The Return of the Persistents

Monday, March 18, 2013 /by

INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—Last spring, as they gained momentum through the clay season, I began to refer to Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova together as the Persistents. That trait, which they obviously share, paid off in Roland Garros titles for both of them. But it didn’t pay off forever. Neither would win another tournament all year.

Sunday, though, the Persistents, like two sides of the same penny—a good one, not a bad one—rolled back up and spun around, shiny and bright, at our feet in Indian Wells. Sharapova won her first title since Paris; Nadal won his most important. They are, at least on the surface, stone-cold opposites. He’s Mediterranean fire; she’s Siberian ice. She never lets her guard down; he never puts his up. He wins with innocent passion; she wins with ruthless professionalism. But they have one thing in common: They keep getting back up.

Yesterday Nadal and Sharapova ended up in the same spot, in the winner's circle again, smiling like little kids, their fierce selves left behind for a few minutes. They held the same strange, abstract and, as Nadal said, “very heavy” BNP Paribas winner’s trophy—Rafa struggled to find a place to bite his, Maria struggled to pick hers up. That’s how the Persistents’ week ended, but you get the feeling their seasons have just begun.

*****

“When you have one comeback like I’m having,” Rafael Nadal said after his three-set, near-epic win over Juan Martin del Potro, “you remember all the low things, lower moments that you had during this seven months, doubts and all these things. So beating three Top 10 players and winning a title like this is just something unbelievable for me. Very, very happy, and very emotional.”

When have we heard this before from Rafa? The better question may be: When haven’t we heard this before? He said something similar after he won his first French Open, in 2005; the previous year, he had been unable to play the tournament because of a foot injury. He said it again when he won in Paris in 2006; that winter, he had been forced to miss the Australian Open. He said it through his tears at Roland Garros in 2010, while remembering the injuries that had forced him to withdraw from Wimbledon the year before. Even last season, when he jumped into the stands at the French Open after beating Novak Djokovic, the feeling was the same. Rafa embraced his uncle Toni, and they celebrated the end of a year-long losing streak to his nemesis in Grand Slam finals. Those had also been low moments for Nadal.

Usually, as you can see, Rafa saves these words and feelings for Paris. The French Open, with its friendly red clay, is his customary reward after his annual bout of that favorite word of his: “suffering.” But this year, after his longest spell of suffering yet, he had the same redemptive experience two months earlier, at Indian Wells. The hard surface here is less friendly to his game and his knees, but the emotion made sense anyway. Nadal has taken to calling this event a home away from home, a place where he typically begins to feel good about his game again, a tournament that he might have skipped this year if he didn’t like it so much.

This is the pattern of Nadal’s career, and how his competitive psyche works. He must fall to get up. A stoic and realist with a wide streak of self-doubt, he distrusts easy success and thrives when he feels oppressed, when he must prove something to himself again.

Nadal proved it in vintage fashion against del Potro on Sunday. Even within this match, he had to rebound from some low moments. Nadal was down a set and a break, and he looked distinctly like the second best player on the court for much of the day. He spent many rallies scrambling back near the linesmen, spinning around desperately, and often futilely, to try to get in position for del Potro’s next bullet forehand. When Rafa did get a chance to attack, he pulled the trigger too early and made errors. 

“I lost a little bit of my calm,” Nadal said. “I didn’t choose the right shots...I think I was wrong in strategy, something that for me is unusual. I can have mistakes with the shots, but how I have to manage the points, normally I am right.”

We know Nadal wins with emotion. But his words here point to the intelligence of his game, the amount of thought that goes into it, something that isn’t always appreciated. This week I was struck, seeing Nadal in practice a few times, by how much technical talk there was between Rafa and his coach, Francisco Roig (Toni Nadal doesn't travel to Indian Wells). They would argue, in animated, rapid-fire fashion, over the angle that Rafa should use to hit a certain shot, and try over and over again to find the right stance and balance for his strokes. Even this morning, a couple of hours before the final, they were chattering about his forehand while Nadal warmed up inside the stadium. As Rafa tried to walk off the court, Roig pulled him back for one last demonstration of the motion he wanted. The tinkering never seems to end with Nadal, and there's more than just strength and willpower in those shots.

The joy that Nadal finds in winning never seems to end, or diminish, either. After the final point of his 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 win, Rafa dove to his knees and saluted the crowd and the sky and maybe the sun with an abandon and intensity that reminded me of his celebration after his U.S. Open win in 2010. After a quick salute to the Sun King of Indian Wells, Larry Ellison, Nadal ran over and leaped into the stands to embrace Roig and his team.

