A Few Thoughts on Federer vs. Nadal XXI

The Magic Box, sight of the Madrid Mas­ters, is named Manolo San­tana Sta­dium after the last men’s Span­ish ten­nis player before Raphael Nadal to win Wim­ble­don, and its harsh, tri­an­gu­lar par­ti­tions sep­a­rat­ing the fans’ boxes from each other remind me of those Match­box Cars suit­cases, because they climb oddly high, like pri­vacy fences, and appear sim­i­larly claus­tro­pho­bic. This past Sun­day, the cham­pi­onship match fea­tured Roger Fed­erer and Raphael Nadal squar­ing off for the twenty-first time in what is most likely a pre­view of the French Open final. Head to head, Rafa leads the series 13–7, and to make mat­ters grim­mer for Fed­erer, he’s beaten Rafa only twice on clay. Things didn’t go so well for the Swiss this time either.

The Magic Box doesn’t look like a great place to play clay-court ten­nis, although the fans look ter­rific them­selves, so good, in fact, that I feared for the play­ers’ con­cen­tra­tion. Fed­erer, a well-known clotheshorse, prob­a­bly couldn’t help but take men­tal notes, what with all the guys in the stands dressed like they’d stepped out of Span­ish GQ (he could give his oppo­nent, Señor Plaid Shorts, a hand with the hab­er­dash­ery); mean­while, the women in the first few rows were so stag­ger­ingly beau­ti­ful I kept expect­ing Rafa to blink at them sheep­ishly every time he sig­naled for his towel, or more likely cower in shy­ness. As venues go, the Box is all well and good for see­ing and being seen, but like Arthur Ashe Sta­dium, it’s sus­cep­ti­ble to the fick­le­ness of weather, to gusts of wind, heat, blind­ing sun­shine and, dur­ing the final, cold. Cut-away shots revealed numer­ous ladies wrapped in scarves and heavy jack­ets. Mirka, Federer’s wife, was so heav­ily bun­dled in white she needed only a pair of gog­gles on her fore­head and you’d think she was going snow ski­ing. Maybe the place should be called the Ice Box.

As for the clay itself, it appears, at least on Ten­nis Chan­nel (when will these peo­ple get an HD feed?), to be the graini­est, dri­est, and slick­est patch of dirt in Spain. Nadal, who slipped try­ing to get to one of Federer’s many drop shots in the sec­ond set, gave the skid marks he’d left such a hot look of dis­gust I thought the ground would smoke. Add to these fac­tors the alti­tude, which imparts added veloc­ity to the ball, and you’ve got a court that’s built for speed but not traction—in ten­nis terms, a nightmare.

The tour­na­ment is orga­nized by Ion Tiriac, a for­mer Roman­ian pro turned busi­ness mogul who has made bil­lions since the fall of com­mu­nism sell­ing every­thing from cars to insur­ance to banks, but who still finds time to run Mas­ters Series events, and my favorite Tiriac-touch to this tour­na­ment is the addi­tion of gor­geous ball girls, which adds, I guess, to the enter­tain­ment value of the expe­ri­ence, though not for the play­ers. These ladies weren’t picked for their speed, after all, and Fed­erer, who wastes lit­tle time between points, looked annoyed through­out by the slow­ness with which they made their way from net post to ball to net post, mov­ing, really, like kids ice skat­ing for the first time, nei­ther stop­ping nor turn­ing on a dime. If he weren’t so genteel—if he had just a touch of McEn­roe in him—he might have said what he looked like wanted to, which was, “Hurry fuck­ing up.” Nadal, mean­while, was reg­u­larly thank­ing them when­ever they handed him his towel, but he had plenty of time to be cor­dial: he was pretty much kick­ing Federer’s ass.

The first set was scratchy. Lots of prob­ing by each player, lots of nerves, with balls fly­ing long off both men’s rac­quets, a sign that had less to do with the alti­tude than a lack of com­mit­ment and con­fi­dence, and which the stats bore out: eigh­teen unforced errors between them by the third game. Through­out these peri­ods of sta­tic there were flashes of each man’s strat­egy. For Fed it was to step around his back­hand at every oppor­tu­nity and lash the ball into the cor­ners; that and con­trol the ser­vice tee, pun­ish­ing the ball up the mid­dle and deploy­ing the drop shot every time Nadal tried to stretch the back­court defen­sively. Nadal, mean­while, did the same-old, same-old: hit that jump­ing top­spin to Fed’s back­hand unfor­giv­ingly, the one that bounces so high Roger looks like he’s swat­ting a fly on the ceil­ing, but with this wrin­kle added: he’s finally using up-to-date strings that make his shots even heav­ier and live­lier with rpm’s. The major­ity of the points went as fol­lows: serve; Rafa fore­hand to Fed back­hand; repeat until Fed’s mishit results in a short ball; pounce with inside-out fore­hand to the open court. The End. Nadal won the first set rou­tinely, 6–4.

In the sec­ond set, how­ever, there were flashes of what makes the Federer/Nadal rivalry so aston­ish­ing: the sheer qual­ity of the exchanges themselves—play that led Justin Gim­blestob to yell dur­ing the 2009 Aussie final, “Peo­ple need to real­ize this is not normal”—the absorp­tion and redi­rec­tion, by both men, of breath­tak­ingly pow­er­ful shots that only they can reply to, Fed’s quick­sil­ver strikes met by Rafa’s blunt-force, bolo-forehands, the con­ver­sa­tion between them con­ducted at hummingbird-speed. At times the angles of the cross­court ral­lies were so extreme it was as if there was a lane that ran along the length of the net and extended nearly into the crowd at both sides. Dur­ing sev­eral exchanges, the play­ers were hit­ting from posi­tions so wide and for­ward in the court it was like a magic trick.

There were those ath­letic plea­sures along with the sports­man­ship, of course, the refusal of either man to accept the mul­ti­ple muffed calls by lines­man even when it went against him (one blown call fol­low­ing an extra­or­di­nary cross­court back­hand by Fed­erer led Nadal, dur­ing the replay that fol­lowed, to very obvi­ously and inten­tion­ally dump his return into the net). In a nice touch toward the end of the sec­ond set, which Rafa won 7–6, he raised his hand to the chant­ing crowd to quiet them while Fed­erer pre­pared to serve. They’re gen­tle­men both, but Nadal, who will lov­ingly nuz­zle Federer’s ear after drub­bing him, exhibits no mercy before the fact.

That Nadal wanted this more was obvi­ous. What struck me most pow­er­fully, though, was Federer’s res­ig­na­tion through­out. You could see it in his body lan­guage, which was on the verge of exas­per­a­tion and that shifted, occa­sion­ally, to straight-up bad mood. He had an expres­sion on his face of sour­ness, some­times man­i­fest­ing itself as a refusal, in that moment right before he bounced the ball pre-serve, to look at Rafa across the net. No other player reg­u­larly elic­its this coun­te­nance from The King. He resem­bles some­one tak­ing a test he knows he’ll fail, but this res­ig­na­tion reflects a deeper recog­ni­tion that he can’t escape. In ten­nis, the match-up is des­tiny, after all, and Grand Slam totals be damned: when both men bring their best, Rafa is sim­ply better.

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In other news, the Jonathan Cape – UK copies of Mr. Peanut arrived yes­ter­day. As my grand­fa­ther used to say, Loverly.