Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Nadal's Best Decision of the Year...

Rafael Nadal's best match of 2012 might have been the one he didn't play. So, in that sense, it wasn't a match at all—it was more of an executive decision. Whatever it was, it was huge.

Allow me to take you back two months in time, back when Rafael Nadal was spending most of his time in Novak Djokovic's back pocket. After seven straight losses to the Serb, including three in Grand Slam finals, it wasn't a stretch to assume that Nadal might be suffering permanent damage from all the thrashings he'd taken at the hands of Djokovic. We'd seen this before with Federer, and as great as Federer still is, there has always been the stigma that he's carried around with him since Rafa picked him up and put him in his pocket: in a big match with Nadal, Federer will lose.

It's different for Nadal and Djokovic, because they are the same age, but the scenarios were starting to look eerily similar. Djokovic had clearly taken up residence in Nadal's kitchen and he was eating all of Nadal's favorite home-cooked meals. Pasta y Gambas. Late-night sweets. Swigging from a milk container with the fridge door open and no shirt on...

But just when it looked like Djokovic was going to rain on Rafa's parade in perpetuity, Nadal and his camp pulled the ultimate switcheroo. 

Faced with the prospect of playing Andy Murray in the grueling heat on a hard court in Miami just to have a chance to end his seven-match losing streak against Djokovic in the final, Nadal and his team weighed the consequences and elected to forgo what to them seemed like small potatoes.

Next thing you know, Nadal was apologizing to the fans and the event for not being able to make it. He gathered up what was left of his confidence and flew back to Majorca to get the stench of all that hard court tennis out of his clothes. He went to his kitchen to eat some Pasta y Gambas. It didn't seem like a big deal at the time. Novak won Miami and Nadal still hadn't beaten him, but something had changed.

Taking a cue from wise military strategists of yesteryear, Nadal and his Uncle Toni had decided that fighting an all-out war on two fronts was not the way to go. Maybe another time, when Nadal had greater confidence, when Nadal had greater fitness, or when Djokovic himself was not so cocksure. But not now. Clay was going to be the remedy, just as it had been in 2010, when Nadal snapped a long title drought and went on a title-gobbling tear that left him three matches from a Rafa Slam.

So, in the middle of spring, while his arch rival was gunning for the Miami title, Nadal was already thinking about the clay. He needed to fight this war on his terms.

To some, it reeked of cowardice. How could Nadal not want another shot at Djokovic? He was so close in Australia. Had he gone soft? Was his mind so bruised by his new status as Djokovic's whipping boy that he had lost his fight? Was this the beginning of the end for the mighty Majorcan?

No, no, no.

As it turns out, Nadal's health wasn't bad—at least not as bad as the media was speculating—he just wanted it to be perfect, so he could take Djokovic down on the clay.

In similar fashion to the methodical tactical approach that Nadal has always taken to his on-court battles, Nadal needed to match his strength with Djokovic's weakness off-court as well. Since Djokovic didn't have any weaknesses, Nadal needed more than ever to know his strength. Facing Djokovic in Miami on another hard court was not the way to go about things. Nadal and his team did the smart thing. They decided that the best way to end Djokovic's reign of terror was to bring the battle back to the clay.

Nadal, who had kicked and punched his way to near exhaustion against Djokovic in Australia, was so close to Djokovic at that point. Most players would have taken that shot in Miami, laid it all on the line in the sweltering heat, but not Nadal. It is this type of big-picture thinking that has allowed Nadal to construct his giant cache of Grand Slam trophies. In the past, he has spent a great deal of time and energy proving to the world that he was more than a clay-court player. Now, at 26, Nadal has recognized that there is value in proving to the world that he's a great clay-court player all over again.

Not only has it allowed him to win a few battles with Djokovic in the last month, it might allow him to win the war. More importantly, it's enabled Nadal to find and embrace that spiritual element that has always colored his game when he is at his best.

Clay is a homecoming for Nadal, and it always will be. As he moves into his late twenties over the next few years, expect this to be a recurring theme.

