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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