Some of you may take this as yet another post having to do with the recent controversies in Madrid, but I tell you truthfully that I've been wanting to write about Rafael Nadal for some time now. More specifically, I've wanted to work through why I don't feel as sympathetic toward him as I once did. A thought that occurred to me a few days ago, during the height of the brouhaha over blue, probably holds to key to why my reaction to his opinions and complaints over the past 18 months or so has slowly but almost inexorably drifted away from the compassionate, toward the critical.
That I feel obliged to mull on this is already a bad sign, because it suggests that the neutrality with which someone in my shoes ought to approach his subjects has been compromised from the start. That's okay; we all know, or ought to know, that a journalist should never imagine himself objective, but he must always try to be fair. But also, my sympathy and skepticism are both emotional reactions rooted in care; I think differently, and more, about Rafa than I do about, say, Tomas Berdych or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, about whom I think hardly at all until I must.
Anyway, you know what Rafa said about the blue clay shortly after playing his first match on the stuff: ''Being able to move is very important for me and if I can't move well, I can't hit the ball well either. . . If things don't change, this will be one less tournament on the calendar for me.'' Digesting that quote, I found myself thinking that if this experiment had been launched three or four years ago, Nadal would more likely have said something like, This surface is strange, no? But what I can do? I gonna try get used to and maybe play better next time. . .
But this is the more mature Nadal, the one who is now familiar with seasons of discontent. It seems like it's just one thing after another—most of them bad—for the former No. 1 and a 25-year-old, 10-time Grand Slam champion. It started with the knees in 2009 (you can discount that elbow injury that kept Nadal out of the first French Open he might have played in 2003, because at that stage he was still too young to know what he was getting into). It was a young man's first real brush with mortality, but other disappointments would soon follow along with the great triumphs. It sounds bizarre, but it seems that once he shed the sleeveless shirts and piratas of his youth, he was obliged to don the weight of the world—grow up, just like all the rest of us.
Most of you are familiar with his dissatisfactions: The engorged calendar, the ranking system (he lobbied to have it transformed into one that was based on 24 months or results, rather than 12), his seemingly never quite right knees, the blue clay. . . Rafa isn't the only player to complain about such things, but none of his peers at the top of the game seems to have quite as many issues, or appear to take them so personally (to the point where he quit the ATP player council, seemingly because his fellow pros just didn't understand). And very few other players, anywhere in the rankings, are so critical of their own profession and plight (if that's the right word) at age 25. Those all seem like warning signs.
Nadal's obsessive nature, so useful to him on the court, may not be a great navigational device as he continues to mature. In what seemed at times like a self-fulfilling prophecy, Nadal declared during the Monte Carlo tournament that he didn't like the idea of blue clay, and he continued to hammer away at the theme in the days leading up to Madrid. "I've told you I do not think it's the right decision," Nadal said after he won at Barcelona. "Especially to put it in the middle of the clay season."
I'm not sure where else you could put the unique event, but never mind. Rafa's attitude goes to show that in his mind the clay season is a very specific entity, and who can blame him? He built his empire on the dirt, and it became his base for conquering other worlds (via the impact clay results had on his ranking, never mind his confidence and his reputation in the eyes of his peers). And clay plays an enormous role in what claim he or others would make for his superiority over his great rival, Roger Federer.
Nadal leads in the head-to-head with Federer, 18-10. Twelve of those wins (compared to just two by Federer) were on clay courts—including five at Roland Garros, four of them in finals and one in a semifinal. The side of that statistic that few Nadal fans like to talk about is that Federer was always there to meet him, frustrating as it was for the Swiss champion—yet Nadal conspicuously missed similar appointments with Federer on the other surfaces.
One thing you never hear Nadal speak about is how lucky he is to have a game that works so well on clay, or how much it has helped him that the European spring tour features three clay-court Masters events (Monte Carlo, Madrid, and Rome), at which Nadal has collected 14 of his record 20 Masters shields (he's tied with Federer in that count).
The success of the European clay events is one of the great business stories of the Open era, given that back at the dawn of the new age (1968), three of the four Grand Slam events were contested on grass. As well, the French Open was held in such low regard that many players skipped it in order to collect big checks from World Team Tennis (includeing Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, and Evonne Goolagong). Roland Garros ultimately was saved and rehabilitated by a visionary journalist-turned-administrator, Philippe Chatrier—and the European clay-court circuit, once more of a social highlight than athletic spectacle, and in danger of becoming irrelevant in the new Open era, flourished along with it.
I don't want to belittle Nadal's accomplishments in pointing all this out, I just want to add a little perspective to what seems to me his (and Toni Nadal's) fairly narrow scope. There is no higher law saying there must be three Masters in a startling five weeks, and in such proximity that you might be tempted to drive or take a train instead of fly from one to another. The main beneficiary of this situation has been Rafa. And there's no law saying that the red clay on which those tournaments are contested is the only legitimate kind of clay, nevermind the idea that it's the only surface on which Europeans can or ought to hold tournaments. And the main beneficiary of that underlying sentiment has also been Rafa.
Given the sophistication of Europeans, there's a real provincialism underpinning these articles of faith, and Toni and Rafael Nadal are good representatives of that. Apparently, Rafa is as obsessive about clay-court tournaments as he is about those famous water bottles (I sometimes think he's just shy of thinking of them as "his" clay court tournaments, and with good reason). But I also thought Toni Nadal's most recent remarks about Ion Tiriac were out of line. He said, in part:
"I'll thank you if you take him (Tiriac) somewhere else, to see if we can organize [the Madrid tournament] without him ... but the blame is also with ATP that allowed Tiriac to do that. What power this man must have that allows him to change customs and habits of the players. . ."
As far a showboating quotes go, those are pretty good. But let's not forget that Uncle Toni's only contribution to professional tennis has been limited to the service he's rendered as coach and father figure to his nephew, which is not just pretty narrow but ultimately much less relevant to moving the game forward than many of the things Tiriac has done. Never mind Tiriac's other activities, and the role he's played in the rehabilitation of eastern Europe.
Getting back to Rafa, in some ways I think he's backsliding from those great strides he took in 2010 toward becoming a true man of the tennis world. At one time, his youth and what I can only describe as his provincial aura were so appealing that you had to fight the urge to see him as some kind of earnest kid brother. But as he's gotten older he's lost a little of that innocence, along with some of his hair and that comic-bookish image promoted by the piratas and sleeveless shirts.
Maybe that's something that I, and others, just have to get used to. Nothing lasts forever, and certainly not youth. This loss is one we all share.