Peter Bodo's TennisWorld - Mentor Mine
Home       About Peter Bodo       Contact        RSS       Follow on Twitter Categories       Archive
Mentor Mine 02/03/2009 - 6:07 PM


by Pete Bodo

Howdy, everyone. I'm a little late on this, but as I posted at the previous thread, Typepad ate my entire Rafael Nadal post earlier today. I can't tell you how far your heart sinks the moment you realize the work is gone for good and can't be retrieved. So here we go again.

I confess that I was a little disappointed when Nadal showed up in Melbourne in. . .sleeves. It signaled the end of an era - that period when you could watch Nadal and feel safe judging him a Rousseauvian character, the wild boy from Manacor, slashing and blasting his way through a draw as if it was less a game of tennis than a demolition derby (and didn't sleeveless Rafa remind you just a wee bit of a derby car, perhaps 1988 Plymouth Fury with the doors removed?).

Well, those days are gone; if Jet Boy will never again look quite so much like a cross between a cartoon Superhero and Rambo, he'll also never again be accused of being a one-dimensional tennis pro. He's now the defending champ on all three Grand Slam surfaces (hard courts, grass, clay).

Watching the final, I sensed from the start that it was going the be a battle of wills, more than skills. And that's not a diplomatic way of saying that Nadal's will would trump Federer's skill, although it wouldn't be the first time something like that happened, and not just in this rivalry. These men are evenly matched in the skills department, if you concede that  that placing a feathery drop volley is no more, or less, a skill than bending a running passing shot around the netpost and landing it in the square foot at either corner of the opposite court. Or that hitting a specific serve on demand, when it's most needed, is the equal of executing a turn-around jump volley.

The skills of Nadal and Federer are different in kind, but not in quality, and certainly not in utility. Each of us may prefer certain skills to others, but personal taste plays a much larger role in our minds than on the field of play.

In fact, the skills of the two men are so well-dovetailed that they more or less fought to a standstill in that department. Might Federer have served better?  Of course. But what if Nadal would have returned better? There's no point in dealing with flying pigs, so it seems to me that with the skills deadlocked, the match was decided by will. But let's be careful about this, because saying Nadal "wanted" it more doesn't do the man justice - didn't most of us tell our children, today or yesterday, that there is no causal relationship between "wanting" and "getting?  You might say that Rafa showed more "heart," but that seems unnecessarily cruel. Let's just say that when they tabulated the sum of want and heart in each man, Nadal's total added up to a higher number.

What struck me most about Nadal, beyond the comments I made in my last post, was his imperturbability. He's extraordinarily well designed to withstand the pressures and temptations of competition, right down to, or perhaps because of, the way he goes about his business. He doesn't seem to care what his opponent is doing or thinking, or what the moment means (he's got plenty of time to experience the exquisite torture of that apprehension, and when he does the first person he calls for advice will probably be Federer). The best example of Nadal's ability to be totally absorbed in the task of the moment (and what a blessing that is) is in the way he lines up his serve, as painstakingly and openly as he aligns his water bottles. Does he worry about telegraphing his intentions to one of the best returners in the game? Nah. Does he feel obliged to mix it up, lest this 13-time Grand Slam winner tee off on the return and drill him through the forehead? Nah.

This points somewhere interesting, for once you get past the matters of style, Nadal turns out to be more like Pete Sampras than Federer has ever been. Like Sampras, Nadal isn't going to out-think his opponent (or himself). He's not going to try to blind-side him, or overwhelm him with inventive, creative shotmaking. He's going straight at him, with the most powerful weapon he has, and let the chips fall where they may. And that automatically gives him additional heft. Sampras's early coach Tim Gullikson used to try to pump Sampras up by comparing him to a certain power-based play made famous by the NFL's iconic team, the Green Bay Packers: You're like the Packers power sweep," Tim would say, his eyes gleaming. "They know it's coming, but there's nothing they can do to stop it.

That's Rafa's way as well; he'd look good in green-and-gold.

These virtues are relatively easy to discuss, compared to the quality that may be most responsible for Nadal having won the match, his stamina. Let's be clear about this: Tennis Australia owes him, big-time, for not running out of gas midway through the match. The decision to play the semi-finalists on different days is unfathomable. Who would have thought that when it comes to boneheaded scheduling, anyone could surpass the US Open's insistence on holding the men's semifinals and final on back-to-back days? 

For a period in the second set, it looked as if Nadal was going to pay a heavy penalty for his lengthy semifinal with Fernando Verdasco. But that swoon, uncharacteristic and inconvenient as it was (Nadal at that point looked like he might actually humiliate Federer) didn't last, and it's hard to say what caused it. The recovery was a tribute not just to Nadal's physical powers, but his nerves. By the end, well-rested Federer looked more the exhausted man. Have we ever seen a more vivid demonstration of the role nerves play in a match, or the often derided notion that you're only as tired as you allow yourself to be?

Pondering Nadal's stamina, I was reminded of that famous quote Adriano Panatta delivered after he lost a terrific five-setter to Jimmy Connors at the US Open some years ago: Jimmy. . .  he doesn't want to die. I always found that quote irritating, probably because it's a truism. But it comes about as close as  you can get to identifying the kind of drive and determination that has to be considered a special gift, and there's a certain amount of appeal in the idea that we play sports partly because doing so allows us to absolutely revel in our own driving life force. Anyone who's ever experienced the ecstasy of physical exhaustion will probably know what I mean. It's at the boundaries of our physical capabilities where we're most in touch with the miracle of our own corporeal existence.

Nadal has always seemed sufficiently earthy not only to enjoy this condition, but to accept what discomfort comes along with it. The overt physicality of his game is not just a matter of style, it's also a dimension of personality. Don't you get the sense that if you could attach a happiness meter to his nervous system, it would register the highest score when he's chasing like mad after a seemingly irretrievable ball?  In this, Nadal has been uncorrupted by prudence or fancy notions of "energy management", which can lead down the road to self-created limitations.

Nadal seems to have steered clear of such pitfalls thanks in part to his coach and uncle, Toni. One of the more interesting things Toni told me at the last US Open was that while developing Rafa, he would sometimes make him practice with old balls, or take him to a broken-down old court, just to impress on him that playing only under ideal conditions is inadequate training for adversity. The lesson took: nobody in today's game handles adversity better than Nadal.

