Rafa: Flipping Stones

Monday, March 12, 2012 /by

Picby Pete Bodo

I'll say this much for Rafael Nadal: He has a way of keeping things very interesting. When it comes to his game, and his understanding of it, he's traveled far from the raw, explosive, ball-busting hellion who once went out with, seemingly, no more complicated a game plan than grinding his opponents into the red dirt with his punishing, one-dimensional, non-lefty-lefty game.

Just think about what Andre Agassi, who knows about such things, would call Nadal's "journey."

There's no need to run through the details, the meta-narrative is sufficient. And that one goes something like this: Despite his exceptional facility for clay-court tennis, Nadal has established himself as a force to reckon with on hard courts and grass almost effectively and swiftly as he became a clay-court champion.

In the first year he won the French Open, 2005, he also was a finalist (Miami) and winner (Canada) at two hard-court Masters events. He had a tough Wimbledon that year (losing to Gilles Muller in round two) but 12 months later he declared himself a serious threat to Roger Federer by pushing the world No. 1 before capitulating in the Wimbledon final.

The disparity in the ages of the men (Federer is almost a full five years older, which is just about half a lifespan in tennis) enhanced the idea that Nadal was engaged in a desperate and grueling effort to unseat the dominant and seemingly invincible champion, but the reality is that Federer's age "advantage" made it seem like Nadal had to pass certain trials by fire in order to challenge the icon. And now that advantage has become a handicap.

The statistics suggest that were Federer and Nadal the same age, they might have been locked in mortal combat as equals almost from Day 1. As it is, the issue seemed settled when Nadal assumed the No. 1 ranking for the first time in August of 2008.

Given the recent history of those two men, Novak Djokovic matured just in time to prevent the tour from becoming one long memorial celebration of Federer's life (in tennis) and one long victory lap for Nadal. Facts are facts, and Nadal not only owns an 18-9 edge on Federer, he also leads the Grand Slam event head-to-head by a whopping 8-2.

But Djokovic has certainly stepped up and done his bit to vouchsafe Federer's reputation as the greatest Grand Slam singles champion of all time, even if it has added unexpected complications to Nadal's journey. No matter how you cut it, none of the top players of recent years have experienced anything like the number of career plots and sub-plots known to Nadal. Well, I can think of one, and he's an unlikely suspect indeed: Andy Roddick.

Have you noticed that Nadal is becoming more and more like Roddick with almost every passing tournament, now that Djokovic is in clear command? I mean that in the sense that when Roddick realized that he didn't have quite the stuff he needed to retain his brief hold on the No. 1 ranking and/or win more than one Grand Slam event (the 2003 U.S. Open), he embarked on what would be a career-long quest to improve. Over the years, he overturned every rock, covering every issue from fitness to tactics to strategy, looking for a way to remain competitive.

There's a touch of that seeker, that Roddick, in Nadal these days. And I don't think it was there when he was wrestling for sovereignty with Federer.

Rafa is just back from a long hiatus (it started when he lost the Australian Open final to Djokovic) that was pretty much dedicated to working on a way to stop the slide against the Serb. Djokovic has closed to 14-16 against Nadal, but has won their last seven matches, including three consecutive Grand Slam finals.

What did Nadal talk about with reporters at Indian Wells, after playing—and winning—his first competitive match in a month?

His serve. X's and Os. Details Roddick would appreciate, looking back on the days when he was working on that down-the-line backhand. In any event, Rafa hasn't been thinking about anything deep or philosophical or meta.

It seems that Rafa has re-thought his enthusiasm for the kind of blazing serve that helped earn him his career Grand Slam at the U.S. Open in 2010. He explained: "The problem is if I don't serve the perfect serve the ball come back faster, so I need to play a little bit slower game to have the control of the point. And serving that fast I can have more free points, but my mentality and my style of game doesn't go to this way. When I am serving that fast, I tried in another times, but I feel like I am losing a little bit the control of my whole game."

Keeping in mind that Djokovic is already is among the great all-time serve returners, and how effectively he took control. . .oh, you know what I'm getting at.

You get the feeling that Nadal, contemplating his Djokovic dilemma, has flipped plenty of stones in recent weeks—and found interesting things lying under them. Presently, his road seems rocky enough, but then it's a long trail, the end is not anywhere in sight yet, and who knows what lies around the next bend?

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