Thursday, July 8, 2010

Advantage Nadal

There are only two teams in sports that I will lose my mind over: the Philadelphia Eagles and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.  I can’t even relay to you how many hours I have spent yelling at various televisions in public or in private when these teams are playing a game on TV.  I grew up in Philadelphia, so I became a die hard Eagles fan.  Over the years I have been pulled in at their attempts at success only to be repeatedly disappointed and tortured by their defeats. It is a cycle that has defined my sports fandom. I became a North Carolina Tar Heel fan because, at the age of seven, my father took me to an event known as the 1993 East Regional Semifinals aka the Sweet Sixteen.  We went to the Meadowlands to watch Virginia take on Cincinnati.  The game ended and I enjoyed my second live basketball game. As I moved to get up, my father stopped me and said, “Hold on.  There’s another game.”  My budding sports fan’s mind couldn’t believe it.  Then, the North Carolina Tar Heels took the floor in their Carolina Blue uniforms.  Eric Montross and Donald Williams were the stars of the team.  They beat Virginia that night and my dad and I didn’t get home until one or two in the morning.  I was hooked on the North Carolina Tar Heels and watched as they went on to win the 1993 NCAA Championship.  My love of these two teams, their players, their traditions – one successful, the other torturous – have been unparalleled throughout my life.  I have screamed horrible things at Cowboys and Giants fans.  I literally hate Duke University and every player that played there (unless they redeem themselves with gritty play in the NBA).  I will never admit that the Cowboys, Giants or Duke Blue Devils ever have a superior team – they always suck and get lucky.  And that has been the story of my sporting passion.

I realized recently, that slowly a third figure was emerging as a figure where I could direct my sporting passion and frustration toward.  Shockingly, this figure emerged in the sport of tennis. I sport I had for the most part always overlooked and even in some cases frowned upon as I was growing up.  However, in part due to this man, my opinion has changed on the sport entirely.  That man is Rafael Nadal.  And, in the most underrated sports story of the year, he has become my third favorite athlete/sports team to root for – perhaps of all time.

How did this happen you ask?  Well let me start in the spring of 2008 when I moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  My roommate was a big tennis fan and as we entered the peak of tennis season with the French Open and Wimbledon, I began to sit and be patient and watch tennis matches with him.  We watched as Nadal won his fourth straight French Open in 2008.  I had seen Nadal play before, but I never paid very close attention.  However, as I watched the 2008 French Open unfold, I realized that he had all the attributes that I enjoyed in an athlete: drive, toughness, determination, grittiness, a bit of magic, passion and the essence of the underdog, the unwillingness to ever give in.  I say “the essence of the underdog” because Federer was then and in many ways still is seen as the best player in the world.  Federer was one of the reasons I did not like tennis.  He seemed to win too easily, he seemed smug (I have since come to find out that he is one of the greatest champions and nicest human beings, but I remain skeptical) and content with himself – in other words, he represented everything that I do not like in other people or in the world.  There was something substantive to Nadal.  He was Spanish and I love the Spanish culture.  He had long hair and played hard, so hard that everyone questioned if he could keep up his pace.  He was like a Romantic poet, like Keats or Shelley, someone who may just die at 25 or 26 because they are too damn explosive for this world.

