Catching Roger

by: Peter Bodo | June 11, 2009

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by Pete Bodo

Mornin'. It looks like that Sprezzatura post (second one down) got a bunch of you animated, and while the celebrations of Roger Federer's historic win at Roland Garros continue on, as well they might, it's time to move along here to the yin to Federer's yang: Rafael Nadal.

Now, I understand the tensions and passions at play, and they sometimes lead fans of one or the other player to have a go at his or her counterpart across the Iberio-Swiss divide, but I really think that denigrating either Nadal or Federer by necessity diminishes the other man. We've seen over the past two years how each of these men is directly responsible for making the other a better, tougher, more dedicated competitor. To some degree, I agree with the "weak era" argument, although you can't hold that against Federer in any significant way. Any era dominated by a single player is, by definition, weak. Duh!

And while you there's a lot of fat to chew on in that issue, this much is undeniable: the emergence of Nadal in the last few years, and the rivalry he's established with Federer, really overshadows any depth-of-field discussion. How weak an era can it be if it boasts both the Grand Slam singles title record co-holder and the greatest of all clay-court players?

In any event, this idea that in Federer and Nadal we have this yin-and-yang thing ought to be taken seriously, and if it isn't it may be because that label gets thoughtlessly slapped onto too many relationships where it doesn't fit nearly as comprehensively. Honestly, can you think of two players more different, in every respect, than Federer and Nadal - but by the same token, two players so intimately bound in destiny?

I must say, we all should have been more receptive to what happened in Paris as soon as Nadal snatched the Wimbledon crown off Federer's head last July. If it was (and frankly, it still remains) a bit of a stretch to expect Federer to beat Nadal on the Parisian clay, but we should have been more prepared to see Federer swarm the ramparts of Court Philippe Chatrier the moment Nadal unexpectedly lost there. I'm not one of those people who thinks that the quality of Federer's victory would have been appreciably greater had he beaten Nadal in the French final; guys like Federer and Nadal understand that measuring themselves against another man, rather than against a task, is essentially to be subservient to that man.

For that same reason, I don't think Nadal gives a hoot about who he beats for the Wimbledon title - although gaining a big title at the expense of a top rival sweetens any player's sense of accomplishment. It's a pleasant aftertaste to savor. So while Federer won Paris without beating Nadal, I still get the feeling that the French Open final was a game-changer in exactly the same way as the Wimbledon final was last July.

It's hard to say when any boy becomes a man, but if we restrict our considerations to tennis, it seems to me that the day Federer won Roland Garros is the day Nadal became a man. For now he's encumbered by the same burden that distinguishes all men from children: responsibility. For the first time in his career, young Rafa has given significant ground, instead of gaining it and that calls for a response. Another way to put this is that up to this point, it's all been net plus for Nadal, and it's a credit to Federer that he's never made a point of this (if he has, I'm sure you'll let me know, and we can forget this clause). But Paris was a net loss - a painful blow suffered right in the heart of his comfort zone, on his own turf.

The rumors that Nadal's parents are about to divorce keep popping up in the gutter press and in my inbox via emails from acquaintances and sources, and I bring it up for this reason only: there's a parallel to be drawn between how domestic turmoil might affect an obedient son who's never questioned the impermeability of the familial cocoon, and how losing dominion over a patch of earth where he has known only spectacular success might affect a young and still not fully formed tennis player.

And before I go on or forget - isn't it just another bewitching aspect of this rivalry that the families of both men seem so level-headed and down-to-earth?

At any rate, any great player will tell you that in some ways it's far less stressful to be the hunter than the hunted. It takes a particular sort of person to comfortably put on that shirt that Pete Sampras says has a "great big target on its back." We don't really know how Nadal will take to that role after he's really been tested a few times, not by new challenges but by losses. By surprises. By setbacks in areas where he expected none. This is all new territory to him, because he's been living an uninterrupted dream since he won Wimbledon, and even his mildly disappointing result at the U.S. Open was moved from the "net loss" to the "net gain" column retroactively, on the grounds that it was good experience that enabled him to win his first major hard court title just a few months later, at the Australian Open.

In one of those art imitates life developments, it seems that Nadal is changing and maturing - and probably facing new and in some ways unanticipated challenges - as a person at the same time that he's morphing into a tennis player with a revised mandate. Don't take this wrong, because I respect Nadal's fighting spirit and his game as much as I ever did, but I no longer feel the same degree of affection I once had for him.

Rafa This is germane for one reason only - it's a measure of how much Rafa has changed, and grown.  As little as a year ago, Nadal still was very much like the world's eager, happy-go-lucky, ever so slightly out-to-lunch kid brother. If he resembled a cartoon superhero ("Jet Boy", as you may remember) he transcended the two-dimensional nature of his fictitious brethren because he seemed as personally soft as he was professionally vitrified. You couldn't walk by him in a hallway without wanted to reach out and tousle his hair.

