I have never had much time for Rafael Nadal. I always thought it great theatre when he and Roger Federer were the kings of the court, lining up yet again to do battle in some final or other (19 at last count – 8 of those Grand Slams), crucial only for the moments that it lasted in the public attention. The contrast was stark between the fiery, scowling Spaniard with an apparent abundance of personal rituals (not to say tics) during play, and the calm, mechanical Swiss who was criticised primarily for seeming emotionless. Nadal always seemed a little unprofessional, wild, or unfinished to me, and my conservative sportsmanship code apparently could not find a place for him in my heart.
But then I had the privilege to see him in action at Wimbledon just recently in the second-round game that he lost to rank outsider Lukas Rosol. And I saw things that I have never seen before, restricted as I have been to the limited view provided by the television cameras. His rituals, once annoying, became soothing, the calming pre-cursor to each point on serve. His play was contained. His energy seemed more directed and controlled from the distance necessarily imposed by my none-too-flashy seat. The focus as a spectator was on how he moved about the court and the strategy of the game rather than the distorted facial expressions accompanying his shots that are the usual focus of television close-ups and replays.
His serving ritual, when seen in full, seemed much less distracting and strangely appropriate. Picking his shorts out of his arse, aligning his already-aligned hair with a quick swipe to each temple, the way he bounces the ball – these things were lost in a much longer process. Let me see if I can describe it, so you can adopt it the next time you play tennis with ball-people and towel-holders:
- Win (or lose) the point
- Walk to the back of the court making the gentle two finger pointing signal with the index and middle fingers to the person holding the towel (not for Nadal the silly “I am washing my face” signal – that belongs to lesser players)
- Take the towel from the towel-holder with your right hand at the same time as holding out the racquet with the left, on which the ball-person will put three balls, always in a tight triangle. Wipe your face.
- As you turn back to the court, throw the towel to your towel-holder and walk back to the line considering the three balls on your racquet
- Set yourself up on the service line, select one ball to discard, and drop it to your feet, timing the drop so that a gentle backswing of your racquet (remember you are left-handed) is sufficient to catch it just at your feet and send it unerringly in the direction of the ballperson behind and to the right of you.
- Put one of the two remaining balls in your pocket, and then lean on to your front foot, pull your shorts out of your arse, adjust your hair, bounce the remaining ball as many times as seems appropriate (more than Roddick, fewer than Djokovic) and play on.
The god of small things
Tennis is an interesting game because it turns on a very few points. Three or four crucial moments can make the difference between winning and losing. These are the stats from the Nadal Rosol game:
- Rosol won only two more points than Nadal overall (139 to 137), and only one more game (26 to 25).
- Rosol had 13 more unforced errors but 24 more winners.
- The percentage of first serves that went in is identical (67%). Rosol won a slightly higher percentage of first service points, but a slightly lower percentage of second service points. They both ended up winning the same number of points when they were serving (102), and Rosol had just one more break of serve (4 to Nadal’s 3).
Tennis is a game where winning points is crucial, but not as crucial as when you win them.
When you win
When I meandered in to my seat, it was the tail end of the fourth set, won by Nadal 6-2 in 32 minutes. The general expectation, if I may be so bold as to summarise the views of my fellow section-dwellers, was that Nadal was going to come out on top after a signficant scare and go on to his rightful place in the semi-finals against Andy Murray. Now that would be a game!
The big question at that point was not who was going to win, but whether they were going to play the fifth set that night, or hold it over until the next day. The people responsible for making such decisions came out on the court, some folks got up to leave, expecting the worst, the hubbub in the crowd lightened as if we wanted to eavesdrop on the umpires’ deliberations, they consulted the players, and Nadal was seen to shake his head visibly.
“Oh dear”, said the woman behind me, “I guess that’s it”.
And then they announced that there would be a half hour delay while they closed the roof before play would recommence. Ten thousand people who had misread Nadal’s head shake jumped to their feet to dissipate their joy and relief with applause.
Forty odd minutes later silence descended over the stadium as Nadal served to start the last set. A confused pigeon flapped around the roof. Rosol broke in the first game, and from there the games went with serve. At four games to two I really started to think that Rosol would actually do it – not that I wanted him to by that point (somehow Nadal had become the underdog for me already). The crowd was divided. The closer Rosol got to victory, the more they seemed to will Nadal to come back.
Through the fifth set Nadal was slowing play down. A good strategy. Rosol has never been ranked better than number 65 in the world. Nadal has been in the top three in the world for years. Rosol was clearly playing out of his skin if not out of his league, and he was not going to be able to do that forever.
But then it was five games to three. Nadal serving. Rosol gets his nose in front at 15-30, but his shot hits the net and falls back – an explosive sigh from the crowd – and Nadal takes the game. Five games to four. Rosol to serve for the match.
Now the crowd seems behind him. Rosol plays it up a little. A few knee bends on the line. He lets it build. He knows this is the biggest game of his life. Bang. Bang. 30-0. He is two points away. Ace. One to go. And another ace to finish. No one can believe it. Hard to know if Rosol does either. Let alone Nadal.
The scale of Rosol’s acheivement was not yet matched by his popular recognition. There was a man walking about our part of the stands with a camera between games at the latter stages of the fifth set looking to interview anybody who knew Rosol’s first name. No one did (Lukas, for the record).
Commentators have pointed out Nadal’s sportsmanlike nature, stopping to sign autographs on his way out of the stadium after his worst result in seven years. For me the more powerful gesture of the gentleman athlete was the way he gently picked up the racquet that Rosol released into the net in jubilation at his victory, and calmly handed it back, as if to say “you’ll need this where you are going”.
In the event, Nadal has not played since – a knee injury ruling him out of the Olympics as well as subsequent events. And Rosol lost in straight sets to Kohlschreiber in the next round.