Oz: The A-List
Posted 02/02/2009 @ 7 :09 PM
From the temperature of the air to the emotions on the court, the word that best describes this year’s Australian Open is overheated. It was also very satisfying: The winners showed strength under pressure and left no question about their positions at the top of the sport, while the two men’s finalists gave us more of themselves than they ever have before. I’ll start my report cards this time with them. The rest can wait until tomorrow.
These last two weeks were a voyage of conquest for Nadal. He extended his dominion to Australia, and onto the sport’s hard courts. In the process, he was more fun to watch then ever—he played a hair faster, looked better showing less arm and more knee, debuted a streamlined update of his traditionally gutsy game, and pushed himself to what we can only assume are his emotional and physical limits over the final weekend. In the end, he left us wondering again just where those limits might be, and if he’ll ever run into them.
Nadal is a champion in many ways. He’s the king of clay, he’s No. 1 in the world, and he could even challenge for the Grand Salami this season. But for the moment, it’s worth appreciating that he is, above all else, the undisputed master at beating Roger Federer, most people’s choice for the greatest tennis player ever. The Swiss star has cruised in unprecedented fashion against everyone else for years, encountering very little resistance from any other player. Because of this, his regular losses to Nadal seemed to demand some kind of explanation; there must have been extenuating circumstances—Nadal was in his head, Federer couldn’t read his spin, it was a clay thing, he wasn’t using the right tactics. Darren Cahill's recommendation Sunday that Federer use the drop volley was just the latest example in a long line of dubious magic-bullet advice for him when he plays Nadal—if he only used his slice more, if he only came in all the time, if he only served wide, if he only ran around his background, if he only hit down the middle, if he only hit more winners, if he only won.
I thought the reason Nadal succeeded against Federer was that, from the first time they played and Nadal won in Key Biscayne in 2004, the Spaniard didn’t treat a match against the world No. 1 any differently from a match against anyone else. He would never entertain the idea that playing close against Federer and losing was acceptable. But I never really believed that Nadal was a better tennis player than Federer. Can I continue to think that now that he’s beaten him on grass and hard courts, in major finals on three continents? The Aussie final upended some of my impressions of their dynamic. Federer has always been thought to be tennis’ renaissance man, his creativity unrivaled; but it was Nadal, with his superior drop shot, invincible overhead, tricky serve, fearsome crosscourt backhand, skidding backhand slice, and reliable volleys, who showed off more variety, a more complete game, and more ways to win in Melbourne. Who knows what the future will bring, but Nadal climbed one step higher in my mind on Sunday. He’s no longer tennis’ greatest overachiever. He’s no longer the kryptonite to Federer’s superman. He’s no longer just ranked No. 1. He’s the best. A+