Tuesday, September 14, 2010

HISTORY: The Summer of Rafa

(Before I begin: I'm on twitter now. Grad school makes it nearly impossible to update more than once per day, so all my mini-updates and brief thoughts and whatever are going up there. I'm going to keep mentioning the new account this week, and then next week I'll put it on the sidebar and shut up. But until then, you can follow me here: @ScurrySavesDuke.)

I'm sure you guys are really sick of hearing about Rafael Nadal, and the good news is that after today, you won't have to until at least January. But for the moment, WOW!

Five quick thoughts on the US Open title:

1) We have to go over the stats. As everyone knows, yesterday's US Open win makes a career slam for Nadal. He's the youngest man to ever make that happen. He has nine total grand slams, which is three ahead of Federer's pace at the same age. He's the first man to win the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open in the same year since Rod Laver in 1969. Back in May, I wondered if we might see a French-Wimbledon double. Turns out, we got the triple. In terms of majors, this was the second best year for any player in the history of the game. Maybe the best if you take increased competition and the rigors of the schedule into account.

2) It struck me yesterday that Rafa is not a player who ever loses. What I mean is that he will never give a match away, never quit, never really come out flat and be broken into pieces. Anyone who wants to beat Nadal needs to play with a kind of consistent excellence and intense focus. Last night, Djokovic played like that for about a half set. After losing the first, he looked truly amazing running out to a one-break lead in the second. His forehand was beautiful, his confidence was high, and his play was nearly flawless. If he'd played like that the whole time, he would have won, because in those moments he was a better player than Nadal. He lost it briefly, but the rain saved him, and he came back and found that quality again to win the second set.

But if you can't sustain that base level of focus and excellence, you won't win against Rafa. He is absolutely the same at all times. Maybe he picks it up slightly when the pressure is tight, but there are no faltering moments. That's what kills Federer; he, artist of the game, finds himself in a position where he's being forced to break down. In order to win, he has to work hard to avoid that. Usually he's the one breaking others down, and it should come as no surprise that playing Rafa takes a huge mental toll on the man who is otherwise nearly unflappable.

The scary part: the level needed to beat Rafa just keeps rising. On clay, it's beyond what any current human can muster. On grass, it's stratospheric, within reach of only the elite. And on hard courts, his weakest surface, the level is now at the championship mark. Gone are the times, like last year, when a powerful gun like Del Potro can come out and bully Nadal around the court. Rafa's various tweaks, especially the increased velocity on his serve, make him vulnerable only to a superb effort.

3) Djokovic wasn't mentally prepared to avoid the breakdown. He came out nervous and grumpy, yelling at himself almost immediately in the first set. He destroyed a racket early on and received a warning from the chair ump. It was almost like he conceded the first set, and that makes it nearly impossible to win. He recovered to win the second and showed some grit under fire in the third, but once Rafa took that set Djokovic checked out. McEnroe nailed it in the fourth when he compared Novak to a boxer that just wants to get it over with. He'd been punched in the gut, and his will to fight was gone. That's the difference between playing someone great, like Federer, and playing someone indomitable, like Rafa. In the semis, the Djoker was also down a set to Federer, and then down 2-1, and then down two match points in the fifth. But he wasn't facing the mental burden that Nadal poses, so he managed to claw back. He needed luck, sure, but he showed resilience. It's much harder to find that kind of resilience against Rafa.

4) Despite his theatrics on the court, which is essentially part of his character and something tennis fans should accept, I thought Djokovic carried himself well. I didn't give him enough credit yesterday for the semifinal win against Federer, which was truly epic and inspiring. It takes a lot to come back under major pressure against the greatest men's player of all time,* and it was the second-greatest win of the Serb's career (after his '08 Australian championship). I'm on record as not loving Novak, but after this tournament it's hard not to respect him. After his loss yesterday, he was self-effacing and grateful. He gave all credit to Rafa, and thanked the New York crowd. Rafa even told him his behavior was a "great example to the kids."

