Last night I bit the bullet, spent 50 bucks, and watched my favorite athlete play his fourth round match. It was a quintessential Nadal victory, 6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3, as he wore down Frenchman Gael Monfils over two and a half hours. I also got to see the final set and a half of Fernando Gonzalez and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga. Here are some fresh ideas from the night in tennis.
*Fernando Gonzalez is a total dick. During the forty-five minutes I watched, he:
a) Was a dick to the ballboys. Before every serve, he'd make both ballboys on his end throw him three balls apiece (players typically hold two to serve). Some of these he'd hit back if he didn't like the way the ballboy threw it. Some he would glance at cursorily and hit backward. Out of the six, he'd eventually select two, but usually after he'd made the ballboys feel they'd done something wrong.
b) Was a dick to the linesman. A guy I met in the crowd actually told me about this one. Apparently he hit a shot that was called wide, he challenged, and the video showed the linesman was wrong. Instead of accepting the mistake and being happy that he got the point (which is the entire purpose of the challenge system), he stood and stared down the linesman for about fifteen seconds, trying to shame him in front of the crowd.
c) Was a dick to the fans. It's considered polite etiquette for all fans to be seated while a player is serving, but in stadiums so large it's virtually impossible. Most players settle for a majority calm in the stands. Gonzalez, on the other hand, actually held up play for two minutes while he unleashed another stare-down on a guy about forty rows up, way out of his sight line, who was struggling to find a seat. I saw Monfils, Nadal, and Tsonga routinely serve with more than ten people still milling around. And later, for a second dick-to-the-fans move, a fan near the baseline caught a smash that hopped over the barrier. In the big stadiums, the general rule is that the fan keeps the ball. Gonzalez walked over, held out his racket, and wouldn't leave until he made the fan give the ball back. The whole place booed him for that one, but he didn't seem to care.
Fernando Gonzalez: Asshole.
*Moving on from Gonzalez, I noticed that fans love yelling common phrases in a foreign language. They think it sounds cooler, and actually, it does. But I can't tell you how many Americans I heard yelling "Vamos!" and "Allez!" all night (both matches were Spanish-speaking vs. French-speaking).
*The ballboys are amazing. This is a highly trained corps of dudes and dudettes who fetch balls and move in formation with ridiculous precision. And I'm convinced they would dominate in a throwing-accuracy contest. For three plus hours of tennis, I didn't see one errant toss, and a lot of them were legitimate full court hurls.
*Gael Monfils is a ridiculous human specimen. Tall, limber, wiry, and ridiculously quick, he's really something to watch.
*In the first set, he played Rafa really tough, getting an early break and chasing absolutely everything down. Rafa's strategy, as far as I could tell, was no more complicated than to hit the ball from side to side, making Monfils run as much as possible. It seemed pretty misguided, because Monfils is fast as hell and seems to be in great shape. With Rafa down 3-6 in the tiebreaker, the crowd began to cheer, and Monfils started doing an impromptu dance on his side. This started a big trend of the Frenchman playing to the crowd, and when he smashed a hard return to win the set, the place went nuts. I was worried.
*A thing I noticed about Rafa that I missed on tv: he's slightly bowlegged. This should come as no surprise, since it seems like the majority of really quick athletes in all sports share the trait.
*The second set started the same as the first. Monfils kept getting to everything, playing to the crowd, pumping his fist, and looking really, really good. Which brings me to the topic of the premature celebration. Monfils went crazy getting the crowd (and himself) into a frenzy early in the match, peaking with his first-set win. But as he continued to pump his fist after big points, it lost some of its power. And then, as the points got longer, and he stopped chasing everything down, as he'd spend ten seconds after the hardest points leaning on his racket with his chest heaving, the rhythm of the match became clear. And when Rafa broke in the second set, his fist pump was the real deal. It had the energy of actual transformation, of overriding Monfils' theatrics and establishing an irreversible pattern; it was the realization of a plan, instead of just the basic luck of winning an extra point here or there; it had the future on its side, if that makes any sense.
*Which brings me to the aspect of Nadal that's so remarkable; he's tireless. And he lets his opponent know it. From the opening coin toss, when he jogs in place with his muscles on display, to the heavy moments in the later sets when fatigue sets in, he's always in your face. He jogs from his seat after every break, he jogs back to his position after every point...he's just in constant motion. I can only imagine how discouraging that is to an opponent trying to break him down. Rafa may lose a match, but there's a part of his spirit, or something, that's totally unbreakable. Call it toughness taken to an extreme level. It's easy to see why he, and he alone, is such a persistent frustration to Federer.
*Monfils had his spirit broken. He came in to the match with no strategy, hoping to out-hit Nadal. When he got tired, "no strategy" turned into "go for broke on every point." Which, basically, is conceding defeat. It'd be like a tired boxer sloppily trying to knock out a precise, fit opponent with one punch, except even more improbable since tennis has no equivalent of the KO. At the end of the second set, watching Monfils basically wheeze (early in the match, he made no sound when hitting the ball...by the third set, he was emitting a noise that I can only call a moan), I predicted Nadal would win 6-2 6-2. Instead, it was 6-1, 6-3. And this wasn't a tough prediction to make.
*Where Monfils became semi-annoying was when he kept trying to pump up the crowd, despite having given up. He'd let Nadal's wide shots go, or flail at them and send them limply into the net. When a ball came his way, he'd go for the immediate winner, often hitting it way long. 80% of the time, he looked like an amateur, and the match got away from him. But the other 20% of the time, when he hit a winner, he'd scream "Allez!" and get the crowd riled up again. It was sort of like watching someone cheer on his own demise, and getting everyone to buy into it. He had to know he was done; I maintain this. I guess you can't fault him for keeping his spirits up, but I still felt it was a bit phony.
The perfect encapsulation of this behavior came with Nadal up 40-15, with two match points, in the final game. The first point was a doozy, lasting maybe 15 shots, and Monfils scorched a winner down the baseline at the end. He absolutely exploded, highly aware of his own charisma and consciously going for the "heroic effort" image, I think, and then hit the next serve about four feet wide to give Nadal the win.
*I got to watch Uncle Toni Nadal in person. Just as impassive as on tv. Quite a thrill.
*After the match, Rafa was pure joy. And graceful, too. He complimented Monfils, talked about how exciting a player he is, and also spoke kindly about Gonzalez, who he plays in the quarterfinals on Thursday. When he hit one of the three autographed balls into the stands, he bounced it off his head first. To see someone so indomitably tough also be possessed of a rare humility, and to understand the 'play' aspect of the game, is really cool. It's nice to know these qualities aren't incompatible, and that's why he's my favorite athlete.
*Night tennis is awesome. I highly recommend you put it on your life list of things to do.
*Thursday: Good vs. Evil. Rafa and Gonzalez. I don't think I'll be able to take it if he loses. Should be tense!
(I wanted to talk about college football yesterday, and again today, so some of that tomorrow, I think.)