This ability to absorb lessons is one of Rafa's trademark characteristics, and while it's counter-intuitive to think of a great champion as a great student, this seems to be the case. Nadal is a model student; he respects his teachers, and no matter what he achieves, it never seems to occur to him that he's outgrown them, or has come to know more. He may have greater talent, and he may achieve more success, but it doesn't change the established order.

This has less impact in his role as a pupil of Toni's than it does in his relationship to his other great mentor. . . Roger Federer. Think about it: Who set the bar for Rafa?  Who painted the baseline of greatness for him? Who handled himself with the kind of statesmanlike dignity that a good, obedient, eager and intelligent young learner might want to emulate? Isn't it odd, at some level, that this rivalry has been utterly free of acrimony, given the way that Jimmy Connors trash-talked Bjorn Borg, and John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl took every opportunity to express their mutual antipathy?

Rafa may have eclipsed his mentor, but I believe that while he's well aware of the situation and proud of what he's accomplished, he's not inclined to think of it in those terms. There's a lot more than good manners, tact and a kindly disposition at work in this; there's also a certain purity of spirit. Nobody appreciates TMF more than Rafa does, because nobody has done more for him than Federer. I can imagine Rafa experiencing many emotions on the heels of this win, but gloating isn't one of them. I thought that the consolation he offered Federer after the podium breakdown was telling; Nadal didn't need to think for a moment of what to do, or how to handle the situation. He threw his arm around Federer and produced one of the most genuine smiles I've ever seen cross his elastic, expressive features. The gesture seemed to come from the heart, and testify to how large it is.

Hail, it even made Roger look sheepish, which was quite a feat, given the emotional tone of the moment.

To some, this win at a hard court major was overdue. It was an understandable concern, because players tend to establish histories at certain events and on specific surfaces, much like they do against their rivals. And once a pattern is established, it becomes hard to break  - and harder with each missed opportunity. I don't think hard courts posed special problems for Nadal; I believe the backstory to his results on the surface was more a matter of priorities.

This was, to some degree, a culturally-driven decision. The tale of clay-court wizards having to "prove" themselves outside their red dirt playgrounds is as old as the hills, and the rocky history of so many great Spanish players at Wimbledon puts a special premium on winning there (Who can forget the huge fuss a group of Spanish players led by Alex Corretja made a few years back at Wimbledon, because of the demotion of some clay-court experts in the seedings?). Wimbledon was the highest priority for Nadal, and after he checked it off his to-do list, he was liberated to focus on further ambitions.

As it turns out, though, there's far more at stake for Nadal now at the US Open. He's shown that he can win on hard courts, but the American major represents an opportunity for Nadal to join the select group of just five men who have completed the "Career Grand Slam", winning at least once at each major venue. The last person to do it was Andre Agassi, in 1999. Before that, it was Roy Emerson, in 1964. And let's not forget that Nadal will be the overwhelming favorite to win the French Open, which means that he's got a realistic shot at completing the first Grand Slam since Rod Laver's second one, in 1969.

It's a small price to pay for adding a couple of sleeves, no?

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.
1 2 3 4 5 6      >>

Posted by rafadoc 02/03/2009 at 06:17 PM

Another great piece of writing Pete. Thanks!

Posted by C Note (help her, Dave Rineberg, you're her only hope) 02/03/2009 at 06:18 PM

Wow. Loved that Sampras analogy, Pete. Never thought of it that way.

And this brought a tear to my eye:
Nadal didn't need to think for a moment of what to do, or how to handle the situation. He threw his arm around Federer and produced one of the most genuine smiles I've ever seen cross his elastic, expressive features. The gesture seemed to come from the heart, and testify to how large it is.


Posted by avid sports fan aka "Sigh-Rena" *Serena the ultimate assassin of the WTA Tour Matt Z (2009)* 02/03/2009 at 06:20 PM

Pete - Thank you for this Rafael Nadal piece. In a world where bitter acrimony is what defines rivalry in sports, Rafael has shown otherwise. And while many may think his respect for Roger and subsequent actions as a result are not genuine, I think it is and it shows much more how much of a human being with heart that he is.

Posted by mireilledale 02/03/2009 at 06:27 PM

Great great post, Pete. And as someone currently writing a dissertation, I know all too well the pain of losing a large chunk of written work, so double thanks.

"Nadal didn't need to think for a moment of what to do, or how to handle the situation. He threw his arm around Federer and produced one of the most genuine smiles I've ever seen cross his elastic, expressive features. The gesture seemed to come from the heart, and testify to how large it is."

I too loved this part of your post (and of the ceremony itself). When I was watching the ceremony, I worried about how Rafa was going to handle it, not because I thought he'd be tacky but because it seemed a really impossible situation to handle.

And I agree completely about Rafa's "imperturbability." Nothing seems to phase him, he takes everything in stride. The only time he seems to lose this is when he plays James Blake, for whatever reason.

Posted by puran (Lurker Emeritus) 02/03/2009 at 06:32 PM


Posted by puran (Lurker Emeritus) 02/03/2009 at 06:33 PM

Now that you have brought out the similarity between Nadal and Sampras, do you think there is any chance Federer might get Sampras to coach him a bit?

Posted by schtz62 02/03/2009 at 06:34 PM

Thank you, Mr. Bodo, for finally giving "the true champion" his due!

Posted by tommy 02/03/2009 at 06:35 PM

Chris Russo just did an interview with Paul Annacone on Sirius that was all about what Federer has to do to beat Nadal. He compared it to Sampras-Chang, when you know a lot of balls are coming back, you can't try to be perfect and go for lines. He thinks because Federer beats everyone from the baseline, he is making a mistake against Nadal. He has to force him back or make him come in, or come in himself. Not try to outrally him from the baseline every point.
And that every player faces some situation like this in their career and Federer has to find a way to change things.

Posted by FedFan_2007 02/03/2009 at 06:35 PM

schtz62 - keep up the hate.

Posted by Pspace 02/03/2009 at 06:36 PM

Pete, perfect! I guess this article has been building up since Wimby last year, when you wrote about how Rafa looks at Rog as a test. The Sampras analogy is also fitting (to me). This rivalry evokes similar emotions to what I got from watch Andre and Pete...I rooted for Andre then, and would just pray that Pistol would miss a first serve. Of course, here there's no prayer, 'cos Nadal doesn't miss his forehand cross court.