*for now

5) The Roger-Rafa debate is closed for business. Sorry, but there's no argument left for Roger. Rafa leads the overall series 14-7, leads 12-5 in finals, 6-2 in grand slams, and 5-2 in grand slam finals. He's 10-2 on clay, 3-3 on hard courts, and 1-2 on grass. But in the last two categories, the latest matches have all gone to Nadal. Since 2008, he's 6-1. The way he's improved his game over his career and lifted himself up to championship level on all surfaces puts the question beyond debate. We always heard that Rafa could never win a hardcourt major title. Now he's won both. Federer achieved his career slam, too, but he didn't go through Rafa to win the French. Rafa went through Roger to win the Australian in 2008.

It's an astounding paradox, but these two statements are both true:

A) Roger Federer is the greatest player of all time.

B) Rafael Nadal is better than Roger Federer.

We're lucky to have them both. Just for fun, here's a 'Proust Survey' Nadal answered for Vanity Fair. Is there anyone more humble and unassuming in the world?

Onward: The Yankees stink. CC Sabathia pitched an absolute gem last night, but the bats have continued their vanishing act, and we lost 1-0 to Tampa in 11 innings. I'm starting to panic. That's four straight losses to teams we could face in the playoffs. Thankfully, I didn't see any of them. The start of football and Rafa's chase for the career slam provided a welcome distraction, and honestly, I hate what's happening to the Yanks. We're lifeless at the moment, treading water with a good record but looking like playoff shark bait.

CC and David Price were at the top of their respective games yesterday, but here's something really sad: with two Cy Young candidates on the mound, and first place in the NL East up for grabs, there were still 10,000 empty seats in Tampa. Sorry, but that's pathetic. The town clearly doesn't deserve a baseball franchise.

The lack of Yankee runs denied CC his 20th win, but it did lower his ERA to 3.03. He's within range of the 2s again, and 20+ wins along with a sub-3 ERA would put him in prime position for the AL Cy Young. The bad news: King Felix is making a strong late push. He now leads the league in ERA and strikeouts (meaning Buchholz's candidacy is basically over), and only his 11-11 record is keeping him from the prize. The last two weeks of the season will determine who takes it, and CC absolutely needs at least one more win.

More bad news: the Yanks have to face Tampa again tonight, and we have an untested Ivan Nova facing Matt Garza. Barring a drastic reversal, the pain looks to continue. I don't know how long I can coast on the good feelings provided by Rafa. Eventually, I'll have to come back to earth and face the facts about the Yanks.

But not yet...I think I've got at least one more day. VAMOS!


  1. A) Roger Federer is the greatest player of all time. => TRUE

    B) Rafael Nadal is better than Roger Federer. => He's better than Roger Federer mentally. He's better than Roger Federer was at his age. But I wouldn't say that he's better than Roger overall. I think Roger has more talent than Rafa does. And I would just wait until they both retire - or at least until Roger does - to make such a statement.
    Rafa might have better overall results than Roger in the end and that would be truly impressive and probably make him the best tennis player ever. But until then, instead of debating who's better, let's enjoy their friendly rivalry because it's definitely one of the best in history!

  2. Roxane - I think the talent question is tricky. I would agree that Federer plays a more beautiful game, and probably has a wider variety of shots at his disposal, but "talent" is a word that implies winning. At least to me. And even if Rafa's game is more limited, his skill set (including the mental game) is better suited to winning matches.

    I would be very surprised if Rafa ended up with more majors, though. He probably won't be blessed with the long-term health Federer has enjoyed, and won't have the longevity to give himself as many opportunities. That's why I made the distinction...when Roger is done, he'll be the best of all time. But head-to-head, Rafa has the better of him.

    Still, I agree: the rivalry is to be enjoyed. I just can't resist the debate.


  3. What I meant by talent is "natural tennis skills".
    Watching them play, I just feel like Rafa has probably needed more practice than Roger for some shots. And I don't mean that Roger didn't need to train at all, just that he has more natural skills. But you're right, Rafa definitely has the better of Roger, and I think the difference is mostly mental, but we've already talked about that...

