“You find something new each time.”
This is a phrase that’s used—not very often—to describe a favorite movie or book or record or painting or TV series. At first glance, the work in question seems simple and straightforward. It’s only later, when you think back on it or revisit it, that its subtler touches and hidden complexities become apparent. You know you’ve found a classic—Exile on Main Street, Late Spring, Speak, Memory, The Warriors—when those touches never stop revealing themselves.
There may come a time when Rafael Nadal’s game stops revealing itself, when I’ve stopped finding new things in it or finding new ways to think about it. But it hasn’t happened yet. The simple surface of his style—hit heavy topspin ground strokes—is more deceptive than any other player’s. It’s the details that surround that simple style that keep you watching, even when he's marching to his seventh straight title in Monte Carlo and beginning yet another assault on a new clay-court season.
As Nadal said after the final, he wasn’t at his absolute best during this tournament. His serve came and went, he said he felt tired at times and that he wasn’t moving on the clay as well he would like. Nadal was so far off his game, in fact, that he even lost a set, to Andy Murray in the semifinals, something he hadn’t done in two years here. And there were moments in his long, grind-it-out final against David Ferrer when I started to think his clay dominance had finally become boring—if there was ever an argument for best-two-out-of-three in Masters finals, this was it. But as the war of attrition progressed through a 75-minute first set, I kept thinking about a remark that the Tennis Channel’s Chris Wilkinson had made repeatedly about Nadal’s game the previous day. When Nadal would come up with a fabulous get and go on to win the point, Wilkinson chalked it up not so much to his raw speed or defensive skills, but to the fact that he has the unique ability to get to a ball on the dead run and then do something special with that shot or a shot later in the same rally. It’s the physical aspect of Nadal's game that makes us overlook the racquet skills that complement it, and which raise his game above the norm.
It was true time and again in the final. Rather than his strength or endurance, it was what Nadal could do with the ball from a seemingly hopeless position that separated him from Ferrer, and what separates him in general from his opponents. Here’s a partial list of moments that stick in the mind from both the semis and the final:
—Murray hits a ball crosscourt wide to Nadal’s forehand side. Nadal scrambles into the alley and scrapes it back over the net. Murray hits the next ball down the middle. Nadal gets to it on the full run. Instead of just popping the ball back deep, which most of us would have been happy to do in that situation, he tries a backhand drop shot while still in mid-stride. The shot surprises Murray, who reaches the ball but can’t get it over the net.
—Nadal is up a break at 3-2 in the first set against Ferrer, but he’s down 0-40 on his serve. It’s been a somewhat shaky and unpredictable start for both guys, with three early breaks and what seems sure to be a fourth. But Nadal gets the score back to 30-40. On that point, Ferrer hits what appears to be an ungettable drop shot. But Nadal gets it. After a full-stretch slide forward, he just manages to put his strings under the ball. Rather than just pushing it over the net, though, he controls it well enough to drop it back for a winning shot. The score is deuce. Nadal goes on to hold. The early unpredictability of the match is over and he slowly puts a stranglehold on it.
—In the second set of the final, Ferrer hits either an overhead or a high volley (I can’t remember which) toward Nadal’s forehand. Nadal is clearly on the defensive, and in most cases a player would be pleased just to return this shot. But Nadal improvises by hitting a flat forehand, instead of his usual heavy top, and taking some pace off the ball. Perfectly controlled, it moves on a low line down the middle of the court and an inch or two over the net, so that Ferrer can’t put the next ball away. I don’t recall how the point ends, but that forehand stays in my mind as what I can only describe as a pure tennis shot, one that feels good coming off the racquet because it’s such a delicate one to get right. But once again, it was the physical quality of Nadal's get that overshadowed the delicate aspect of the shot that went with it.
I could go on, but I’ll finish by going back to something more familiar from the Rafa reportoire. As the second set progressed, he began to lose his backhand and some of his confidence. Ferrer, somewhat predictably, helped him out by totally botching his service game at 5-5. Nadal, still struggling, reached 30-30 in the next game, two points from the match. He chose that moment to make what was likely his most aggressive play of the entire set. Instead of starting another crosscourt rally, he took a forehand down the line, hit it close to the sideline, and followed it forward for a winning volley. That ability to show nerves and then, with calibrated boldness, shrug them off at the crucial moment is, as we like to say, the mark of a champion. It’s also something I’ve seen Rafael Nadal do more often, with more success, than any other player.
There's more than one way to recognize a classic. You might, as I said, keep finding new new elements in it to appreciate every time you watch. Or, and this is the more satisfying way, you might see something for the thousandth time and find it just as stunning and brilliant as you did the first.