You either grew up digging on DC Comics or Marvel (I’m a Marvel guy); your after school TV show was either The Brady Bunch or The Partridge Family (Marcia, Marcia, Marcia); sick at home you watched The Price is Right or Let’s Make a Deal (Bob Barker and his harem). Risk or Stratego? Nike or Reebok? Atari or Intellivision? The Gap or Banana Republic? Preferences are destiny and I’m a Nadal fan, which, I’ve noticed, connects me to a whole genealogy of players for whom I’ve rooted, and over my past three decades of tennis fandom I’ve been in the Nadal-Agassi-McEnroe camp, hating—or at least rooting against—their nemeses (Federer/Sampras/Borg) and feeling, along with my heroes, the agony of their defeats. I wept, for instance, after McEnroe’s 1981 loss to Borg at Wimbledon and have also never recovered from his two-sets-to-love collapse against Lendl at the 1984 French, what with the career slam so nearly in hand. In terms of sheer quality, there may be no greater tennis match played than the 2001 Agassi-Sampras U.S. Open quarterfinal, which Agassi lost 7–6, 6–7, 6–7, 6–7 and forced me to leave my then boss’s house immediately afterward, lest I say rude things to his Pistol-Pete-loving wife. Despite Nadal’s dominance over the past 24 months and his and Federer’s tag team defense of tennis’s summit for the past six years, oft forgotten is the following: Rafa suffered two brutal losses to The King at Wimbledon in the run-up to The Greatest Match Ever Played; in 2008 Tsonga blew him off Melbourne’s center court in straights; and he was befuddled and dinged into a non-entity at the US Open up until his 2010 breakthrough.
This is a long way of saying that Sunday’s Wimbledon final was difficult for me.
Am I a Nole hater? Absolutely not. He seems like a gas to hang out with, has an up-the-line backhand and inside-out forehand to die for, he moves like Quicksilver (Marvel!) sliding into a split—on grass, no less—almost as well Kim Clisters. But the truth is that he’s no more been a part of the conversation between Nadal and Federer than Murray has. He was semifinal fodder for one of them, given to the RETs (I found his retirement against Roddick at the Aussie Open a couple of years ago despicable). Put bluntly, he didn’t seem to believe; or, worse, his on-court petulance and amazed, white-hot glares to his every-sperm-is-sacred-sized camp whenever things went south on the court made him seem like a believer ignorant of the gap between his arrogance and his results. And although last year’s US Open ended with a compelling final against Nadal, he never really threatened in that match, in spite of playing at what seemed like the edge of his abilities and I, for one, would have bet any amount of money that he’d start 2011 in a state of despair, joining whatever secret, Born-in-the-Wrong-Era support group Roddick, Soderling, Ferrer, and Murray attend in the basement of an unknown Monte Carlo hotel. “Hello, my name is Novak Djokovic and I’m not as good as they are either.”
What happened on Sunday? It’s a continuation, really, of what’s been happening all year in the Nole/Nadal contests and proves, once again, that in tennis, the matchup is destiny. True Nadal has been susceptible in the past to being blown off the court, but in the last18 months he’s been able to absorb the power of Del Potro, Soderling, and Berdych et al, upping his return game and finding his way into rallies which he’s been unmatched at dictating once they start. Only Nole defends as well or better than Nadal. Still, no one hits a ball like the Spaniard; and his consistency, his safe arc over the net coupled with a rally ball that must feel, for his opponents, like a boulder off the strings, almost always produces a piece of junk eight strokes or more into an exchange, and from that moment forward Nadal wins the land-acquisition game that is tennis so quickly you can see the shot-pattern forming two strokes ahead and call the winner a solid second before he thunderously thwacks it to the open court. This is tennis as the combination punch, something another mentally stalwart lefty named Jimmy Connors used to dominate the game two generations ago.
Nadal, however, can no longer do these things against Djokovic.
As I said above, only Nadal defends as well as Nole and Rafa, it’s worth mentioning, doesn’t hit as flat as most power players. If Nadal manages to open up the court against Djokovic, Nole retrieves the strike and send the ball back with interest, creating, for Rafa, a shot-tolerance effect that Federer suffered against him, one which for this fan makes me believe in Karma and causes Rafa a nano-second hesitation mid-point, blowing his rhythm and often leaving him visibly befuddled. Put simply, Rafa’s grown accustomed to the point being over at certain ingrained moments, and when it ain’t, Nadal ain’t ready, and the advantage is suddenly Nole’s, one which the latter compounds with either his brutal forehand or the best backhand in the game right now. He’s perhaps the most offensive counterpuncher in the tennis ever, at once backboard and power player, defender extraordinaire and death dealer with his serve at crucial moments, a momentum killer at every stage of the game. This is Nole’s apotheosis we’re witnessing: He is The Impenetrable One. He can redirect Rafa’s rally ball, particularly his forehand, up the line and with point-ending or unforced-error inducing pace; he can hurt Rafa off the service return; he can outrun him and, now that he’s gluten free, perhaps even outlast him physically (at Miami he actually had Rafa gassed). This is a long way of saying that Rafa can’t hurt him as consistently as he can other players and because the Spaniard relies on percentage shots (the crosscourt forehand and backhand) he finds himself at once rushed and uncertain when he should be least rushed and entirely programmatic. It’s a shocking thing to behold the most mentally tenacious player on the planet crack before a fan’s eyes. On Sunday Rafa regularly looked resigned. Shaken. Shrunken. Near tears. During the awards ceremony, Uncle Tony looked like a man who knew his work was suddenly cut out for him, and it is.
What can Rafa do to meet this challenge? As Vanderbilt’s tennis coach (and terrific NYTimes tennis blog writer), Geoff Macdonald pointed out after the final, he can go up the line on his backhand, which he did occasionally with his forehand, though both shots require high levels of confidence and risk-tolerance to which Rafa is utterly unaccustomed. He can also come to net more. In my humble opinion, the only weakness in Nole’s game is his net play, and if I were Rafa, I’d drag him forward at crucial moments. I’d also take his legs away from him, as young Aussie Tomic did, giving him off-speed junk to fret his rhythm, taking the ball up the middle to nullify angles (he’s no Agassi from the middle of the court) and going behind him more. But no matter what Rafa and Tony do, this fact is inescapable: To beat the Djoker, it’s Rafa who’s going to have to change.
In Mr. Peanut news, here’s a look at the gorgeous French cover, the Lite-Brite skull against a white background. Meanwhile, in Ladies and Gentlemen news, a terrific review here from The San Francisco Chronicle. I’ll be appearing at City Lights and Book Passage this week, as well as Elliott Bay in Seattle. If you’re around, drop by. Pix to come.
 I’d put the aforementioned Agassi/Sampras match alongside The Greatest Match Ever Played as well as the 1981 McEnroe/Borg final at Wimbledon and finally the unbelievable Nadal/Verdasco semi-final at the 2009 Australian Open.