Okay, allow me to invite an avalanche of criticism by saying something heretical, but also something many people are thinking: I’m getting tired of Rafael Nadal and his whole clay-court shtick. It’s all becoming a little bit like that movie in which the protagonist lives the same day, over and over: “Groundhog Day.”
During this time of the tennis year, Groundhog Day—although “week” might be a more accurate period—goes something like this: First, Rafa disavows that he’s well-nigh unbeatable on red clay. Then he goes out and demonstrates that he’s virtually unbeatable on red clay, bites the winner's trophy, and he goes to the next tournament where he does the same thing.
Rafa has lost to exactly three men in red-clay finals: all-time Grand Slam singles champion Roger Federer, six-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic, and Horacio Zeballos—the latter just a few months ago, in Nadal’s first event back from an eight-month layoff to rest and rehab his troubled knees. When Rafa returned, he showed that he was, to borrow the phrase once associated with disgraced U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, “Tan, rested and ready to run.”
Some people may take umbrage to Nadal’s name appearing so close to that of Nixon’s, but they share a common drift toward paranoia. Nadal professes not to believe in the invincibility that is so obvious to most of us; he seems to feel that all his success can come crashing down, at any moment, and he’s got the knees to prove it!
You want to know paranoid? Think back to the start of the Madrid Masters. There was Nadal, 39-6 in clay-court finals and 21-2 in this “comeback” year—with three titles already in his game pouch—coming off his win in Barcelona, declaring: “I don't see myself as winner. Not me really. . .I just feel myself to be competitive and I just want to give myself the opportunity to be able to fight and to be in a good position to fight until the final rounds.”
Once I stopped laughing hysterically after reading that, I thought a little bit about the role such pronouncements play in Nadal’s seemingly sincere humility and my clearly worsening case of Rafatigue. I somehow had expected that humility to have evolved and matured into something a little bit different over the past few years—something a little less inclined to make me merely nod my head approvingly and paternalistically remark, “Yes, that Rafa is truly a good, humble boy.”
I would gladly trade a few ounces of humility and focus for the same measure of growth and change, for very little seems to have changed thus far in Rafa’s life, or at least in that portion that we witness on a daily basis, and that seems a little sad. He’s more like he’s always been than any other elite player, and I wonder sometimes if the machine isn’t in control of the man, instead of the other way around.
Roger Federer, for example, went from being happy-go-lucky in a “life, what’s not to like?” kind of way to a wonderful champion and an ambassadorial presence in the game (granted, he’s a good half-decade older than Rafa). And Novak Djokovic morphed from a brash youngster who made cringe-worthy declarations about himself into an adult who carries the burden of his accomplishments and role in tennis with dignity and class.
The biggest change in Nadal, though, is that at some point a few years ago, his pants got shorter and his sleeves got longer. Sure, he’s been in some steamy underwear ads and a make-out music video, but apart from that we’ve seen precious little growth. He did take part in the ATP’s political life, along with Federer and Djokovic, but notably walked away from it when things didn’t go his way.
The only real signs of change and growth have been in the masquerade of crises—those periodic episodes of introspective fatalism, and something like real fear, that accompanied Rafa’s struggles with injury. Even those experiences now seem less like game changers in any substantial way (meaning, a way that led to increased self-knowledge or awareness) than temporary, volcanic eruptions that are stilled when times are good again—meaning when Rafa is once again peerless. We’re in that period again; following his win in Madrid, Rafa told us: “My drive is working again at the highest level.”
There’s something terribly one-dimensional in how all this has played out, and more than once now. I suppose that’s my beef. Rafa is an absolute genius—by my lights, the greatest clay-court player in the history of the game. But that only means so much. And it most doesn’t mean that I can’t get tired of him. I love the Cormac McCarthy book, Blood Meridian. But I wouldn’t want to read it a dozen times a year. If I watched my favorite movie as often as I’ve watched Rafa play on clay, my wife would suggest therapy (not that she hasn’t, albeit for other reasons).
And let’s face it, movies and books have plots, while the vast majority of Rafa’s matches on clay have nothing even resembling a plot; they’re mere demonstrations of his superiority.
Of course, the great reason we watch tennis matches while we don’t desire to re-experience certain books or movies is because we already know what happened in the book or movie after our first reading; it will never change. Tennis is a live experience, and anything can happen on any given day. But that doesn’t really apply to Rafa’s matches on clay, does it? At least it doesn’t nearly often enough to justify watching 36 Nadal blowouts on the off-chance that, just this one time, he might lose. I don’t know about you, but I don’t watch tennis to see if someone will lose. Thus a Nadal match on clay is already a losing proposition for me.
Oddly, Rafa’s extraordinary degree of excellence on clay is slightly dimmed by his disproportionate degree of success on that surface. It’s like you want to concede this part of the year to him and get on with the interesting bits. Eight titles in Monte Carlo. Six, and counting, in Rome. Seven—7!—Grand Slam titles at the French Open. It’s preposterous, and nothing in tennis history has prepared us for it. Whatever your response to his record, you can’t say there’s an “appropriate” one because really in unfamiliar territory here.
This intersection in Nadal between a seemingly borderline-OCD personality and the charismatic tennis genius has some dimensions that aren’t especially helpful to the “charismatic” side of the equation. Certainly, tennis is a game based on the successful repetition of certain actions (strokes) under physical and mental duress. But repetition can become a deadly dull thing, so the very predicate of success in tennis is also the element that can undermine it, make it seem more pedestrian, lead us to experience that one unforgivable sensation—boredom.
Nadal has come up with something like a clay-court endgame, and whether or not it’s pretty doesn’t really matter. What does, though, is whether or not it’s interesting. My own answer to that implied question is, “Not unless he’s losing more than he does.” That may not seem terribly fair to Nadal, but there it is.
Rafa probably could help his own cause if he ventured off-script now and then, the way you’re supposed to, or can’t help doing, as time goes by. I’m not saying he ought to show up and swan around Wimbledon with a man-purse slung over his shoulder, as his pal Federer has done. But the signature trophy biting has become a little tedious. So has the sprint to the baseline following the coin toss. And also the uppercut and Radio City Music Hall leg-kick that goes with it.
It’s a little weird to think that Rafa may go on, just like he is now, until the end of his career. But it’s possible. After all, he’s almost 27. His capacity for doing the same thing on clay, over and over, as if it were the very first time, is astonishing. He seems to be getting exactly what he wants out of the game—and it’s a lot—so who am I to ask for more of him? I’ve always felt that there’s something about the idiot-savant in the great tennis player—who else could so enthusiastically do the same relatively simple thing, over and over?—and in that regard, there’s no player greater than Rafael Nadal on clay.