Posted by FedFan_2007 02/03/2009 at 06:37 PM

tommy - bad analogy Chang/Nadal. Chang was a great retriever but had no weapons. Nadal has loads of weapons. Many times Roger hit apparent winners only to see bullets coming back. What can anyone do except serve like a god so not to get into too many rallies? The big difference between Rafa & Roger is that Roger only has 1 way he can beat Rafa, while Rafa can win any number of ways.

Posted by Moderator 02/03/2009 at 06:38 PM

FedFan_2007 -

I warned you last night about name-calling, which is against the Site Rules. People are entitled to express their opinions without your "interventions". You're banned, as I promised.

Posted by Arthur 02/03/2009 at 06:44 PM

Excellent insight into Nadal's warrior-like spirit, Pete!

I do find it interesting that Federer does indeed seem so mentally fragile. It struck me how absolutely unhappy Federer seems. His sense of self seems fragile and very dependent on these achievements. I would wager that "lesser" players with "Mickey Mouse" achievements when compared to Federer would be much happier and have much better self-esteem than Federer if they were hooked up to a happy-meter.

Posted by Corn 02/03/2009 at 06:50 PM

When filming Rocky, Stallone did an unbelievable, unrepeatable scene in his apartment when the trainer came begging and he had a catharsis. The cameraman hadn't hit "play". Stallone had to do it again, and it's what we have in the final cut. Sorry, Pete, for your loss earlier today. Good follow up.

The beginnings of me understanding Rafa was when I realized that he would pick his butt in front of millions - even after harassed and made fun of for months, worldwide. For whatever reason it became one of his rituals. And he was too focused to care. Name another man alive capable of the same thing.

Rafa's the iron man, and the innocent to boot. What a guy. I'm loving the rivalry, the greatest ever.

Posted by Jon R. 02/03/2009 at 06:50 PM

Great post Pete.

Posted by Jackie 02/03/2009 at 06:50 PM

"That's Rafa's way as well; he'd look good in green-and-gold."

So THAT'S why I was rooting for Fed. GO BEARS! ;)

Posted by Jackie 02/03/2009 at 06:51 PM

And of course, terrific post, Pete.

Posted by greenhopper 02/03/2009 at 06:58 PM

Loved the post. LOVED the Sampras analogy.

Rafa seeing Roger as his mentor totally fits - it also explains the "false humility" theory, where he truly believes Roger is the bigger threat even when others toot him as the overwhelming favourite (a la RG).

Those were some interesting tidbits about Tio Toni's training method. He's a hard master, and Rafa, an obedient student. In a way, they are lucky they have each other.

Thanks for this post, Pete.

Posted by IN 02/03/2009 at 06:59 PM

"a skill than bending a running passing shot around the netpost and landing it in the square foot at either corner of the opposite court"

You took the words right out of my mouth; he does seem to bend balls doesn't he, manipulating them as he pleases...

Thank you for this WONDERFUL post..I didn't expect you to top yesterday's and you did. You articulated every reason why I love Rafa's game, a game that may not be as "pretty" and "sophisticated" as Federer's, but one that is admirable nonetheless. Thank you again.

Posted by katada 02/03/2009 at 07:03 PM


With my limit english, I can say that you make me get emocional for the nice thing you have said here about Rafa.. Bravo Pete.

Posted by Samantha Elin 02/03/2009 at 07:05 PM

I love that picture. When I saw Rafa put his arms around Roger, it showed me what a great and nice person he's. Although I prefer Federer's game because it reminds me of Justine's game, you can't help but love Rafa.

Posted by rose 02/03/2009 at 07:09 PM

hello everyone

great post pete wow

the nadal- sampras piece was good en yeah it was jus a matter of priorities with the majors

en the sleeves did do some good in the end no?

Posted by 02/03/2009 at 07:13 PM

thank you moderator

Posted by Miss Sydney 02/03/2009 at 07:16 PM

Great article Pete - loved reading it but then again I love reading anyting on Rafa!

Can you or anyone else let me know when your article on Toni Nadal is going to be published or have I missed it (I hope I haven't!).

Posted by Charles 02/03/2009 at 07:19 PM


excellent summation of the current situation! loved this bit...

"This points somewhere interesting, for once you get past the matters of style, Nadal turns out to be more like Pete Sampras than Federer has ever been. Like Sampras, Nadal isn't going to out-think his opponent (or himself). He's not going to try to blind-side him, or overwhelm him with inventive, creative shotmaking. He's going straight at him, with the most powerful weapon he has, and let the chips fall where they may."


"Nadal has been uncorrupted by prudence or fancy notions of "energy management", which can lead down the road to self-created limitations."

Hopefully Rafa will be able to continue to harness his ability to live in the moment and his humility so that he can continue to win for a long time to come. The wise man is the student of all. it applies to the winner as well...

Posted by ladyjulia 02/03/2009 at 07:21 PM

great post!

Posted by Veruca Salt 02/03/2009 at 07:22 PM

thumbs up, Pete.

Posted by Genuine Realist 02/03/2009 at 07:22 PM

[I posted this in the other line, but it seems topical.]

I am all for slowing down Wimbledon.

I have mentioned that I have followed tennis since the early 70's, including the initial Breakfast at Wimbledons. Becker and the others were fun through about 1990. But I then lost interest for nearly 15 years. The reason was racket technology had transformed Wimbledon from the liveliest event of the year (saving the NCAA basketball tournament) to the dullest. Nothing but servathons. The fact that a serving freak like Ivanesivic is a Wimbledon titleholder and two-time finalist says it all. My attitude towards Pete Sampras is a little like Ros's toward Federer - respectful, but not affectionate.

I became interested in actively following the game again when a sports lunatic friend - the type that follows everything - told me the buzz Federer was beginning to generate. I began watching again, with great pleasure. I also noticed and appreciated the change in Wimbledon - slower courts and rallies, a showcase event again.

HOWEVER, when I purchased the DVD of the 2008 final, I was a little rattled to find that BBC had done a computer analysis of the speed of the 2008 court, which one of the commentators presented during a change of sides. It transpires that the court was plsying 20 percent slower than in 2005.

Geez. 2005 was not 1995. The court wasn't all that fast then. How slow is slow? And although I am long enough in tooth to know that Roger's form couldn't hold forever, that someone would replace him, and it is almost a confirmation of his stature that it is a player as extraordinary as Rafa, the slowness of that court DOES diminish the Wimbledon feat. Sorry, but it does.

I mean . . . come on. Wimbledon should be significant faster than the USO. I don't think it is.

Posted by 02/03/2009 at 07:25 PM

The Tio Toni article was published in the Jan/Feb edition of "Tennis". I have now received the March issue.

