Prince of Grass

by: Peter Bodo | June 16, 2014

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Wikimedia Commons, AP Photos

One of the least surprising upsets in tennis history occurred in Halle last week, when top-seeded Rafael Nadal lost his opener to Dustin Brown, 6-4, 6-1. No disrespect to Brown, who played a fine match, but when the score rolled in, I couldn’t help but think back to some words Nadal spoke in his post-match presser after he flummoxed Novak Djokovic in the French Open final.

“Yes, I am going to Halle tomorrow,” Nadal said when asked about his grass-court plans. “I want to try to play well again in Wimbledon.”

Nadal then cited his general fatigue, as well was the mild bout of back problems he experienced in Paris, and added these thoughts on Halle: “I really feel that I have compromised with them to go there. I missed it last year. I don't want to miss it two years in a row. . . I know probably the result will not be the perfect one there, because days of preparation are not the right ones.”

In other words, Nadal felt he owed it to the tournament to play there after having skipped it 2012—under doctor’s orders, because of chronic tendinitis in his knees. But his decision wasn’t entirely altruistic, either. Last year, without having played a grass event before Wimbledon, he was knocked out in the first round of The Championships by Steve Darcis.

That was a blow that heaped insult upon injury. For in 2012, Nadal was the victim of a stunning but entirely deserved upset crafted in Wimbledon’s second round by Lukas Rosol. Furthermore, the previous year was responsible for creating one of the most significant failures on Nadal’s resume: He not only lost the Wimbledon final to Djokovic, he also handed over the world No. 1 ranking.

You could say that Wimbledon has been mighty rough on Nadal for a few years now.

Because of that, it’s pretty easy to peg the King of Clay as a mere prince on grass. True, the games of clay-court wizards often have been found wanting on turf. And certainly, bagging the Channel Double—Roland Garros and Wimbledon—is a formidable feat to pull off. But let’s remember that until the well-documented injuries began to impact Nadal’s attitude and preparations, he was on his way to becoming the King of Grass as well. And there’s no doubt that being acknowledged as such was something to which Nadal, unlike many of his fellow clay-court titans, aspired.

“For me, (Wimbledon) is a tournament I love so much,” Nadal, a five-time finalist at Wimbledon, said in Paris. He loves it so much that he went and played a tournament he had no business entering in the hopes of getting adequate preparation. “So I really want to do it and try my best there (Halle). We will see what's going on.”

Nadal played his first Wimbledon final against Roger Federer, perhaps the best grass-court player of all time, in 2006—just his third try in London. Nadal lost in four sets, two of them tiebreakers. It was in many ways a stunning and utterly unexpected performance by a player whom many had already pigeonholed as a mere “clay-court specialist.”

Yet from day one, Nadal has reiterated how much Wimbledon means to him. A realist at heart (albeit an emotional one), Nadal understood all along that Wimbledon was, and remains, the ne plus ultra of tennis. To legions of sports fans worldwide, you’re never really a tennis champion until you’re a champion in SW19.

Nadal also knew what it means for an outstanding clay-court player to win on grass. And we all appreciated the premium he put upon being a Spanish player who could rule the world of British grass. Some of these culturally-based attitudes have deep, deep roots.

Of course, Nadal would never articulate a preference for Roland Garros or Wimbledon; he’s not one to bite the hand that feeds him, nor is he blind to his debt of gratitude to the good people of France. But don’t let his success at Roland Garros lull you into thinking that for him, doing well at Wimbledon is just gravy.

Nadal made another Wimbledon final in 2007, and once again he ran afoul of Federer. But this time, it was in five extremely tough sets, and Nadal might very easily have won it. Then, in 2008, Nadal’s grass-court dream finally came true, as he mastered Federer in what many believe is the greatest match of all time. But that also became the point at which Nadal’s history on grass took a wild, unpredicted turn.

Looking at his first five years at Wimbledon—three finals, and a 1-2 record against Federer—would anyone suggest that Nadal is lacking as a grass-court player? But that was then, and in this “now,” some of Nadal’s lawn luster has dimmed.

“Grass always was a little bit harder for me after the injury,” Nadal said of his record from 2009 onward. “I get injury here (Paris) in 2012; I played 2012 Wimbledon with that injury. I never played a match after that Wimbledon. Last year I tried, but I was not enough ready to compete in Wimbledon.”

Well, a skeptic might think Nadal is just blowing so much smoke with all this talk of injuries and such, but there’s ample evidence that they have had a substantial impact. The big question now is, has he been so banged up over the years that the 28-year-old lost some of the athleticism that once enabled him to topple Federer on Centre Court?

Those who are inclined to insist that Nadal isn’t as dangerous on grass as he is on clay anymore seem to have just one leg on which to stand their argument—that the relatively slow surface in Paris makes it marginally easier for Nadal to compensate for anything he might have lost through years of wear and tear. If you buy that (and it’s a plausible theory), you can float the argument that he is no longer athletic enough to dominate his peers at a tournament where the only quality common to the overwhelming number of champions is athleticism.

Personally, I can’t buy into the idea that Nadal’s athleticism has diminshed—although I might by the time this upcoming fortnight is over. I just think back to those finals against Federer, and the untrammeled, explosive athleticism that Nadal brought to those meetings. I dwell upon those impossible backhand passing shots hit from a crouch well off the court, or the way his inside-out forehands skipped away on impact, like watermelon seeds squeezed between the fingers.

My feeling is that too many of the things that can go wrong at any given time did for Nadal at Wimbledon, just as so many things have gone right for him in Paris. Nadal certainly needs to recapture the proficiency as well as the unbridled enthusiasm he once demonstrated as he barreled over those Wimbledon lawns. The evidence suggests that he’s more than willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish that.

“I'm healthy,” he said in Paris. “That's the most important thing, I feel.”

You may remember that after Nadal was unable to defend his Wimbledon title in 2009, he bounced back the following year with an win over Tomas Berdych. The situation is somewhat different this year, but not so much so that a Nadal triumph would seem a surprise.

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