Wednesday, September 1, 2010

7 Thoughts for Rafael Nadal

Note: I decided not to do the Gold Glove awards today. I would essentially be looking at sabermetric stats, which is fun but not necessarily difficult or interesting. If anyone wants to check out the leaders in defensive metrics, you can look here, and if you want to read up about the two best "publicly available" fielding stats, you can check here and here.

Instead, it's RAFA TIME!

Here are seven things I want to say about Rafael Nadal as he begins his march toward the career slam and tennis immortality.

1) Holy shit, the man uncorked a 131 mph serve! And he averaged 117 on his first serve attempts! For the sake of comparison, Roddick hit a 139 max and averaged 123 in his first round match, and he's one of the bigger servers around. That is some great news for Rafa, and some scary news for the field. It's been a long time since he's lost a grand slam match, but the hard courts at Flushing have always stymied him. After last night's hard-fought win, though, it looks like there's a new weapon in his arsenal.

2) My girlfriend and I had lunch with some of her friends before leaving New York, and afterward, I told her that one of the girls kinda looked liked Rafa. It messed her up. So much so that last night, when she was commenting on the 'cuteness' of the players on the court, she actually thought Rafa's opponent, a Georgian named Gabashvili, was better looking. Here's a picture of him:

And believe me, that's a flattering picture. There's also this one. She claims that whenever she sees Rafa, she now thinks of her friend. But still, what the hell is her problem? She has a history of some questionable calls, and it's giving me low self-esteem.

3) Speaking of my girlfriend, I had to stop after work yesterday to pick up a 'rotary cutter' for her sewing projects. I went to JoAnn's Fabrics, or whatever it's properly called, and found the product fairly quickly. It was my first time in the store, and I was pumped that I'd be in and out. But just as I was making my way to the check-out, and old woman popped in front of me. They rang her up, and of course she pulled out a checkbook. And of course the girl at the cash register was new and didn't know what to do. And of course when the manager asked to see the woman's driver's license, the woman had lost it, and had some kind of paper replacement they wouldn't take. And of course a big fight ensued, and it took like ten minutes to resolve.

I know this one isn't about Rafa, but man, fuck JoAnn's Fabrics.

4) He's gonna do it, gang. He's gonna win the US Open this year. I can feel it. Last year I finally got to see him in person when he beat Gael Monfils in the 4th round in New York, and it was almost a religious experience. He went on to destroy Fernando Gonzalez, but Juan Martin Del Potro did him dirty in the semis, winning in straight sets. It wasn't unexpected; Rafa was tired, and his game wasn't good enough to win in New York anyway. Del Potro was hot, and he wasn't going down, not even to Federer in the championship. But this year is different. Rafa is experiencing a rare window of health, Del Potro is out of the draw, Federer's streak of major semifinals was broken at Wimbledon, and things are looking open.

It's the year of Rafa, and he's going to finish it in style.

5) I love Rafa's quotes. I've never read an article where he hasn't given at least one awesome sound bite. Part of it, I admit, is probably the language barrier. Sometimes it's funny, and sometimes it's inspiring. Here was my favorite from the ESPN article:

Asked if he's been focusing on making his serve better this summer, Nadal replied with a smile: "All my life, I worked on my serve. Not this summer, no; all my life."

I mean, seriously, doesn't that just make you want to pump your fist??

6) I should tell newer readers that Rafael Nadal is my favorite athlete in the world. Robinson Cano is second, and there's a long drop to third. I don't even know who it would be. Probably myself.

Here's the reason, and I ask that you prepare yourself for some gushing: I've never seen any athlete in history as perfect as Rafa. He's fierce and intimidating on the court, but incredibly humble in every other aspect of life. He's 24 now, but he's always been that way, even as a divinely gifted teenager. You never see a trace of ego or arrogance, which is absolutely incredible for any top-notch professional athlete, but especially one in an individualized game like tennis.

He also had one of the toughest mountains to overcome in modern athletic memory- he had to defeat Roger Federer on grass and hard courts. It would have been very easy for Rafa to continue his dominance on clay, where his incredible topspin makes him nearly unbeatable, and leave the other surfaces to the greatest player of all time. But his obsessive drive to win, and his uncanny work ethic, wouldn't allow that type of complacency. He tailored his game over the years, improving every facet degree by degree, and he finally topped Federer in the greatest match ever played at the 2008 Wimbledon finals. The next January, he beat him in a major hard court final in Australia. Federer cried during the post-match interviews, and said something that still knocks me right to the ground: "this man is killing me." That kind of sincerity is so rare from athletes, and says so much about the quality of both men. In 2007, when Rafa lost to Roger in the Wimbledon finals a year before his breakthrough, he was the one crying, alone in the locker room. Federer's tears were a strange and beautiful moment of synchronicity.

Then Rafa's parents divorced, he lost his first match ever at the French Open, and his balky knees kept him from playing in Wimbledon. That was last year, and fans and experts wondered if his career was already on the decline. He worked so hard, and put so much mileage on his tender joints, that at age 24 he might already have passed his prime. And with the family problems...who knows? But Rafa fought back, in private, honing his game and healing until he came roaring back to complete a rare French-Wimbledon double victory this summer. He recovered the number one ranking he had relinquished during his summer of pain. It was a great triumph of the spirit, and we've come to expect that from Rafa. If he can win in Flushing this year, he'll have captured the career grand slam, and will be on a path to overtaking Federer as the greatest male tennis player of all time.

Strength, work ethic, toughness, passion, humility, resilience. Those are the qualities I love about Nadal. If I had a kid, I'd want Rafa to be his or her role model. Wait, who am I kidding? I'm 27, he's 24, and he's my role model. He breaks down his opponents without mercy, and when he suffers a rare defeat, the victor has the physical appearance of someone who just survived a Category 5 hurricane. He may not be the ideal tennis player, since he lacks certain power skills and is missing the aesthetic grace of a player like Federer, but he is the ideal competitor. No athlete I've ever seen has been more like a rock.

7) There's a famous joke by the comedian Mitch Hedberg that goes like this: "The depressing thing about tennis is that no matter how good I get, I'll never be as good as a wall."

I'm not such a starry-eyed devotee that I think Rafa could beat a wall. But I do think it would go 5 sets.