Posted by Joanne 02/03/2009 at 07:29 PM

Really, really enjoyed this post! You have captured Nadal's strengths beautifully.

Funny thing...the one part that most are liking best is the one part I don't agree with (that Nadal is never going to out-think his opponent). I think that his ability to think and problem-solve on the court is under-rated. It's just that he hasn't had to change anything against Federer...don't mess with success!

Posted by Sher 02/03/2009 at 07:39 PM

[This points somewhere interesting, for once you get past the matters of style, Nadal turns out to be more like Pete Sampras than Federer has ever been. ]

What strikes me in particular is how Rafa seems to aim to avoid controversy, as Pete S confessed he always tried to do.

[There's a lot more than good manners, tact and a kindly disposition at work in this; there's also a certain purity of spirit. Nobody appreciates TMF more than Rafa does, because nobody has done more for him than Federer. I can imagine Rafa experiencing many emotions on the heels of this win, but gloating isn't one of them. I thought that the consolation he offered Federer after the podium breakdown was telling; Nadal didn't need to think for a moment of what to do, or how to handle the situation. He threw his arm around Federer and produced one of the most genuine smiles I've ever seen cross his elastic, expressive features. The gesture seemed to come from the heart, and testify to how large it is.

Hail, it even made Roger look sheepish, which was quite a feat, given the emotional tone of the moment.]

Wonderful paragraph, Pete. Just perfect.

That's one of the things that I've always felt separated Rafa as a great player. His ability to recognize and his remarkable lack of fear of the genius in Federer's game.

Posted by AIR 02/03/2009 at 07:40 PM

"HOWEVER, when I purchased the DVD of the 2008 final, I was a little rattled to find that BBC had done a computer analysis of the speed of the 2008 court, which one of the commentators presented during a change of sides. It transpires that the court was plsying 20 percent slower than in 2005."

That was perhaps the most stupid use of Hawk-Eye ever seen. They showed two serves that were struck from different heights, with two different trajectories, that bounced in two different places to 'prove' that a short serve slows down more than a deep one. Wow!

No mention of what the weather conditions were on both days either or how much topspin was on either ball.

Federer has played more matches on centre court than anyone else and he is adamant that the courts haven't changed since when he won in 2003.

Q. How have the courts changed here from when you won first in 2003 until today?

ROGER FEDERER: Nothing. I really don't think so. It's been the same pretty much through. PEOPLE ARE TALKING THIS YEAR IS SLOWER. I COMPLETELY DISAGREE WITH THAT.

Q. Marat Safin, after his win a couple days ago, thanked the club for slowing down the courts. How have you seen the courts change here over the years, and how does the change affect your chances?


Posted by Sher 02/03/2009 at 07:43 PM

By the way, one of the questions once asked to Roger after the first time he and Nadal played together was this:


Q. I guess this win for him tonight must feel, in a way, like it felt for you when you beat Sampras, that sort of major victory, that major breakthrough. How important is that kind of victory to your career?

ROGER FEDERER: For me, it was -- I think it's -- I don't know if you can compare. Mine was in Wimbledon, you know. Definitely this is also big tournament, but, I don't know, it's tough because I'm still not much, much older than he is. Sampras, for me, was more of -- I think more than I am for him. He's got different idols, I think (smiling). For me, I think this win counts little bit different for us.


Posted by Genuine Realist 02/03/2009 at 07:43 PM

It was an impressive test in any case. Federer (or others) might not notice a gradual change - and the courts are OBVIOUSLY slower than 2001.

Posted by Genuine Realist 02/03/2009 at 07:47 PM

Also, though I am not getting the DVD out, the velocity in the air was identical. The change in MPH was measured after the ball struck. It was impressive.

Posted by Annie 02/03/2009 at 07:48 PM

Pete, thanks for this article. I so admire rafa for what he has accomplished. I'm a little concerned, however, for his friendship with federer. As you so well put it in your article, he is so opened hearted and genuine with his mentor. Does federer feel the same way? I thought he was distinctly bitter during his press conference and said not one word about nadal. I'm sure it's difficult to be eclipsed by your young rival and I hope he's man enough not to let it effect their relationship. It's been one of the nicest ever in sport.

Posted by Master Ace 02/03/2009 at 07:48 PM

Interesting that Rafael is compared to Pete Sampras but a good one. As I said in a prior post, Rafael Nadal is the best player mentally in the ATP today(and maybe ever) and Pete validated it in his write up as Toni took Rafael to a not so good court or play with old balls.

Posted by Papo 02/03/2009 at 07:49 PM

Thanks for the post Pete. Really enjoyed it ; )

Posted by 02/03/2009 at 07:51 PM

Genuine Realist: For what it's worth, the last man to win back-to-back five setters to clinch a major title was Goran Ivanisevic! However, I don't compare what he did to what Rafa did, because Goran had the good fortune of rain delays that stretched his semifinal out overnight, and gave him the opportunity to physically and mentally recover after Tim Henman had gained the momentum in the match. I truly believe that without this break, Henman would have been in the final and Pat Rafter would have lifted the trophy at Wimbledon in 2001.

I don't know who else has won back-to-back five-setters in the semis and finals of a major - think McEnroe did it once at the US Open, but I'm not sure about the years in between that and Goran - I'll need to check.

Posted by Genuine Realist 02/03/2009 at 07:53 PM

All Goran could do was serve. A nice guy, I am sure, but as a tennis player, an embarrassment to the game.

Posted by Jimbo 02/03/2009 at 07:53 PM

Nice post Pete,
I just have two small bones of contention. I don't think Rafa is any less clever in his approach than Roger. He doesn't telegraph his shots any more than Roger does. When the situation calls for it he employs great stealth. Roger just doesn't have the same physical tools to execute his game plan against Rafa. Roger is usually very deliberate against somebody attacking his backhand; he chips it back to set himself up later in the point. That ploy doesn't work against Rafa, hence his confusion and "less deliberate" approach.
Also, I tend to think all great champions must be great "students". They don't just pop out of nowhere unformed; they learn and hone their craft from somebody or thing, hence they are always pupils of some sort. Other than that, great post Pete.

Posted by DMan 02/03/2009 at 07:54 PM


Agree w/most of what you said.

The Fed as mentor is an interesting take. I wonder how Fed would feel describing him as mentor. While I get the part about Fed being the trailblazer for greatness, and wearing the crown well, I wonder how well Rafa will wear the crown.