The rest of the audience could feel Rafa’s emotion. It was strong enough, as it usually is when he wins, to pull everyone into its childlike force field. But only his coaches, the men who had worked with him here and over the last three months to get him back into top-level playing shape so quickly, who tinkered with the strokes, fixed the footwork, and kept him believing in himself, could understand exactly what this win meant. After the months of lows, this was a well-deserved, and hard-earned, high moment.

*****

Maria Sharapova, like Rafael Nadal, always sets the agenda. He walks on court with his racquet already in his left hand, ready to do battle. She walks on court with immaculate precision, her eyes already set in a laser stare. 

Like Rafa, Sharapova slows things down when the match gets underway. She plays at her own, deliberate, calculated pace; I timed her between service points in Australia and she took the allotted 20 seconds—no more, no less. She does her best to control time.

And sound. The stunning noise that Maria makes when she hits the ball is a kind of declaration of intent, a dare: Match this intensity, or you’re going to be roadkill. With her cream-and-gold Head court bag over her shoulder, she’s the most put-together killer you’re ever going to meet.

Against Caroline Wozniacki in the final here on Sunday, Sharapova went above and beyond when it came to the intimidation factor. She began by breaking serve with three frozen-rope winners in the opening game. When Wozniacki missed her first serve long, Sharapova would send the ball whistling past her and into the tarp at the back of the court. The message was clear, and it was repeated even more lethally when Wozniacki tossed an 80 M.P.H. second serve into the middle of the box—that kind of pace and location wasn’t going to get it done. 

In other words, Wozniacki wasn’t going to get it done. While Sharapova wouldn’t be quite as flawless as she was in that first game, she never let her overmatched opponent up for air. Sharapova hit 33 winners; Wozniacki hit two. That, as much as the 6-2, 6-2 scoreline, was all you need to know about how this one went.

“If she has time, she can make you hit so many balls,” Sharapova said of Wozniacki, “and that’s not really the way I want to be. It was good to get a good hit on the first ball, which I thought I did quite well and opened up the court.”

“It’s a final. You have to come out with your best. You have to be ready to go.” 

However seriously Maria has taken her preparations for occasions like these, though, she hasn’t risen to them all that well over the last year. Her win over Wozniacki today leaves her 4-6 in finals since the start of 2012. And she certainly benefited from not having to face Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, or Li Na, all of whom have beaten her in recent months, and all of whom can hold their own with her in the power department much more easily than Wozniacki. 

But if you cast your memory back a little farther, you might have had a sense today that Sharapova’s long-running return to form hasn’t yet peaked. She may still be getting better. Two years ago, on these same slow hard courts at Indian Wells, Wozniacki beat Sharapova 6-1, 6-2—the roles, essentially, were reversed. I can remember being skeptical after that match that Maria would ever be steady enough to win another Grand Slam. A year later at Indian Wells she lost in the final to Azarenka, and I wasn’t quite as skeptical. But while her game had steadied, her nerves hadn't yet.

Today the nerves were still there. You could feel them from Sharapova, as you often can when you’re in the arena while she’s playing, as she tried to close out the always tenacious Wozniacki, who was never going to make it easy. Sharapova was, after all, trying to win her first title since last June. But while she hit her share of wild shots today—she finished with 25 errors to go with all of those winners—this time there was no noticeable drop in confidence after a shank. Sharapova answered each miss with a make.

Sharapova was surprised when it was suggested that she was taking big risks from the baseline. In her mind, she was playing the percentages.

“Funny,” she said, “you’re not the first person that said I was hitting quite big. Did it look like it? Didn’t really feel like it. I didn’t feel like I was hitting rockets out there. I thought I was being aggressive, but I was doing the right things and being patient enough and looking for the right shot.”

If that’s true, it’s a little scary. Can Sharapova find this balance of power and patience on a regular basis? She’ll get stiffer competition in the coming months, but other than her dud semifinal at the Australian Open, she has started 2013 in impressive form—remember how good she was in her first five matches in Melbourne? At 25, after a decade on tour, this ultimate professional, the well-accessorized killer, is back at No. 2 in the rankings and still finding ways to improve. 

At the start of this post, I wrote that Nadal was the fire to Maria Sharapova’s ice. Really, in the way they approach the game, in their never-dying desire and never-flagging work ethic, they’re two sides of the same persistent coin. Tennis’s good pennies, they keep coming back for more.

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