The Radical Conventional
Mornin'. I'm coming off eight hours sleep for the first time in weeks, so watch out, keyboard! Ha. Seriously, though, a regular night's sleep in the cool, tangy country air is tonic for the soul and mind. And I find it helps me think clearly and maybe get a little further under the skin of things, including the huge achievement of Rafael Nadal.
The problem for me on the night of the U.S. Open men's singles final was having to choose between writing a "gamer" (a story emphasizing the match play and its attendant details) or a "reaction" piece analyzing the big picture meaning of the match, and how Rafa managed to complete a career Grand Slam. I felt appropriately torn. Whichever I chose, I had to ignore some tantalizing issues. But as journalists have been said to be the authors of "the first draft of history," I thought I ought to go with the Big Picture piece. Besides, you all saw the match—you didn't need my eyes to tell you what just happened.
It's a pity, in a way, because I am still trying to figure out how to explain why this final seems likely to lodge in my mind as one of the best tennis matches I've ever seen; it's right up there, as of now, somewhere in the top half-dozen. That's because I've rarely seen so compelling a display of the pure, shotmaking sensibility that Novak Djokovic brought to the court, nor the gale-force power, consistency, and athleticism of Nadal. And while Novak hit the most glorious winners, one of my match notes says I've never seen anyone hit a tennis ball as persuasively as Rafa Nadal.
Roger Federer (don't ever expect me to write about Rafa without Roger's name lurking eight or 11 characters distant) routinely produces magical shots, and he's been as close to an embodiment of quicksilver as anyone who ever played this game. But nobody, including Federer, swings the racket (at least on the forehand side) with the unique combination of raw, explosive power and absolute control as Nadal. Every decent player can do this now and then—time the arrival of a ball and generate adequate racquet-head speed and force to hit the most punishing shot of which he is capable. But nobody can do it as routinely, and make it so intrinsic a part of his game plan, as Nadal.
The sheer brutality of a typical Nadal forehand is a quality that attracts some and repels others. Those who are put off by it might appreciate the gladitorial splendor a bit more if they also acknowledged that to belt a ball with such force requires enormous natural power (is there a better one word description of the essence of life in all its forms than "power"?), applied in a very different way than, say, crushing the skull of a sabertooth tiger with a rock. To hit a tennis shot the way Nadal does repeatedly also demands exquisite timing, body control, and an astonishing degree of discipline and self-assurance—the latter being qualities we generally hold in the highest regard. Each swing of that piledriving forehand basically shouts, "I was born to do this."
Nadal's self-assurance—or should I say, the self-assurance expressed in the shots he hits and the way he hits them—is a radiant, somehow soothing thing to behold. Whatever else you say about it, the only thing you know for sure is that he can't possibly do that thing he's doing any better. It's a fully-realized idea. Don't you wonder how it feels to Nadal himself to hit that shot, a jolt of satisfaction that can only be blunted by the startling frequency with which he must experience it? Most of us get to experience that feeling now and then, but rarely in an undertaking involving ball and racket, and never with such frequency.
I don't think you can appreciate what Nadal brings to the table without backtracking to his early days on the ATP tour, or without contemplating the sometimes fierce disdain some have for Nadal. Think of it this way: If you look out your window and see your neighbor walking to the bus station on his hands, you're likely to jump up and shout: Kids, come quick, Kowalski is walking to the bus upside down! But see it repeatedly, and by the third week you're likely to just glance up and mutter, Look at that silly Kowalski, those socks don't even match his shoes!
That's how it is with Rafa; he's turned the radical into the conventional. To say he plays "ugly" tennis has evolved from an aesthetic and already somewhat irrelevant observation into an astonishing declaration of ignorance. A bitter fan of one of his rivals can cling to it; any port in storm and all that. But the reality as I see it is that Nadal figured out a new way to accomplish the paramount goal in tennis, or any game: to win.
The more important truth is that Nadal plays "successful" tennis, and that matters. It's why they keep score, and also why we can appreciate beautiful tennis as well. I don't think you would sell many tickets to a tennis match if it were just a demonsration, like dance, even if the star were as gifted and eye-pleasing a player as Federer. And if you still haven't gotten over that that "ugly tennis" hump, just try to appreciate that a player who hits his forehand like David Ferrer—in other words, a wonderful, effective, even pretty forehand—can only aspire to be as good as Ferrer, which is danged good, but nowhere near as good as is Nadal.
I don't know that Nadal will transform tennis, re-making it in something like his own image the way the trinity of Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert and Bjorn Borg did when they showed up at roughly the same time with their two-handed backhands—the repercussions of which are still being felt. That's a big ask, because what Nadal does calls for a potent combination of superior, natural and learned abilities not easily distinguished from each other. Nadal may not transform the way the game is played, but there's no doubt in my mind that Nadal is essentially a transformational character, pointing the way toward a place that perhaps nobody else can reach.