That youthfulness is in ebb now.  He is, after all, 23 - and having the body of a sculpture by Michelangelo imposes certain obligations on the subject. The world around Rafa is changing, but the eyes through which he perceives it may be changing at an even more rapid pace. It may seem to him that suddenly he has an awful lot on his plate, and those unaccustomed to operating that way often rebel against having to do so, or feel they can't handle it.  I think Rafa is determined, aware and brave enough not to be laid low by that psychological pitfall, but he'll have to prove it.

Here's another yin-and-yang element: Federer often seems like he's made to rule. He doesn't do losing well. This isn't a matter of arrogance and conceit; it's a manifestation of how he perceives the natural order of things, and to him winning is the default state of existence, in much the same way that being doted up and deferred to is a natural state of being for a prince. This helps explain why he's so effective and so seemingly comfortable when he's in complete and utter control. It isn't that he takes particular joy in humiliating Andy Roddick or thumping Nikolay Davydenko. It's just that he innately seems to feel that all is right in the world, and the food chain is most stable, when he's perched on top of it. There's no point holding this against Federer - it's the way of genius.

In that same way, one thing that we can say with confidence about Nadal is that, so far, he's shown that he's made to challenge. The real question is whether he's also made to rule. Up until last July, his greatest asset in macrocosmic terms was the fidelity with which he pursued a seemingly impossible dream - his aim to unseat Federer. Now that he's accomplished that, does he really have the drive, and does he really feel the need, consciously or otherwise, to take on a trickier and more multi-dimensional role? Federer is good at being The Man, and he clearly enjoys being the paragon of tennis. He's at once the conscience and the king of the game, and those two do not, by any means, always go hand-in-hand.

I'm not at all certain that Rafa has a urge to play such roles. What ambition he's had thus far seems completely focused on the tennis court and the result tables. You can see how Federer has more or less groomed himself, to good extent consciously, for his present identity. Whereas Rafa is perfectly content to crush some poor bugger, than play video games until it's time to go decapitate some other journeyman.

There's something very appropriate about Roger Federer serving as the icon of a sport that has always had an up-market, bourgeoisie identity, and it's exactly that smooth and almost slick combination of man and image and game that leaves some people cold, or leads those who are antagonistic to the values implied therein to discredit Federer or his accomplishments. He's like the son every mother would love to have, which means a large number other sons and daughters, especially imperfect ones, would love to stick pins in his eyeballs.

The only thing that Rafa seems to symbolize, beyond the insouciance of youth, is the orgiastic abandon of the athlete-warrior. His sleeveless shirts, bulging biceps, guttural grunts and even that ham-fisted game (for if Federer is Muhammad Ali, Nadal is his Joe Frazier) serve as rebukes to the customary class and style associations of tennis. In the long run, that may be the strongest and deepest source of Nadal's popularity, and the one that will serve him long after his vanishing youth no longer sparks automatic affection or sympathy. And that youth disappearing quickly, as it always does for the gifted and talented. Nadal will always seem a man of the earth and a man of the people; it's as much part of his nature as civilized superiority is of Federer's.

But that still leaves the question hanging: Will Nadal be as great a player when it's not longer about fulfilling a seemingly impossible dream, or scaling an unimaginable heights? For many people, the test is more interesting than the reward you earn for passing it, and accomplishing a particularly demanding task is an end in and of itself. We know why that is: once you've really fought hard for and earned something, the next thing is taking care of it - the next thing is responsibility. Federer is in many ways a very responsible man - you can see it in, among other things, his relationship with his wife, Mirka. Nadal hasn't had to be responsible until now, and over the next few months we'll see how he likes it.

We're very luck that there's an age difference of about four years between Federer and Nadal; in tennis, that's half-a-lifetime. That difference keeps their trajectories from becoming intertwined to the point of confusion. Like candles in a dark gallery, the light they shed also serves to heighten the contrast between them, and it dramatizes each man's signature qualities. For some years now, Federer has been the bar by which Nadal has measured himself. But the events of the last 12 months have taken away that handy yardstick.

In the coming months, Nadal will have to find a new yardstick, or risk returning to the played-out game we might as well call Catching Roger. It will be very, very hard to beat Federer at Wimbledon, which is his Roland Garros, terra sacre. This year, though, Federer will have nothing to prove and nobody to impress. With a win at Wimbledon, Federer will surpass Pete Sampras's all-time Grand Slam singles title record. But more than being a test for that reason, Wimbledon will be Federer's victory lap following the completion of his career Grand Slam. Given that he'll be under no pressure whatsoever, and still basking in the afterglow of his win in Paris, you have to reckon that he's going to be one free-swinging, dangerous hombre.

I suppose those who would like to see Rafa win (or Federer lose) could always hope that Federer gets a dangerous journeyman,. a Robin Soderling or someone like that, in the fourth round at Wimbledon.

It's been known to happen you know, and it can change the tennis landscape.

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