Then, we came to Wimbledon 2008.  In my personal life, Wimbledon came on the last day of one of the best Fourth of July weekends I have ever had in my life.  Quite possibly the best, though this past one has risen very close to that level. As I watched the match at my kitchen table with friends of mine who were staying over, we suddenly realized that we were watching history.  We were watching quite possibly the best tennis match of all time.  You had Nadal and Federer with two contrasting styles, but both with the same desire to win the match.  This was on tennis’ biggest stage.  There was the drama of the rain that continued to threaten.  There was Nadal jumping up two sets and then Federer coming back.  There were the rain delays and then the match entered a fifth set and everyone began to wonder if the darkness would set in and that the match would have to be concluded on Monday – the fortnight plus one.  My friends and I also had the added drama of catching a train back to the city.  As the match went on, we let one train go. The match continued and we decided to let a second train go.  The match continued and we needed to make the third train or else we wouldn’t have a ride to the station. So, we sat in anticipation as the fifth set carried on into tiebreak.  Nadal and Federer went back and forth.  The match stretched closer and closer to the five hour mark. Finally, as the darkness was just about to envelop the edges of the stadium, and that iconic green court would have turned to a murky purple and grey, Nadal forced Federer into the net, collapsed on his back and screamed up into the evening air, his all white uniform standing out against the gloaming.  Federer cried (of course) as Nadal held up the Wimbledon trophy. Then, my friends and I grabbed a train to head back to the city and our overheated apartments.

Nadal kept the hits coming as he won the Gold Medal in the 2008 Olympics while Federer bowed out early.  Everyone began to question Federer’s dominance as Nadal rose to number one in the world.  However, I watched Nadal lose to Andy Murray at the U.S. Open and felt that first burning in my chest that some injustice had been done to my man.  Murray wasn’t better, he must have cheated.  Murray sucked and he got lucky.  Those were the thoughts that ran through my head.

When the tennis season resumed in February 2009 for the 2009 Australian Open, I found myself genuinely excited to watch.  And, when Federer and Nadal were to face each other once more in the final, I had to stay up all night.  I had been out at a show and been drinking, but I kept myself up at least long enough to watch the epic first set of that match.  The first set lasted nearly and hour as Federer and Nadal went back and forth. Nadal came out strong, but then Federer took control of the set, only to have Nadal come roaring back. They each made impossible shot after impossible shot. I sipped on late night beers just to keep my engine going, but I could barely keep my eyes open. Finally, Nadal won the set and I was able to stumble to my room and fall asleep in the four in the morning darkness. But not before I streamed coverage of the match on my computer.  I woke up the next morning to the terrific news that Nadal had won in four sets. He had certainly pulled even with Federer and was looking to leave the former smug champion in his rearview mirror.  As the spring came, I was anticipating another glorious summer of Nadal, who I all of a sudden realized I was a fan of.

However, Nadal injured his knee in the French Open when he lost to Soderling, which allowed Federer to win the French Open – the one tournament he had never won before.  That was followed by Federer defeating an ever-so-earnest Andy Roddick in the longest Wimbledon Final of all time.  We had to watch Roddick make self-deprecating jokes after playing the best tennis of his life and still losing to an off the charts smug looking Federer. I had to watch Federer in his gold and white jump suit as he was coronated “The Best Tennis Player of All Time” with the Most Grand Slam Tournament Championships of All-Time.  It made me sick. And I realized that that sensation, that sickness was the same emotion I had only reserved for the New York Giants, the Dallas Cowboys and the Duke Blue Devils.  I wanted blood.

Nadal tried to come back at the U.S. Open but fell meekly to Del Potro in the semifinals on a strange grey September day in New York.  Then, after I waited with a shocking amount of anxiousness for the 2010 Tennis Season, Nadal had to retire against Murray at the Australian Open.  The floodgates opened for the pundits – “this is it for Nadal,” “his knees couldn’t keep up,” “his game isn’t like Federer’s,” “he’ll still go down as one of the best.”  I couldn’t stand all of this, because I knew that he had more in him.  I knew that Nadal would not be denied.  He was an underdog, he was tough, he had a passion for the game that seemed to extend outward to life; in short, he reminded me of a young me.

Fast forward to this past June.  Nadal smokes Soderling in the French Open Final after Federer had lost to Soderling in the Quarterfinals.  It’s Nadal’s fifth French Open and seventh Grand Slam Championship.  Nadal is healthy.  He is ready to head to Wimbledon and win another title there.  He cruises through the first two rounds but goes five sets in the third.  Then, on June 12, the day the U.S. lost to Ghana, I woke up to find Nadal struggling against some guy named Petzschner.  He was down two sets to one and it looked like Petzschner was going to win the match.  I was slightly hung over and I was livid. My apartment was boiling hot and I just lost it.