Rafa is clearly king now. I say that with the caveat that had Rog won, Rafa would still be #1 by the computer, but with 2 slams each, we'd basically have a really close horse race for the rest of the year, with opportunities for both to trade the top spot.

Now it is surely Rafa's to hold onto for a while, at least until Wimbledon at the earliest before it is likely to change.

I do think Rafa has benefited from Fed's dominance in one respect. For 3+ years Rafa has been the firm #2. Definitely the best clay courter, but on other surfaces he was one of the guys. He was able to continue to improve and play without the total spotlight glare of the media fixated on the # 1 guy, or looking for the next "one". I think it suited Rafa's style and temperament to be ensconced in the #2 spot.

Now that he is firmly #1, and everyone will be gunning for him, how will he handle that pressure? I think it is different than trying to take over the #1 spot. As you said Rafa handles adversity well. Certainly better than Fed has handled it recently.

Fed said last year in Oz he created a "monster", and that everyone expected him to win *every* match. Do we now expect Rafa to win every match? IMHO, he answer is no. Rafa remains humble (and my only criticism is, if it's possible, he's 'too humble') and this deflects some of the expectations. But when the clay season comes around, will anyone expect him to lose a match? No. What if he's extended to a tough 3 set match...will people say he's slipping? He's vulnerable? And dare say should he lose a match on clay, what will happen then. How will Rafa respond to the "monster" factor?

I do think there is a different pressure to the #1 ranked player versus #2. Roger handled it very well when he first ascended to #1. But then again, Roger distanced himself from the pack pretty quickly, starting with his Australian Open win in 2004. Roddick and Ferrero were his biggest pursuers that year. And between them they had 2 career majors (they still do.) Nadal is clearly # now. But Roger is still the holder of a major. And still one of the favorites to win at Wimbledon. Djokovic and Murray are capable of winning a major. So Rafa will have competition.

Posted by AIR 02/03/2009 at 07:54 PM

It was an impressive test in any case. Federer (or others) might not notice a gradual change - and the courts are OBVIOUSLY slower than 2001.

Come off it. These guys' sense of timing is supernatural and if it really is such a gradual change, I would expect them to notice it before mere spectators. More from Federer on Wimbledon:

ROGER FEDERER: Well, I don't think it's that much of a difference since I played Pete here in 2001 really. So, I mean, it's not that extreme, you know, to the point where I need to thank anybody, I think, you know.
I think it's just also the way how players are playing today: more from the baseline, not as much serve and volley, chip and charge. That sort of gives you the feeling that it's slowed down, as well, you know.
Because 95% of the guys play from the baseline today, whereas before it was maybe 50/50. That is a big change, I think, and that's happened in the last, let's say, 10, 15 years.

Q. Could you comment on Spanish players going to the grass finals, Ferrer, Verdasco? What does it mean to you?

ROGER FEDERER: It's good to see, you know. They're good players. The clay-courters or the Spaniards, you know, they know how to play. It's good to see them finally also making a little bit of a move on grass, because they weren't really that interested in grass till a few years ago still I thought.
Rafa actually has been able to change mentality around for the Spanish players, because he's showing them that it is possible to play well with an aggressive baseline game. And then now doing the same like what Rafa has been doing, and it's good to see.

Posted by Jenn 02/03/2009 at 07:54 PM

Thanks so much, Pete for your great coverage. Sorry about the mishap with the first draft, but this was great. Two of my favorite sportsmanship moments of all time are the "low 5" during the on-court photo session with the trophies after the 06 Wimby final, and the podium hug here. I loved how much it seemed to revive Fed, too. These two genuinely admire each other personally and professionally. As fans, we could not ask for more.

I can't imagine how proud Uncle Toni must feel, looking at what his little nephew has become, with his help.

I never really thought realistically about Rafa winning in NY. But he has this far accomplished everything he has set his mind to. So why not? If not this year, I'm starting to think he will get the career Slam someday.

Posted by Annie 02/03/2009 at 07:55 PM

thanks moderator. i, for one, am now relieved.

Posted by Genuine Realist 02/03/2009 at 07:57 PM

Suit yourself. I admire Roger (obviously), but if he claims Wimbledon played the same way in 2008 as 2001 . . . please.

Posted by Sher 02/03/2009 at 07:58 PM

[Two of my favorite sportsmanship moments of all time are the "low 5" during the on-court photo session with the trophies after the 06 Wimby final, and the podium hug here. I loved how much it seemed to revive Fed, too.]

Yes, Jenn, me too!

Posted by Rosangel 02/03/2009 at 08:00 PM

7.51 was mine. Not sure where my head went...

Posted by Genuine Realist 02/03/2009 at 08:00 PM

I think Rafa is far more likely to be challenged successfully by a peer or junior than Roger. It is super tough for the reigning champ to take on a truly gifted younger player. But Rafa's peers do not have that baggage.

Murray, Monfils, DelPotro, Gulbis, Djokovic - if he can get his head together . . . the challenge from that quarter.

Posted by Annie 02/03/2009 at 08:02 PM

genuine realist: our tennis viewing patterns are identical! I stopped following a sport that I loved for so long when the fast courts and crazy serving took over. So, i agree that the slower court at wimbledon is a good thing. The game has returned to one of skill, finesse and athleticism again. It's a good thing for sure, no?

Posted by AIR 02/03/2009 at 08:03 PM

I am amazed that you think you know more about the speed of a tennis court from the comfort of your armchair than one of the best players in the world who has had more experience on that court than just about anyone else in the last ten years. Your position is a trifle arrogant.

Federer's point is a very good one. Serve and volley tennis always looks faster than two baseliners slugging it out with lots of topspin. The US Open doesn't look as fast as it did when Pistol Pete was charging in behind his serve to cut off the returns.

The courts haven't changed at Wimbledon. The way the players play on them has changed because so few of them have a clue how to serve / volley and the polyester strings have helped the return of serve much more than it has helped the serve or the volley.

Posted by ssk 02/03/2009 at 08:04 PM

That was a great article Pete, you touched on many important points....

Posted by Annie 02/03/2009 at 08:05 PM

Jenn: yes, me three!

Posted by Jimbo 02/03/2009 at 08:06 PM

Oh Pete,
LOVED the reference to Rafa's nervous system! To truly excell at anything one must love what he or she does; Rafa obviously loves the heat of battle!

