Jon Wertheim>TENNIS MAILBAGhttp://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/tennis/news/20120516/rafael-nadal-mailbag/index.html
Is it possible that the biggest complainer on the men's tour is also its toughest competitor ever? I've watched tennis for almost 30 years now and I've never seen a player compete as hard as Rafael Nadal and never heard a player complain as frequently as Nadal. What gives? Is it the curse that comes with the gift? I hate to justify the tantrums but I suppose that it reasons that a person who's undisputedly the greatest competitor would logically attribute his/her defeats to factors other than the lack of preparation, ability or effort.
-- Jim Boyd, Sacramento, Calif.
• Nadal came in for a beating last week. Before we pile on, let's first consider this from his vantage point. He's the best player in the history of Spain. The Madrid Masters Series event is the closest thing his country has to a major. This should be the Rafa Open, a celebration of All Things Nadal. But, wait. Here comes the Romanian billionaire and his goon squad. They run things their way and are indifferent to Nadal's preferences.
Worse, the event comes during clay season, the time of year Nadal hoards points and prepares for the French Open, the major he wins as a matter of ritual. What do these savvy and sly marketers do? They change the court's color and, more important, the texture, interrupting Nadal's preparation, disadvantaging him, and perhaps creating conditions that endanger his body -- a body that has taken a pounding over the years. Where is the ATP, the alleged representative body that Nadal has served (and enriched) for the last eight or so years? Largely silent, clearly cowed by the wealthy Romanian overlord.
Take a step back. For generations, top players didn't take ownership of their tour and didn't dirty their hands with politics. Not Nadal. As he has matured from the likable kid with the biceps and pirate pants into something of an elder statesman, Nadal has been increasingly candid and vocal in expressing his opinion and speaking out against perceived injustice. Ask me a question; I give you an honest answer, no?
So far, so good.
The problem, though, is one of both quality and quantity. This year alone, Nadal has griped about Roger Federer's sidestepping controversy and letting others take bullets. Nadal lobbied for a candidate to be the ATP's CEO, based largely on the candidate's willingness to endorse a loco two-year ranking system. Nadal resigned from the ATP players' council. He's thrown out numerous digs about the ATP's scheduling and commitment mandates. And, of course, Nadal was vocal in his objection to the Madrid surface. Six-pack or not, that's a lot of bellyaching.
What's more, you have to pick your battles and ration your political capital. And Nadal's choices have been curious. There are fundamental issues in tennis that need addressing: the rash of injuries, the runaway technology, the paltry percent of gross revenue the prosperous Grand Slams offer as player purses. Take your bullets out of the chamber for those issues; not for blue clay! Plus, when you support a two-year ranking system that is counterintuitive at best and self-serving at worst, you undercut your ability to oppose future changes. ("What, you were willing to endorse a wacky 104-week ranking system, but suddenly you've turned purist when it comes to surfaces?"). And be consistent. When you want a two-year ranking system but then assert, contradictorily, that you don't care about the rankings, only the 52-week race, you undermine your credibility. When you play the health-and-safety card that's fine, but where was the outrage two weeks prior in Monte Carlo, when players dropped like the local marginal tax rate?
Oh, and one more thing: Own your statements. If you think Federer is a company man who plays politics, stand by it! Don't say it and then back away, claiming it was a media-generated controversy.
Sadly for Nadal, there is also a correlation between on-court results and the perception of his complaints. That is, you have more capital to throw around when you're winning. You're No. 1 and you're voicing objection? Hey, you are a heroic leader, Che Guevara with a Babolat. When you're No. 3, struggling to win events off of clay, and voicing objection? It can come across as whiny. (Or "weenie," to hear Serena Williams tell it.)
This was all writ small last week. If Nadal wins the Madrid title, he is hailed for overcoming his discomfort, and speaking out while succeeding. (Take that, Tiriac.) When he loses -- and Federer, largely mum on the topic, wins that hideous trophy, no batteries required -- it's spun, predictably, as something biblical. Federer, the great champion, adapts. Nadal, the persnickety and intransigent baby, takes his toy and goes home
Tennis players, like the rest of us, are evolving, fluid creatures. They go through stages and phases. Their priorities change. Their identities change. The first time I interviewed Venus Williams, she was a giggly teenager who insisted on speaking while wearing a rubber pig nose and occasionally accentuating her remarks with oinks. Suffice to say, she would not do that today. Andy Roddick of 2012 is a thoroughly different person from the Andy Roddick who won the 2003 U.S. Open. At age 25, Nadal is not the easygoing, muscle-bound kid who won the French Open in 2005. Don't like the I'm-mad-as-hell-and-I'm-not-gonna-take-it-anymore Rafa? Give it a few months. Says here: Much like the waterbottles, soon the worm will turn...
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