Monday, June 9, 2014

A Quick Note About the French

No, not the French side that will be in Brazil. I'm talking Roland Garros, and specifically, a Spaniard at Roland Garros.

I've seen Rafael Nadal play a lot. I'm not able to catch every tournament, or even every match of the majors. But I try to tune in around the 3rd round or so at big tournaments and see how these guys are doing. The end can come terrifyingly quick for even the greatest of players, and I don't want to have missed any legendary matches while they're occurring.

So I'm no Rafa expert, but I do know his game a little. And it seems a little like a team from South Florida that's pretty good at basketball. Rafa is tennis' Miami Heat.

Let me explain. Early in his career, Rafa would dominate everyone with his forehand. He moved so well, it seemed like he could hit that thing from anywhere on the court. That singular shot was so good it got him past Roger Federer at the 2005 French Open... on his 19th birthday. I'm sure it was exciting, but nothing like winning his first major 2 days later. Chew on that.

The next year he casually became the first ever to defeat Fed in a slam final, also the French. The Federer cruised past him in a Wimbledon Final that wasn't that close. Next year, the final at the All England club was a 5 set affair, but Federer was again victorious. So Nadal's a clay court specialist, no harm in that. This reminds me of the Heat in the inaugural season of the Big 3. Some bumps early, but as they coalesced, domination ensued. They beat a well coached Derrick Rose-led team in the Conference Finals, but were unable to overcome a wily, veteran Dallas squad. It was fun though.

It's 2008 now and Rafa seems done with losing to Roger. Anywhere. He tweaks his weak serve and works on his backhand. He learns to attack earlier in points, dictating games and sets. He beats Roger mercilessly at Roland Garros and then prevails in a mammoth final at Wimbledon. Over the next two years, only injury could halt Nadal's ascent to the top of the tennis mountain, culminating in a US Open win over Novak Djokovic. Kind of like how the Heat decided they were done with Indiana, Boston, and Oklahoma City in successive series, blowing these teams away once their stars started to align and the team became LeBron's. They discovered small ball like Nadal discovered a serve.

In 2011, Nadal struggled with some injuries and the ascension of Djokovic. Things got harder. His body, always known for the immense amount of force it could put into a ball, was starting to show signs of wear. Sound familiar? He was still good on clay, but some wondered if he could regain the all-world dominance of last year. Also, as now an entrenched member of tennis' elite, he now had a target on his back. Guys would ramp up for matches with him, throwing him the kitchen sink in any bid to beat a giant.

I think it was in 2011 and 2012 that he discovered something the the Heat found last year. That he didn't need to pummel every opponent into submission. That he could play defense, take their best shot, and redirect their energy into the corners for savvy, but not overpowering, passes. Maybe it's me memory's recency bias, but is seems that no more apparent was this than in 2014's Australian Open. Kei Nishikori started it in the 4th round - just taking insane chances and hitting for the lines in a way that all but forced Nadal to the defensive. Which he was happy to do, letting Nishikori out-hit himself, waiting for mistakes. The trend continued in Rafa's next match against the spirited Grigor Dimitrov.

What he discovered was an on/off switch, the same switch that Miami possesses. He can hang around with guys in the earlier rounds before taking his game to another level against superior foes. Just like Miami, sometimes this switch doesn't get turned on. One of the more frustrating Rafa matches I remember was the 2012 Australian Open final, where he often found himself several feet behind the baseline, unable to dictate pace or positioning. Normally, the defense is good enough, but with how hard and flat Novak can hit it, the effort wasn't enough.

This year at the French, Nadal was the same cool customer, the guy who know's he's good and knows how to take care of business. The Heat, too - they haven't messed around in getting to their fourth straight Finals.

In the final, again Djokovic waited. Ever since Djokovic started seriously taking care of his body a few years ago, I think he's become Nadal's main foil for best male tennis players, and the rankings are proof positive of this theory. His ability to sustain belief in himself and his game through grueling points and matches is something Rafa rarely encounters. His penetrating forehands and backhands, often hit with maximum effort and laser precision keep Nadal from his best spots. He can handle the spin, he can handle Nadal's OCD, and he can do so for nearly as long. He and his sleeping pod are two parts of a machine designed to tame Nadal's wild ferocity.

Sounds like the Spurs, another machine-like entity. Plug and play whichever role players you please around the core and into the Finals they go. And in the Finals, they pushed the Heat to the athletic precipice, a precipice few have stared down and come back from.

Nadal has stared that precipice down. The last three sets in Djokovic saw Nadal playing right on the baseline, unnerved by Djokovic's passing ability. But they also saw Nadal playing intelligently; well-placed serves followed up by passing forehands that made it seem easy. Somehow, the player that seemed destined to make every point a struggle had learned how to make things look easy. And that's what makes Rafael Nadal better. He's no longer the spry 19 year old that can stand up to Fed and chase down every ball. He's the vet now, and he's learned to win like one. Keep getting them checks, Rafa.

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