Posted by Annie 02/03/2009 at 08:10 PM

Miss Sydney: did you see the post pete did back in december on the "outtakes" from his interview with tio toni. The parts of the interview that didn't make the cut for the magazine? Alot of us thought it was more interesting than the final interview. Do you want me to try to find it for you?

Posted by Genuine Realist 02/03/2009 at 08:10 PM

It's like the guy caught with another woman who asks his wife, 'honey, who are you going to believe - me or your own eyes?'

I watch older tennis matches during my workout and the Fed Wimbledon finals (Sampras and on) are favorites. So while I admire Federer, and it is true I am not on the court, no, I don't agree with his opinion.

Annie, I also am very glad the court is not as fast as the 90's. But it should not be so slow that it does not reward the big serve, and the serve and volley player (to some degree).

Posted by Annie 02/03/2009 at 08:14 PM

Miss Sydney: the post was called "Uncle Toni" and it appeared here on 10/21/08. If you didn't see it, check it out it's great.

Posted by zephyrus 02/03/2009 at 08:14 PM

Brilliant again, Mr. Bodo. I love how you compare, contrast and ultimately equate the two players skills. I agree. I think they are a wash when it comes to tennis, although they go about it very differently.

But I also think that somehow Roger unconsciously feels that the way he does things should count for something...that the gorgeous game should earn him additional credit. Certainly the media and tennis fans contribute to this. But tennis already has a long established and unforgiving scoring system.

Will trumps style. Will can get you points in tennis. Style can get you points with the editor of Vogue magazine and an endorsement for watches that cost more than a middling college degree. But it yields precious little on the scoreboard.

Roger needs to (as you said yesterday) get his hands dirty. If he can improve in the will column, then the game truly will be on. If not, we have a king.

Also, I understand the many Rafa fans frustration about how this match has been covered in the media. He deserves a day in the sun. The problem is that these two guys are wound so tight around each other now. It's a great dramatic story and it's hard not to focus on the fall of Federer, even as Rafa ascends.

Posted by DMan 02/03/2009 at 08:18 PM

I am curious about one comment Pete made in his previous column (and apologies if this is breaking the board etiquette), but I'd like to hear more about Pete's comment about potential coaches for Fed:

'they're out there - former Top 30 guys as well as coaching lifers whose special talent it is to be great support staff. My feeling is that Roger isn't exposed to enough people of that ilk, and probably doesn't understand the inherent isolation of his own position.'

Has Rog led such a sheltered life he hasn't been exposed to potential coaches? He worked w/Tony Roche for a little while, and Jose Higueras.

At least Roger is going in the right direction (as far as ages of coaches). Now it's time for a Darren Cahill, or someone who understands today's game.

Posted by beth 02/03/2009 at 08:21 PM

another great piece - thanks Pete for writing this one
I love the Packers football analogy.
with Rafa - it just seems so fitting
He plays his game , and dares his competitor to beat him
I love his will to win
Only one other player I can think of has a similar attitude
and she won this tournament as well

I wish we could bottle his will to win and sell it . All of us hackers , and more than a few of the pros , could use Rafa's never say die mentality .

Posted by Jenn 02/03/2009 at 08:22 PM

Rosangel, your head! Interesting about Goran being the last man to do the back to back 5 setters. Are you able to give us information about how long those matches lasted? I suspect they were not nearly as long in terms of court time, given that most points on Goran's serve were aces or service winners... not tons of long rallies there.
I haven't researched it, but I cannot think of that many men's GS finals in the past 10-15 years that have gone the distance. We certainly have had a lot of 3 setters, particularly with the dominance of Sampras and Federer.

Posted by Lleytsie 02/03/2009 at 08:23 PM

beth - beth - beth

i dont know why am excited to see you again ! Hi !

Pete - loved the Rafa happiness meter ! lovely and you touched on all the important points

PS: I am ravenously hungry again

Posted by Annie 02/03/2009 at 08:24 PM

Does anyone know what surface Rod Laver was taught and brought up on? was it grass or clay?

Posted by lulu B 02/03/2009 at 08:27 PM

Annie @ 7:48
If you're unsure of how Federer feels about Rafa, take a look at his smile when Rafa puts his arm around him and says whatever it was to make him feel better. It looked very genuine. I'm sure he likes him fine :)

Posted by Annie 02/03/2009 at 08:31 PM

DMan: it seemed like every name in the book was tossed out today in terms of potential coaches for fed. among the more interesting: Martina Navratilova, a leftie, Connors, Mcenroe (another leftie), gilbert, sampras, billie jean king...

Posted by 02/03/2009 at 08:34 PM

lulu B: one of our posters read in a spanish paper just what rafa said to roger. it was posted on one of our earlier posts (i can't remember it verbatim) but i'll try to find it. it's very sweet.

Posted by Lleytsie 02/03/2009 at 08:34 PM

why not brad G ?

Posted by Pierre 02/03/2009 at 08:38 PM

Annie: Rod Laver was brought up initially on Ant Bed. Same as Pat Rafter, I believe. I believe this is kind of a sandy material from giant ant hills. I am not joking!

Posted by Genuine Realist 02/03/2009 at 08:42 PM

Whether or not Goran won five setters, his serve was unnaturally overpowering, and he didn't have any other game to speak of. I don't mean this personally - he seems to be a very nice guy. But him holding up the same trophy as Laver, Borg, or McEnroe - that's not where we want the game to be.

Posted by lulu B 02/03/2009 at 08:42 PM

anon: yes, please!

Pete- Thanks for the second great post regarding the AO final.

Posted by Jenn 02/03/2009 at 08:43 PM

Hey Lleytsie. My sense is that Brad may be too brash and obnoxious to suit Fed's personal taste. I can't necessarily imagine them spending that much time together. It seems like Brad was a better fit personality wise for a guy like Andy R. Of course, personality fit is not everything. I do think that Darren Cahill would be an excellent choice. I think Andre Agassi would be an unbelievable choice, but Andre does not appear to have any interest in choosing to rejoin the grind of tennis life (travelling all the time) over staying at home with his lovely wife and young children. Very understandable. I do hope that Andre will find some time for TV commentary, though, even if only during the late stages of grand slams.

Its really interesting to think what Fed would have become if Tio Toni had been his uncle and coach since childhood. I am not suggesting for a second that he would have been more - or less - successful. It is just interesting to think about how the influence of a coach, combined with the talent and determination of the pupil, comes together to form the champion. I suspect that Fed may not have as wonderfully technical of a game, but possibly could have picked up some other skills that would have served him well in competition. And how would Rafa done in the hands of another guru?

