, Miguel Angel, was a top soccer player with FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, whose career showed young Rafa how much intensity it would take to be a world-class athlete. Even more significant was another uncle, Toni Nadal. If not quite good enough to be an ATP pro, Toni was an accomplished player who handed Rafa a racquet at age four. To say the boy took to the sport was an understatement. Growing up on the tiny island of Mallorca, Nadal rapidly lived and breathed tennis.
In many ways, Nadal's decision to hone his game in Mallorca and decline the chance to train at a national academy further boosted his confidence. Some players need to be surrounded by other coaches and players in order to remain disciplined. But there was never any doubt of young Rafa's drive - an ambition that caught the attention of a fellow Mallorcan, Carlos Moya.
"A few years ago I asked him if he would like to have a career like mine," Moya told the Spanish publication, Metropolitan. "He looked at me with the sincerity that you usually find in small children and said, quite seriously, that he aspired to more. And, I knew that he would be a better player than me."
It also proved oddly beneficial to Nadal that he missed two French Opens early in his career due to injuries. Instead, by the time he made his Roland Garros debut in 2005 he had built an impressive head of steam, first by beating Andy Roddick in the 2004 Davis Cup final and then by earning five clay court titles in the lead up to Roland Garros. He stepped up promptly at the 2005 French Open, becoming the first man to win the title on debut since Mats Wilander in 1982.
Since then just about every time Nadal steps on a clay court he seems to make history. Most notable, of course, is his magnificent 21-0 record at Roland Garros. This year he's aiming to match Borg's mark of four straight French Open titles. Says Nadal, "This is the tournament that I've played with the greatest happiness and joy in all my life."
So just how good is Nadal as a clay court player? There are many ways to examine his prowess. On the one hand, title-wise he's equal with Wilander and Lendl as three-time winners in Paris - and only half as successful as Borg, who won an astounding six French Open titles. Like Nadal, Wilander and Lendl, Nadal has won his share of events in Monte-Carlo, Rome and other notable clay court venues. Heading into the 2008 Roland Garros Nadal had won 108 of his past 110 matches on clay.
Yet another factor is that Nadal is playing in the most clay-skilled era in tennis history. Great as Borg was on clay, he was a true revolutionary, the first player ever to so heavily whip the ball with topspin on both sides - in large part the prototype of contemporary tennis. Borg presided over clay in an era when many of his peers had one-handed slice backhands and were hardly able to match his proficiency or consistency from the baseline.
Ditto, but to a lesser degree, for Wilander and Lendl. Playing styles then were still varied. Many net rushers tried to ply their skills on clay, which from time to time made it easier for skilled baseliners such as Wilander and Lendl to earn clay court victories. But Nadal is playing in a time when his brand of grinding baseline play is the model on just about all surfaces. In other words, he faces versions of himself - albeit of lesser skill - in just about every round he plays.
Add that all up and the thinking here is that Nadal is currently the second-best clay court player in tennis history. After all, regardless of the competition, Borg's six French Open titles represent a massive feat. Should Nadal win more titles at Roland Garros, though, he will likely be regarded as the finest clay courter of all time.
But the Spaniard wants to prove himself a man for all surfaces and make a mark not just in Paris but also in New York, Melbourne and London. The past two years at Wimbledon he's come one match short of equaling Borg's Paris-London double victories. Earlier this year he reached his first Australian Open semifinal.
And yet, though he'll turn a mere 22 on June 3, it's uncertain if Nadal's game lends itself to longevity. His technique is not particularly efficient in the manner of Federer, Agassi and Connors. Over the years little injuries have cropped up, ranging from a serious foot injury in 2005 to a major blister that surfaced during Masters Series Rome in May. So heavily does Nadal throw himself into pursuing victory at Roland Garros that he's often battle-scarred and weary during the second half of the year. Consider: In 2005, 2006 and 2007, Nadal earned a combined 16 tournament titles by the end of June. But while he earned five titles in the second half of '05, over the concluding half of the last two years he's won but one.
The marriage of Nadal's supreme will with his labor-intensive skill figures to be telling. For now, though, it's best to savor all he brings to tennis. Says Gilbert, "He's in the trenches on every point." If for opponents that spells misery, for fans it's made Nadal one of the sport's most popular players. No other player inspires so much chanting everywhere from the Internet to the stands of his matches. As those aficionados are fond of saying, Vamos Rafa.