“God damnit! Come on, Nadal! This guy looks like Tom Jane! You can’t fucking lose to him!”

Nadal fought back to tie the set, but then Petzschner pulled ahead again.  The pillows started flying across my living room.  However, Nadal composed himself (through a trainer break) and came back to win the set and tie the match at two sets apiece.  He was back in it and he had the mental edge. Heading into the fifth set, you knew that Petzschner was done.  And he was.  Petzschner had come so close to defeating Nadal, he had used all the essential tools to beat Nadal (strong serve that forces Nadal back on the baseline, attacking the net to keep him off-guard, for Nadal thrives on keeping his opponents off-guard with off-speeed shots), yet he couldn’t finish it off.  Nadal cooly won the fifth set 6-4.  He was into the quarters to play Soderling. I knew he’d beat Soderling after the confidence Nadal displayed at the French Open and as I followed the game tracker at work I was pleased to see he did.  I was also pleased to see that Federer lost .  The head boss at my office noticed I was following the matches.

“Did he lose?” He asked me.

“Federer?” I hid my nerves.


“Yeah, Berdych beat him pretty cooly.”

“I can’t believe it. And Nadal?”

“Beat Soderling in straight sets.”

“I play so much tennis,” he said. “That I don’t watch tennis.” He chuckled and walked away in his finely tailored Italian suit.

Nadal was even helping me score points with my boss.  So, I knew that when he faced Murray, a player who had Nadal’s number in the past, that he would win.  And, following at work again, I was pleased to see my prediction come true.  Nadal beat him in straight sets.  Just outworking him and taking all the advantages that Murray gave him and also allowing Murray to beat himself.  I knew that Nadal would beat Berdych in the Wimbledon Final.

I woke up on Sunday morning with a house full of people.  We had partied by my pool the night before. As people staggered in and sat around the kitchen table with my family and I and our bagels and the hot, black coffee, we all watched as Nadal, once again cooly beat his opponent in straight sets.  He had won his second Wimbledon Title.  Reading about the match afterwards, Berdych said that Nadal was not playing his best, but that he just couldn’t use the opportunities to beat him.  It was then that I realized Nadal had become what Federer once was – the man that lets his opponent beat himself; that, even is he is not playing his best game, will not be beaten, becaue his opponents are so aware of the opportunity they have to beat the best, that they end up forcing their own mistakes and give the match away.  This was the trademark of the Federer era and it will be the trademark of the Nadal era.

As I look forward to Nadal trying to win the Career Slam at only 24 years old at the U.S. Open in September, I can’t help but think of how much he’s been through.  His knees have constantly been questioned.  He witnessed his parents’ divorce last year.  He suffered humiliating defeats and forfeits, yet at 24 years old, he has 8 Grand Slams to Federer’s 16.  Federer had only 5 by the time he was 25.  We will see if Nadal has to rack up all of his championships while he is young and if his game will not hold up over time.  However, I love Rafael Nadal.  And I do not doubt him for a second.  His serve has improved, his backhand is devastating and he is rounding his game out to keep the pressure off his knees.  He is in amazing shape and he defeats his opponents mentally by first defeating them physically.  He is a machine that can’t be stopped or slowed down. You see his opponents getting tired when they are up 2 sets to 1.  But Nadal never slows down.  You know he’s going to win.  He’s doesn’t suck and isn’t lucky like Federer is.  In Nadal, there is passion, there is grit, there is always that underdog essence.  And most of all, he wants to beat Federer because he wants to be the best.

That’s why I love him. He’s got me as a fan now and there will be plenty of expletives and thrown household objects to come.

1 comment:

  1. Yes,I get so involved in his matches and detest Federer's smugness