Hi Beth! I will email you later.

Posted by Annie 02/03/2009 at 08:46 PM

this is courtesy of malimeda at 11:07 on the "Devil" post:

Eliciting a teary smile:

Squeezing his shoulder for emphasis:

BTW, the Spanish journos at the post-match presser had the wherewithal to actually ask Rafa what did he say to Federer while comforting him and he answered in Spanish (and I'm paraphrasing from what I remember watching Eurosport News): you'll surely get more slams, I know you deserve it, don't cry, come on, you're a champion.

After (partially) consoling his opponent, it's time to carefully examine his trophy:

I hope i'm not breaking site rules by doing this.

Posted by Annie 02/03/2009 at 08:48 PM

LuluB: that was me headless before :)

Posted by DMan 02/03/2009 at 08:53 PM

I agree Brad G would NOT be an ideal coach for Fed .... personality-wise. And I am sure lots of names have been bandied about.

I am curious why Pete thinks he hasn't been exposed to enough coaches. He's been on the circuit for nearly a decade. And he's had a few coaches, David carter, Peter Lundgren. He knows the way of the tennis world. I do get the sense Fed is an individualist, and very prideful. And he feels he knows himself and his game.

I think the tears after the match showed how much he cared. (And that's a good sign for Fed.) It's true, he appeared doubtful at the end. I for one don't think all hope is lost. He certainly had his chances. It's not like he got routined at Wimbledon by a journeyman pro.

It's up to him to take his game to the next level. We'll see how much he wants it. And while I have no evidence of this, I get the sense Mirka knows he needs a coach. In the right situation, I think a coach can have an impact right away.

Posted by Annie 02/03/2009 at 08:55 PM

Jenn: agassi would make such a wonderful commentator! has he ever done any? and you know, all these names being bandied about as possible coaches for fed, not every player would make a good coach. Navratilova sounds great to me, but has she ever coached before?
Cant you just picture Fed in some room somewhere conducting interviews, and all prospects, former champions themselves, sitting outside nervously waiting to make their pitch? wonder if he's even considering a coach. who are his close friends and advisors in his life besides Mirka? his father?

Posted by Genuine Realist 02/03/2009 at 08:58 PM

I think this business of Fed's competitiveness is getting a little out of hand. He did not become the most dominant player in history and win nine slams in three years because he lacked fighting spirit.

I mean, come on. He does have a some sort of hangup about Nadal, but that is the exception, not the rule, and often a problem for a long time champ facing a hot contender.

Posted by Annie 02/03/2009 at 09:00 PM

Pierre: so basically dirt, or something akin to clay. so it should surprise no one if rafa can pull off a grand slam. wouldn't that be amazing. never thought i'd see the day. didn't think it would ever be done again.

Posted by Genuine Realist 02/03/2009 at 09:01 PM

I think this business of Fed's competitiveness is getting a little out of hand. He did not become the most dominant player in history and win nine slams in three years because he lacked fighting spirit.

I mean, come on. He does have a some sort of hangup about Nadal, but that is the exception, not the rule, and often a problem for a long time champ facing a hot contender.

Posted by Backhand blaster 02/03/2009 at 09:03 PM

Peter Bodo, I loved both articles on the match. The tournament is never over for me until I read your take on it. Thank goodness for these two great champions. They have both brought me many hours of happiness.

Posted by Andrew Miller 02/03/2009 at 09:04 PM

I can think of another reason for no acrimony between nADAL AND federer - and this is not to say that i disagree - i think this is YET ANOTHER great work from Mr. Bodo!

That reasons is competitiveness. Why does Nadal keep saying that Federer is # 1 and the best player of all time, though the record books have Nadal at number #1 with an overwhelming lead over federer. Why? Because Nadal needs Federer to be #1 in Nadal's mind. He relies on there being someone with a more impressive history at the grand slams. If Nadal were, say, djokovic, who brashly challenges Federer on court and at press conferences, then Nadal would invite another edge of Federer - an edge that, FRANKLY SPEAKING, I feel Federer needs in order to get his last couple of wins.

Nadal out there keeps improving because he's convinced himself that there is someone out there who is better than he is, even though Nadal owns the best head to head record ever over someone who is the soon to be "best player in tennis history". He wins 3 of the last 3 grand slam finals he plays in against Federer, even beats him on Federer's most prized grounds at Wimbledon, and still, time after time, says that his opponent is the best player of all time. But what would happen were Federer to exit the game tomorrow? Then who would Nadal have? He certainly would not have Federer anymore to praise the heck out of. Nadal needs Federer. Psychically, Nadal needs Federer.

To me, praising Federer at every opportunity, perhaps it is a way of showing respect, and to me it's also a way for Nadal not to invite any controversy and, more importantly, provide any ammunition to Federer. Isnt this too a form of diplomacy? If I tell my opponent after wiping him with the court, that he is just an incredible player and my hero, well isn't he going to think twice about what he thinks about me? He'd probably be pleased, as that loss he just experience was somehow softened. It might even have them convince themselves that things AREN'T REALLY AS BAD AS THEY COULD BE.

Sorry, but Nadal's courtesy is a COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE, and I hope Federer actually feels the pain of losing, and that it challenges him to work hard and focus on the French Open. Djokovic suffers for being more brash with his mouth than his game - because let's admit it, Nadal's purpose, every time on court, is to beat the opponent. His game is harsh on opponents, and his words are soft. So if I keep beating my opponent, and my opponent considers me a real gentleman and overall nice guy, and if they had to lose to someone everytime, gosh darn it it's not that bad to lose to ME. "at least I lost to a real gentleman." Sorry, but a loss is a loss. Federer's got to wake up and stop getting seduced by this nicety-nice talk! Yes, Rafael Nadal is great. He is great and he has to be figured out. Federer might want to write down some notes or something, or even take a look at the matches, or some clips of them, with a sports psychologist, and a look at some other parts of it with a strategy coach.

I think the greatest thing Federer can do is what Mr. Bodo suggested: find a coach that works and listen to them, and adapt and add some weapons. Maybe it's a dagger volley - maybe it's taking the ball even earlier. Maybe it'sbetter disguised backhand. I dont know what the different components are, but this is getting ridiculous. Last, I think Mr. Bodo is right in suggesting that Federer continue to dig deep. I think he can do it, and it's up to him to keep doing it. Federer being in another grand slam final is a deal, and a five set loss in the final, perhaps difficult, is still an incredible result. He has to be willing to keep doing it and keep finding new areas to work on. If he really wants one or two more slams, I dont see any other way around it, nor any other way to depose the Shadow Federer on a daily basis, other than to keep going and get a supportive team together.