    And I agree with you when you say Rafa probably doesn't have the same longevity as Roger, just because of how physical his game is. However his winning career did start earlier than Roger's so I think he could end up with more majors. I hope not though =P

  4. As a tennis player and fan my whole life, I've watched these two over their careers. First I was a Sampras fan so begrudgingly admitted that Fed was an amazing payer while secretly hoping somehow he would fall short of the 14. Once it was inevitable, I admitted he was the best ever and became a fan of watching him play...all the time though Rafa was winning me over...now, like you Shane, I'm Rafa all the way...may god bless this guy with some good knees for the next 5-6 years because when all is said and done, he is the face of GOAT that I want the kids to see...I like the grit and work and humble attitude and kindness and toughness and warrior attitude of the Spaniard. I don't know if he has it in him to go the distance healthwise, but I sure hope so. Not to mention, I'm (humbly) more like Rafa in style than Fed.

    Shane, I'm glad you have an avid interest in tennis...do you play?

  5. Agree 100% about Rafa, John (clearly).

    I do play tennis, but not well. Growing up, I was constantly playing baseball, basketball, or football. My mom made me take tennis lessons as a little kid once, but me and all my idiot friends would spend the time trying to hit the ball over the fence.

    I always loved watching tennis, though. I was in love with Steffi Graf growing up, and would actually run around my room (alone) swinging an invisible tennis racket and pretending we were mixed doubles partners. Inevitably our imaginary opponents were two people I hated at school. I was a weird kid.

    But I watched tennis all the time. I think I was 17 when I realized tennis was an awesome sport to play, too. I've played off and on over the years, and I absolutely love it. I became decent, but not good (3.0 on that skill scale, I'd say, maybe 3.5 at my peak). Now serving is a bit complicated by a creaky rotator cuff, so I don't play as much anymore. Once I get that solved, though, I'm going to take it up again, because of all the sports I can play with any regularity, the only one I enjoy more is basketball.

    And that, sir, is my long history with tennis. As a spectator, I think the game is absolutely timeless. It will never draw the ratings of the team sports, but it will also never go away because it's so elemental. I defy even a casual fan to watch a 5-set night match at the US Open and not become totally hooked. And I know you're a Sampras guy, and I admire him too, but I think it's great for the game that the style is more exciting now. All we need is a compelling American who can win a grand slam (not a Roddick fan, sorry), and it will be back on the map in a big way.

    I assume you've played more/longer than I? As a side note, how do you think Rafa would do against Sampras if both could play in their prime?


  6. Yeah, not sure why I was a Sampras guy growing up...he certainly didn't have much flash...but I think it was just the quiet way he went about things that I respected more than, say, Agassi. I'm sort of a keep emotions inside on a court person (positive and negative). I think I view that as a strength. Seeing him off the court he shows he isn't all that humble IMO, but when I was little (30 now) I just liked the way he disposed of people without yelling at them about it. I got in on tennis a little late for a successful junior (about 12) and was coming from being a speedy kid at other sports (first love: football) so kinda scrapped my way around annoying people by getting everything back and somehow developed an extreme western topspin that was/is pretty effective. So really my game was long hard fought points, not the Sampras somewhat boring-serve domination. I was decent HS and UNC Club player, but never took it too seriously. Wrist surgery and grad school stopped me for 3 years and then when I got a job I joined a tennis club here in FL and promptly tore my acl. I'm 1 year post reconstruction (there is now a dead man's tendon in my leg-some top athlete cut down in his prime I assume) and am finally moving and playing pretty well right now...breaking into that 4.5 realm. It's pretty unbelievable that there aren't Americans competing at the highest level, but it will happen soon enough. I don't like Roddick much either, although that Wimbledon match was a true heartbreaker (until his whiny post match interview). Rafa/Sampras: I think it would be very difficult for Rafa to break Sampras-Prime's serve and we'd be seeing lots of tie breakers...it would be entertaining clash of styles-great aspect of tennis...