Nadal can win on any surface—he's proven that—but you get the feeling that for him there is nothing sweeter than winning on clay. Of course, losing would be that much harder to stomach, but now that Rafa is back on track, this year's French Open is a war that Nadal is very likely to win.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Pondering Immortality and Popcorn...

It can seem like a broken record sometimes. That constant, unyielding, almost monotonous greatness that the "big three" possesses. Then again, when you get to thinking about it and put it all into proper historical perspective, it can blow your mind. It can leave you lying in the fetal position on your couch, scrolling back over a particular point over and over again on your DVR. It's true what they say: that we're lucky, that we may never, in our lifetime, witness a trio of players so sublime, all questing for glory at the same time.

Whether you love the regal elegance of Federer, the relentless physical cadence of Nadal or the bendable sorcery of Djokovic, you know what I'm talking about.

Here we are, smack dab in the middle of the tennis sweet spot, at the epicenter of a maelstrom of tennis goodness so divine.

Let the games begin!

It can't happen soon enough for me, and yet, I'd like to take a moment here to slow things down, to sit and reflect on the wonderful possibilities awaiting us in the next eight days.

They are epic, and yes, the occasion merits the usage of that oft-overused word.

Yes, yes, yes... this week will be EPIC!

We are at that place in the tennis cosmos where two rapidly approaching meteors are about to collide. Nadal and his quest for the ultimate clay-court honor, speeding through space alongside Djokovic and his righteous attempt to undermine the King of Clay with a milestone of his own.

Two colossal statements, ready to be made.

With each passing Grand Slam, the narrative seems to gain steam. Remember last year, when Djokovic rode in like the white knight of the yellow ball, on the cusp of the longest winning streak in Open Era history? That was good, but this year is sure to be better.

And I haven't even mentioned Federer. Amidst all this talk about Djokovic and Nadal each being on the edge of tennis immortality, Federer has claimed the all-time lead in Grand Slam wins from Jimmy Connors and become the only player in the history of the game to win fifty matches at each of the four Grand Slams.

Nadal and Djokovic might be questing for immortality, but Federer, he's been there and done that. That's what makes him so special. He could hang it up and let these young'uns battle it out, but he's too stubborn to do that. Plus, he's too good. He's got too much left to give and he knows it.

Speaking of having a lot to give, how about Nadal? Does the guy ever cease to amaze you with his humility? Has there ever been a player as devoted to honoring his god-given abilities by giving every ounce of energy to the competition? He's truly a remarkable man, and tennis is blessed to have him.

This week I've been watching him move on the clay, sensing the symbiosis there, how he moves back to get into a defensive posture, then sprints up a few steps when he's poised to attack. I've been watching him take off on a dead sprint to the net and slide into a backhand volley, leaving a trail of clay in his wake as he delicately dumps the ball just over the net for a casual winner.

There are those rare moments when you get to witness somebody who has truly mastered his craft and when it comes to Nadal on clay I think we have reached the apex. I'm not sure that tennis can ever, or will ever, be played as good again, from here to eternity.

And the fact that Djokovic, miraculously, has taken his game to a level where he's right there with him on the surface--well, that just says all you kneed to know about the Djoker. The Serb, more than Nadal or Federer, is still a novel in it's first draft. We don't know how the story will end, we're only at the middle. Sort of like we were with Nadal before he won his first Wimbledon, or Federer before he won his fourteenth Slam and started reeling off all these milestones at an age when most great tennis players have started their slow fade to oblivion.

We don't know where Djokovic's journey will end, just like we didn't know that Nadal would be here, on the precipice of his seventh French Open, when he lost to Soderling in 2009 and skipped Wimbledon a few weeks later. Just like we didn't know if Federer was finished in 2008 when Nadal stole his thunder in that magical five-setter at Wimbledon.

With each passing Grand Slam, I find myself thinking, "it can't get any better than this," and with each passing Slam, somehow it does.

This week it surely will again. Get your popcorn ready.