If Rafael Nadal's first singles victory at Wimbledon, in 2008, remains an epic engraved forever on the soul of tournament and those who love it, his second one today was a clinical, almost antiseptic act of reaffirmation. Why go through all that again? Today, Nadal demolished Tomas Berdych, a lanky and late-blooming threat, unstable as acetone peroxide, who was unable to rally the kind of commanding, power-based tennis that had carried him to the final over the fortnight.
Nadal won it, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4, as Berdych's nerves, game, or both failed him at inconvenient times. Thus Nadal became the first man since Bjorn Borg to complete the Channel Slam (back-to-back wins at Roland Garros and Wimbledon) more than once in the Open era. It wasn't very long ago that Borg's accomplishment seemed untouchable, not just because of Borg's game but—in theory—because of essential transformations in the game itself. Now, Nadal and Roger Federer have each done it. As Nadal said in his presser, "It didn't happen since Borg (1980), and now it happened for the past three years. How crazy is life?"
But let's get back to those critical moments in the match. With his punishing serve and quick-strike groundstrokes, Berdych is capable of holding serve until the cows, or John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, come home. But Nadal broke Berdych twice in the first set, and in the second set Nadal broke Berdych in what arguably was the most critical game of the match: the 13th. Had Berdych held there, the set would have gone to the tiebreaker and, against a guy like Berdych, that's always a crapshoot. Nadal also broke Berdych in what would be the final game of the match to clinch it 6-4.
You could argue that Berdych's greatest miscalculation was his stubborn refusal to go to a Plan B when Plan A (engaging Nadal in stock baseline-based play) clearly failed. But in each of the last two sets, Berdych matched Nadal, hold for hold, until deep into the set. So in the end, you can just as easily put down his loss to a failure of nerve. He failed to play the big points well. Berdych was 0 for 5 in break points, compared to Nadal's 4 for 6. If someone had told you before the match that there would be no tiebreakers, you would have known it would hardly be worth watching. Going into the match, Berdych had lost just seven service games; today he lost four, nearly 50 per cent of his tournament total.
But Nadal was broken just eight times in this tournament, a statistic that points to his serving efficiency as well as his generally high level of execution. After all, Nadal's 54 aces is barely half the number served up at Wimbledon by his final opponent (111). Berdych finished second on the ace list (behind John Isner, who served all of his in one match); Nadal finished tied for 22nd.
Still, as Toni Nadal, Rafa’s uncle and coach, told us about his nephew's general level of play: "It was as good as 2008. Maybe better, because he improve some things, like his serve."
Nadal's well-placed lefty slice, less effective for its pop than for its shrewd placement, has made his life easier on grass. But he wins on the surface for the same reason as the former player he most resembles, Borg. It's all about the legs. As he said, "I think I have very good thing for player here on grass—movement. I move well on the court, and that's a very important part of the game."
No secrets there. Berdych begged to differ and put it simply: "His biggest weapon is his left hand. It's not many players like that. It's really tough, you know, to find the right rhythm."
And it's that much tougher when the most basic strength of your opponent exposes your most basic weakness. In this case, the quickness of Nadal matched with the relatively poor movement of Berdych. As the match wore on, Berdych's defense looked weaker and weaker; by the late stages, he was pushing feeble sliced backhands which, when they did make it over the net, were easy pickings for the swift Nadal.
How did he get so fast? "I think all my life I practiced with my high hundred percent of intensity in every ball in the practice. That's why today I am faster, no? Probably now I'm not practicing with the same intensity like when I was a kid. When I was a kid, I practiced—believe me—like crazy."
This appetite, even for a cradle-to-grave tennis pro, is slightly unusual, and it points to a more fundamental attribute that may be the wellspring of Nadal's style as well as his degree of success. That's his passion for the game, which is manifested in both subtle and obvious ways.
We all know that tennis players are coy, proud individuals. They claim never to read anything written about them, but you can catch them at the newsstand with an armload of papers. Once they're out of a tournament, they profess no interest in watching the grand finale. But I'll bet they sit there, doing sit-ups, tuned in to the broadcast, growling: That coulda been me.
When Nadal was asked the other day if he had watched last year's final between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, he said, "I watched at home, on the sofa. Just enjoying the beautiful match. Was a very emotional match. I liked the tennis, so I enjoyed the match."
How often have you heard players, instead of transported fans, call tennis "beautiful?"
Of course, you don't get to be Rafael Nadal by enjoying the moment when you're actually playing out there; you get to be Nadal by living in it and most of all surviving it—even if you get the job done while the sun is still high and the shadows short, while spectators are appreciating every point instead of living—or dying —a little bit with each one.
Today was easy, although Nadal would be the last to tell you so. Don't you think he earned it?