by Pete Bodo
LONDON—Rafael Nadal has a few qualities that are not readily apparent in, nor particularly suggested by his game, which can be described as the most savage, ruthless and violent brand of tennis this world has ever seen. Two of those qualities bring new meaning to the compound word, counterintuitive: patience and compassion, and both were on display after Nadal advanced to his fifth consecutive Wimbledon final (discounting 2009, the year he missed the entire event with injury). Rafa will play Novak Djokovic for the title on Sunday after quelling the insurgent challenge of Andy Murray, 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 in almost exactly three hours on Centre Court.
Reviewing the match, which had an arc as simple and comparable as the Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Roger Federer match of the other day, Nadal said: "In general, I think Andy played very, very high level especially the first set and the beginning of the second, too." Nadal paused for emphasis. "Seriously—I felt he was better player than me at that moment, so I just waited for my moment."
Waited for my moment.
When that moment finally arrived, Nadal was more than ready; for now, let's just note that after making only four unforced errors in the first set—not a bad stretch of work in a Wimbledon semi by anyone's estimation—Nadal made none in the second set, and a grand total of three in the third and fourth sets. He waited for his moment, and when it arrived he wasted not a nanosecond of it.
The other outstanding quality that seems almost antithetical in one whose game can be described as "primal" is his compassion—and it's not just the garden-variety compassion that most decent pros display when interviewed and nudged to commiserate with their beaten rivals after a match is finished. Oh, Nadal expressed his sympathy for Murray when the BBC wrangled him for the off-court/on-court interview immediately after the match (the interview is conducted in a studio in the stadium), but he later elaborated on it in his presser, when a reporter remarked on the seeming authenticity of his concern.
"I felt that (compassion) during the court, too. I'm not a robot when I'm playing, I think." It was, in its own way, a pretty startling confession. Aren't athletes supposed to thump their chests and brag on how effectively they block out emotion and distraction during big moments, prattle on about how they're so "focused" on themselves that they could hardly even tell you the name of the bum across the net? Isn't that how it's supposed to be when you go on the kind of roll that enables you to produce a match in which you make all of seven unforced errors over four sets and three hours? Nadal elaborated:
"Andy probably deserved to be Grand Slam winner. He's the best player without a title of Grand Slam that I ever see. So he deserve to be a champion of Grand Slam. Always he was there: final in Australia, semifinals Roland Garros, semifinals here another time. That's tough. I understand, no?
"Is not easy for him be there all the time, and finally he lost another time. But he's doing well. He's in the right way to win a Grand Slam. I always say the same. But that's what I feel, you know. I feel the reason is he needs little bit more lucky for moments and he will win. I still don't have any doubt on that."
It wasn't like Rafa needed to throw a pity-party for Murray, either. For it appeared throughout the first set and a good portion of the second that Murray might have finally cracked the Rafa Wimbledon code. He played a game relying on a finely and brilliantly calibrated combination of patience and risk—"high risk," as Murray later described it. The rationale behind it wasn't difficult to figure out, even if the execution was no simple matter. To beat Nadal on grass calls for a marriage of extreme caution and hawkish opportunism.
At the outset, Murray hit the ball firmly and decisively, well enough to have overwhelmed lesser players, but wonderfully in tune with Nadal's already high level. He knew he had to wait until just the right moment to pull the trigger: Nadal's own game is so inherently aggressive the wait is never long, but that doesn't really make it any easier to strike at exactly the right time. It may even make it more difficult, because the decision has to be made in the blink of an eye and usually at warp speed—the only pace Nadal knows. "To play like he played in the first set is not easy," Nadal admitted. "Is really difficult. He played really complete tennis."
Murray was belting his forehand and moving so well that in the critical 12th game of the first set, when Nadal was serving to get into a tiebreaker, Murray jumped out to a 40-0 lead and gave up just one point (a service winner to his backhand) before Nadal weakly sliced a backhand into the net off Murray's next service return. That was the set. The roar from the Centre Court crowd was like a clap of thunder.
Inspired, Murray threatened again in the fourth game of the second set. With Nadal serving at 1-2, 15-30, Murray had a long look at an easy forehand in the middle of the court, but he applied just a little too much zip and drove the ball long. Nadal—and untold millions around the world—would conclude that it was the turning point of the match, because Nadal would go on to hold, and Murray quite literally was not the same player thereafter. He was broken for the first time in the very next game by virtue of a one-two punch directed squarely at his own chin: a double fault and badly misjudged smash. He lost the next six games running.
Murray himself refused to assign that single point the outsized significance attributed to it by others. He said, "It was a big point. I was playing very high risk tennis for most of the match. I went for it today, and I started to make a few mistakes after that. But you can't talk about a match that goes almost three hours being, you know, decided based on one point. Against Rafa you have to go for big shots. I slightly overhit that one."
Murray added that those who would criticize him for missing the shot were the same critics who, had he played with less risk, would accuse him of playing too defensively. "Today I was going for all my shots, "he acknowledged. "And I started to make some mistakes afterwards. But, yeah, that point was one that I should have won for sure."
Whatever else is—or isn't—true, the near-perfection of Murray's game turned out to be unsustainable. And as well as he played early on, he paid a hefty price at the back end. The forehand went from being glorious to, at times, ghastly. He struggled to get back into the match without success until the fourth set, in which he was again broken early but faced one last opportunity. Murray dug his heels in when Nadal served to improve his lead to 3-1, and clawed his way to two break points. But Nadal hit a forehand volley winner to dismiss one and engaged Murray in a punishing rally which the British hope couldn't sustain to defuse the other.
That was Murray's last push, even though he was able to march toward the inevitable denouement in lock-step with Nadal. At one point late in the match, while there still remained a glimmer of hope, one of his agonized Scottish countrymen, relegated to the upper reaches of Centre Court, bellowed, "Be a real Braveheart, Andy. Come on, my son."
But Nadal had the braver heart on this day, and it was a surprisingly kind one as well.