Decline and fall in Rome

Sunday Star-Times - - SPORT -

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.

Pho­tos: Reuters

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