Sunday, June 6, 2010

Full Circle: Rafa Gets Dirty Again In Paris

Rafa ties Borg by winning his second French Open without dropping a set

A telling excerpt from Rafa's post-match press conference:
Q: Will you celebrate tonight, or what are the plans?
Rafa: Difficult to have big celebration tonight if you have practice tomorrow (laughter).

There, in a humorous yet serious little nutshell, is the essence of Rafa. No matter how many superlatives you pull from the dictionary in an attempt to describe the awe-inspiring lethality of his strokes or the supernatural stamina that he possesses, it always comes back to the work he's doing to get up that hill.

Rafa may have revolutionized the sport with his bionic reverse forehand follow-through and his 22nd century cyborg fitness, but when you really slice and dice it, the Spaniard is doing things the old fashioned way. Nadal is a humble servant to the boots on the ground, eyes on the prize, give everything you can give mentality, and that, more than anything else, is what has turned him into a seven-time Grand Slam champion at the tender age of 24.

Yes, he's stylish, flashy, and hunky, but that is not what makes him the man that makes us swoon - nor is it by design. His only designs are to perform to his potential, to reach the top of the arc of his expectations, to compete like a maniac, and to honor the game that he unabashedly loves to play. Amen to that.

If anybody on the ATP Tour understands that idle hands are the devil's playground, it's the recently crowned five-time Roland Garros champion. And while his success appears to come easily, those who've followed Nadal over the course of his rise to - and stumble from - the top of the tennis food chain, know that it has been anything but that. He was a player who nearly trashed his body because he was so driven to forge his way to greatness. And when predilection for training like a soldier to facilitate that greatness left his knees in shambles, his abdomens torn, and his confidence depleted, he was forced to do something he never dreamt he'd have to do: Change.

During his 11-month voyage back to reality, where wins were no longer growing on trees, we wondered if he'd ever return to glory. Or, would he forever be a shadow of himself, healthy one week and debilitated the next?

Ah, but if you saw him moving like a silent assassin on the red clay of Stade Phillipe Chatrier on Sunday, you'd never know that he'd encountered so much turbulence over the previous year. You'd never know that he had to come full circle to be there, that he'd had to dig deep within himself to find the courage to keep believing in himself even after all the hardship.

Naturally, for a player who liked to practice fervently in order to come into tournaments hot, it was no easy task for Rafa to drop this security blanket. To practice less, train shorter, and focus more on staying healthy rather than just soldiering through the pain is not an easy task for a warrior like Rafa. Yet, he had the wisdom to know that it was the only way to survive.

Watching him cruise through the French Open without really being tested over seven matches might have seemed uneventful on the surface. In reality it was one of those rarities that is to be cherished. For only the fifth time since the Open Era began, a player has won the tournament without dropping a single set.

Like anybody else on tour, Rafa is human, prone to aches and pains and lapses in concentration - but the difference with Rafa is that he is willing to intelligently develop solutions that will keep those lapses from interfering with his quest for the arc of triumph within him.

Today Rafa erased all doubt that lingered about his form. He's back and he's back in the biggest and baddest of ways.

Insouciantly erasing the eight break points that his opponent Robin Soderling accumulated, Nadal turned what was prognosticated to be the most difficult of his five French Open finals into a cross between a laugher and a clinic in clay court tennis.

The 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 python-like strangulation featured 45 unforced errors by the 6'4" Swede, but most of those errors were at the end of long rallies where Soderling had simply run out of either gas or ideas or both - in other words, Nadal forced him into unforced errors. Soderling, in his defense, wasn't the only one to suffer such a fate in Paris.

The first set was tenuous, with Soderling going for broke, littering up the stat sheet (21 unforced errors and 12 winners), and getting some chances to break Nadal. But Rafa's defensive abilities and his focus on the big points (saved 3 of 3) got him over the hump. In the second set, a still-hungry Soderling nearly went up a break - but Nadal wouldn't let the Swede through the door (saved 4 0f 4 break points and hit 11 winners). When the third set began Nadal was even more diligent in his approach (26 of 30 first serves in the box and 9 more winners). Soderling was like a drowning man reaching for a life raft, and Rafa was like a shark in the water, pulling him further under.

It takes wisdom to avoid a letdown in this situation. But if there is a player who understands how to go for his opponents jugular, it is Nadal.

As far and as hard as Sweden's best player has come - make no mistake about it, Soderling is a force to be reckoned with - he was unable to inflict any damage against Nadal's beastly combo of indefatigable defense, pinpoint serving, and multiple-stroke lung-piercing rallies. As the match wore on, his chances were fewer and farther between.

"He's a great defensive player," said Soderling, "but also has a great offensive game, as well. He can really change defense to offense so quick. That's why he's so good."

After losing two straight matches to Soderling, including the most shocking upset of the tennis century last year in in Paris, Nadal dipped into his deep well of resolve to find the answers today.

Last year Soderling hurt Nadal when he left balls short, but today, everything Rafa hit landed near the baseline. With Soderling unwilling to advance to the net and pick shots out of the air, the Spaniard was able to keep the big man at bay with some of the best defensive tennis that has ever been displayed on the clay.

It seemed as if Rafa knew exactly what to expect from his opponent. It seemed so easy, almost walk-in-the-parkish. But the emotions of Nadal told a different story. There was nothing easy about it. Getting back to the top was harder than getting there in the first place.

Rafa wouldn't want it any other way.

One glance at Rafa's face, full of emotion and sincerity as he listened to Spain's national anthem with his trophy in hand, told that story without having to say a word.

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