Cashing Our Chips

Monday, April 23, 2012 /by

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by Pete Bodo

We owe it to Novak Djokovic not to read too much into Rafael Nadal's surprisingly lopsided (6-3, 6-1) triumph in yesterday's Monte Carlo Masters final. After all, Djokovic is the undisputed No. 1, the only Grand Slam event winner thus far this year, and he's still beaten Nadal in seven of their last eight matches.

But it would be an oversight not to lavish praise on Nadal for the way he managed to keep the faith while Djokovic beat up on him, time and again, in one of the more unexpected insurgencies in recent tennis history. By the time Djokovic's big push was done in the autumn of 2011, he'd wrested away the No. 1 ranking from Nadal and relegated Roger Federer, No. 1 before Nadal, to No. 3. 

John McEnroe did something similar in his rivalries with Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg, but that process was a more time-consuming one, so it lacked the drama and the shock that accompanied Djokovic's conquests. For Nadal, particularly, Nole's surge had to be biting as a slap in the face, coming as it did on the heels of Nadal's spectacular year of 2010.

Nadal partisans make a big deal out of his humility, as if he were actually nicer than the legions of other nice guys within half-a-mile radius of where you sit reading this, just because of that bolo forehand, those Guns 'n Buns, and his acquiescence to his Uncle Toni. Athlete-worship is a form of celebrity-worship, and therefore not to be trusted because the evidence from which we draw our conclusions isn't direct, personal, or even reliable.

In Nadal's case, though, that humility is at least real if not necessarily justification for his canonization. We know, because it has been a clear and demonstrable component in his success. Or to put it more accurately, the kind of realism that yields humility has been of great use to him. Nadal is pre-disposed to accept truth as a plain and simple thing—is there anyone who so assiduously avoids elaborate rationalizations, excuses, and ominous or cryptic hintings? If there's one word that you can't ever attach to Nadal, it's "snide."

Nadal is honest to a fault, that fault being—these days—his management of the injury themes and issues that affect his career. You know why Nadals's knees crop up so consistently in the news and conversations with him? Because they're that important to him, that's why.

Imagine that.

Nadal isn't one to downplay—or exaggerate—a given theme out of pride, a cagey desire to keep secrets, or some antediluvian concept of sportsmanship (which demands that you bite your lip and deny that anything is wrong as you limp through a bad loss). He talks about his knees because he thinks and worries about his knees—and, of course, because he's asked frequently about them.

Ask this guy a direct question and you get a direct answer. That's one thing you have to love about Nadal. In fact, his transparency comes close to being unique in an environment where a lot of breath is expended on explaining away things in 500 words where 50 would suffice. I think we've come to take him for granted, and to some degree we've even turned Rafa into a bit of a cliche (I plead guilty, for my own part in that process). We even imitate his diction and patterns of speech because they're so . . . Rafa.

Thankfully, none of these ancillary issues have much bearing on how he fares on the court. But they are reflected there, and of one thing I am sure: If you were looking to teach a kid how to accept triumphs and setbacks in any area of life, how to manage success and failure, you might not have to look much further than Nadal.

Just look at what he said one the eve of the Monte Carlo final, when he was asked about the significance of the upcoming match with Djokovic: "When you lost seven, don't (mean) nothing if I lost eight. That's the real thing, no? You lose seven or eight, doesn't change a lot. First one is a lot. Second is 50 percent more. So now 10 percent less every time. The pain is less, too."

A skeptical voice asked: "Are you sure the pain is less?"

Nadal replied: "Sure. Finally you accept, and you keep fighting."

He added, as if everyone needed reminding, "It Is an important match."

The subtext, wholly unintended (this is not a guy who does "subtext"), is that Nadal will keep accepting and keep fighting, and as that pain diminishes you'd better watch out because there's no back-up in him. And coming as it did at the onset of the clay season, this win had extra value as a kind of "reset" moment. Twelve months after Djokovic embarked on the most daunting portion of the year, the segment that Rafa has owned since he first appeared on the tour, Nadal has temporarily re-asserted his sovereignty.

Monte Carlo produced a lackluster final, partly because Djokovic was off his feed in a way that he never was in 2011, not in a single match, until long after the end of the U.S. Open a year ago. It's as pointless to speculate about the degree to which Djokovic's malaise was due to the death of his grandfather as it is to wonder what role Nadal's tendinitis has in a given match. But this surprising result raises the question, which is the real Nole?

Is it the fun-loving impersonator and dancin' fool who finds inspiration only in fits and starts? The terminator we beheld in 2011? Or has he moved on beyond both those identities, recalibrating his competitive compass to put him on a course where he hits all the peak moments in his best form and doesn't really sweat the small stuff?

I'm inclined to think the answer is the latter, because that helps explain (to me, at least, and I've needed convincing) why Djokovic wandered so brazenly into what has to be Nadal's most well-guarded haven, Monte Carlo. What, last year's schedule was somehow poorly designed? (Djokovic rested and left Monte Carlo to Nadal, returned to competition in Belgrade, Serbia, and then ambushed Rafa at Madrid and Rome.)

We'll get more answers to some of these questions in the coming weeks, and not for the best of reasons. This was the 18th time in the past 19 Masters tournaments (and the 12th straight) that the winner was one of the Big Four who occupy the top of the ATP rankings, so it's a safe bet that we'll be seeing more of these two characters in the coming weeks. And that "contender gap" appears to be widening. Just look at how some of the other closely-watched players fared in the first Masters on red clay:

No. 4 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: He was by far the biggest disappointment of the tournament, even if clay isn't his forte. He barely went through the motions as he lost to French countryman and No. 9 seed Gilles Simon in the quarterfinals, despite the winner having had to call the trainer because he felt inexplicably "lethargic." How do you lose to a guy who's mired in lethargy? You tell me.

No. 5 David Ferrer: A dogged clay-courter whom you can almost count on to go deep into a tournament stumbled out in the third round (but his second match, thanks to the bye system) to Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil, 6-3, 6-2. 

No. 6 Tomas Berdych: He upset No. 3 seed Andy Murray, and he got a set off Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, so I guess you can say he did his part in the attempt to wrest control of a Masters away from the Top 4. Still, this was a week when top-seeded Djokovic was vulnerable, and once again Berdych could not close the deal.

No. 7 Janko Tisparevic: He was also a victim of Simon, one of the few seeded players who gets a star on his chart for this tournament. But Janko is one of those guys who always punches above his weight class, so it hardly makes sense blaming him.

No. 8 Nicolas Almagro: Another guy who could insert himself into the semifinals conversation at any tournament on clay, Almagro disappointed with a third-round loss to Stan Wawrinka.

It doesn't make much sense going beyond the Top 8, but no. 9 seed Simon is one of the few guys who deserves a gold star on his chart for his performance last week. And No. 16 Alexandr Dolgolopov also acquitted himself well, taking out Juan Ignacio Chela and Bernard Tomic before he capitulated to Djokovic in the third round.

Among the unseeded players, Robin Haase and Stanislas Wawrinka get credit for making the quarterfinals—Haase in the spot originally reserved for Ferrer, and Wawrinka as a stand-in for Almagro. But in the end, once again the final featured two of the Big Four—and that was with one of them (No. 3 Roger Federer) not even in the tournament.

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