Decline and fall in Rome
will fail to overhaul Roger Federer’s record of 17. But this is precisely why I sense a new chapter in the making – Nadal loves nothing more than defying expectations. Few sportspeople have given me greater joy than the Spaniard. I have never understood the idea, still common in the sporting world, that he is a machine: mechanical, predictable and rather soulless. Nadal is an artist, a musketeer, a player who is constantly reaching deep within, even as he is searching out the weaknesses in his opponents with those blistering ground-strokes. And those tics and superstitions are not evidence of a tedious personality, but of a sensitive man seeking to Rafael Nadal loves nothing more than defying expectations. bring order to a complex mind. One of the most fascinating things to emerge from his compelling autobiography is his sense of vulnerability. He is often quiet to the point of muteness. He struggles to cope in large, unfamiliar groups.
Even out on court, particularly against his toughest opponents, he worries if he will be able to deal with moments of maximum pressure.
‘‘He is a straightforward kind of person at first sight,’’ Ana Maria, his mother, said.
‘‘And also a good person, but he is also full of ambiguities. If you know what he is like deep down, there are things about him that don’t quite square.’’
Maria, his beloved sister, whom he texts or calls ten times a day, put it more pithily: ‘‘He is a bit of a scaredy-cat.’’
His demons must seem exhausting at times. We all know about the array of rituals that must be completed on court: the way he removes his jacket and lays down his equipment, the constant shorttugging, the way he avoids stepping on the tramlines between points.
There are 12 distinct phases to his preserve preparation alone. Then there are the behind-the-scenes rituals, so extensive that I can’t fit them into this column.These are not revelations of his mechanical nature, however, but of his humanity. They are deployed to silence his inner fears, to provide a sense of control in an uncertain world.
‘‘What I battle hardest to do in a match is to quiet the voices in my head, shut everything out but the contest itself and concentrate every atom of my being on the point I am playing,’’ Nadal has said. ‘‘Tennis is a sport of the mind . . . The player who manages to isolate himself best from his fears and from the ups and downs in morale that a match inevitably brings, ends up being world No1.’’
This is why watching Nadal is a such a different aesthetic experience to watching Federer.
The Swiss glides around the court, conjuring the illusion of having been born to play the game. There is an intimacy between the artist and his art, which is why his matches often have a hypnotic quality.
Nadal is a different animal, constantly in a battle not just with his opponent, but also with his own neuroses. This is tennis as a form of existential struggle.
But it is no less rewarding for that. Nadal cried for 30 minutes, the water cascading across his forehead as he sat under the shower in the Wimbledon changing room after his defeat by Federer in the 2007 final. One year later, he hardly slept when he made it to the final and almost threw it away after double faulting at 5-2 up in the fourth-set tie-break while leading two sets to one. When he closed it out in the decider, he was not merely defying Federer, but his own self-doubt.
John Carlin, who co-wrote Nadal’s autobiography, describes him as a dual incarnation. There is Clark Kent, the offcourt persona familiar to his family and friends, and then there is the Superman who emerges from the ice-cold shower, taken precisely 45 minutes before walking out to play.
Opponents are often cowed by the transformation, the Spaniard leaping from the water before doing short sprints up and down the dressing room, the violence of the pre-match exertions a perfect mirror of his pent-up anxiety. Titin Maymo, his confidant and masseur, calls it: ‘‘Activating his explosiveness.’’
To beat Federer’s record, Nadal must not merely find a new accord with his body, but with his mind. In the coming months, which feature the French Open, beginning on May 24, Wimbledon and the US Open, he will seek to subvert expectations yet again. Whatever happens, it will be thrilling to observe. With Nadal, it always is. AS THE French Open rapidly approaches, Rafael Nadal is still losing matches on clay.
The Spaniard was beaten 7-6 (7), 6-2 by Stan Wawrinka in the Italian Open quarterfinals in Rome on Saturday; his fifth loss on clay this season.
‘‘I didn’t have enough leg in some moments today. He played crazy. He hit amazing shots in a lot of moments and especially important ones,’’ Nadal said.
‘‘I am not very happy with the way I played,’’ he added. ‘‘During the night the ball is bigger, the bounces are not that high. So he has the chance to go for it. And he was on fire.’’
The last time Nadal was beaten so many times on his favourite surface was 12 years ago – in his rookie season.
‘‘I am ready to accept the challenge,’’ Nadal said. ‘‘If I go to Roland Garros [and] I lose [and] I don’t play well, life continues. It’s not the end of the world.
‘‘I won so many times there. I don’t want to [win] 15 Roland Garros. That’s for sure.
‘‘It’s normal that I can lose. Losing is part of life.’’
Meanwhile, as well as Marina Erakovic in the women’s singles and doubles, New Zealand will have three male players in the French Open doubles draw for the first time since 1985 after confirmation that Artem Sitak, Michael Venus and Marcus Daniell have all made the direct entry list.
For Daniell, 25, this will be his first Grand Slam tournament after he found a partner at the latest possible moment, Steve Darcis from Belgium, and they become the last pair to make it in.
‘‘I just had to talk to everybody I could and it worked out beautifully in the end,’’ said Daniell, ranked 79 in doubles.
‘‘I’ve played against a bunch of the best guys now and I don’t feel any sense of out of place playing against them now.
‘‘Steve [Darcis] and I have been in touch quite a bit and we just made it into the draw, we’ll no doubt catch up on the weekend before the tournament starts to practice together.’’
Sitak will partner American Nicolas Monroe and Venus teams up with Mate Pavic from Croatia.