Like Nicola said the other day, to me Darren Cahill and Paul Annacone are worth speaking with. The next best thing would be the book by Mr. Bodo on Pete Sampras.

Last, I think Nadal is amazing. It is incredible what he's done and how he has done it. And I also think that his way of speaking, much as Federer, has its own origins and its own code. Being polite every time out in a press conference does make for a competitive advantage on the court as well. Just ask Andy Roddick, whose small press conference suggestions invited a disastrous effect when he faced Djokovic at the US Open. In Australia's it's a different story - all of the sudden Andy Roddick is as polite as can be when discussing Djokovic. I wonder why - I think it's clear that he didn't want to invite any revenge on court!

Posted by naughty T, so what now? 02/03/2009 at 09:07 PM

Nicely put in the main Pete, but do your really think Raffuh has "eclipsed" Federer? I seem to recall poor old Roger being written off last year and the one point either way at wimby or the AO for me does not exactly suggest the word eclipsed.

Posted by aussiemarg 02/03/2009 at 09:18 PM

Pete Nadal style is brutal and effective.

Posted by MomsyforRafa 02/03/2009 at 09:29 PM


Thanks again for the great article on Rafa. English not being my mother tongue I do not know how best to express this, but you always write... so well, so knowledgable and everything fits in nicely.

I think you are spot on in terms of who he is, the person he is. He is genuine.
You once said, using computer system as analogy for playing styles, Fed is Mac and Rafa is PC and that is sort of parallel to your comparison of Rafa to Sampras.

I always follow your posts on Rafa and Fed although the last time I actually thanked you here was for your post after Rafa's loss to Youshny at US Open in 2006. Your article really made me feel better after the painful loss. (I immensely enjoyed your post a la Lord of the Rings after Roland Garros, too!)

Thanks again Pete, I look forward to many more of your wonderul articles and I hope Rafa will stay healthy and injury free for the rest of the season.

Posted by Juan José 02/03/2009 at 09:37 PM

Pete, it really sucks that Typepad ate your initial piece, but this one is quite great.

I've been thinking a lot about what Nadal just did this past weekend. The phrase that came to mind was that the 9 hours and 37 minutes that he was out there for the semis and the final were the most amazing feat I've seen by any player in any single Slam.

Now, we normally reserve such praise for an immaculate, in-the-zone performance. Something like Gonzo's demolition of Haas two years ago, which still ranks as the most ridiculous display by someone who is possessed by the tennis gods that I've ever seen.

Let's say it from the get-go: Nadal was never in that zone. Not close, really. And he really wished he was, especially in the most difficult (for him) match of the two: that semifinal against Verdasco.

I have never seen anyone play with Verdasco's unabashed aggression off both wings for five hours plus. I've seen guys blast others away and end the whole affair in an hour and a half. But I've never seen a guy just fire rockets all over the place, from any part of the court, for five hours and fourteen minutes. In that semi, Verdasco did more than enough to earn a place in the final. He was in that "zone". Every little part of his game was coming together. You could see the eagerness, the fearlessness in his eyes.

And yet, he lost.

I bet Nadal wished he could have hit the ball deeper that day. There must have been something wrong with his strings or the tension. He had his sticks re-strung during the match. And for someone who never, ever slams his racket to the ground, he did something that was both bizarre and comical: after a missed shot midway through the second set, he punched the stringbed in his racket. He actually punched his own stick.

Now, if the book on Nadal on hardcours is to attack him relentlessly, how did Nadal escape, on a day when he couldn't find any depth for most of the match? He also struggled with depth in the final, but at least then he had that comfort zone, that money spot that didn't require him to hit his forehand with depth: Federer's high backhand. Against Verdasco, he had nothing remotely similar.

So how did he do it? By using every little tool in his arsenal to not only fend off the bombardment, but to unleash some bombs of his own.

Usually when I watch a tennis match, I act like a soccer-like fan-coach. "Hit to the backhand---hit there again!" "Don't come to net" "Serve out wide!", "Don't slice to the forehand". In the Federer-Roddick match, I had a field day with A-Rod. But in the Nadal-Verdasco semi, I had nothing.

Against Verdasco, most guys had success by letting Verdasco beat himself. You played steady, going for his often erratic backhand, and tempting his forehand to crumble. I noticed that he doesn't really counter-punch on the forehand side: you push him out wide on that side and he's all to eager to hit a defensive forehand slice. So I was telling Nadal, "attack the forehand!".

And he tried, sometimes. The lack of depth was a problem, but Verdasco's reluctance to miss was a bigger issue. If Nadal went to that spot, Verdasco would make a point of returning the shot with interest. Then I told Nadal "Come on, play the angle game. No one not named Nalbandian can beat you at the angle game". And he tried. Only to see Verdasco hit outrageous angles back at him. So that didn't work that well.

So, play steady and once in a while attack the backhand. Which turned into running everything down, even things he threw at Verdasco's backhand. As the match wore on, it was clear that Nadal didn't have access to any freebies, he couldn't really settle on a single part of real estate. This had to be a heavyweight, all-court dogfight. A slugfest.

Now, Nadal doesn't win that match if he hadn't embarked years ago on the quest to become a more complete player. To be sure, he could have stuck with the things he already did well and camp out on clay. But as I wrote yesterday, back in 2006 Nadal made it clear that he wanted to start his own siege on Federer's kingdom. And it was clear that he had to take his game to another level. Slowly but surely, he did.

Here's a short list of things that Nadal didn't do in 2005 and does pretty frequently these days:

- Nadal developed his biggest weapon. From being an over-the head-followthrough oddity it became one of the most feared weapons in the game. He can hit a forehand from anywhere on the court, and virtually attack from any spot. Inside-out, cross-court, down the line. You name it. And you surely don't want to approach the net after hitting to that side. Good luck handling the rocket that's coming to you. The other significant improvement Nadal made is to make his angled cross-court forehand as mean as possible, while still keeping the percentages up. If you watch him on clay on a day when he's feeling particularly wicked, you'll see how he pummels people so far wide the add court that you fear that his opponent might end up running into a billboards.

That last scenario happens when the opponent is fortunate enough to get some depth on his replies. But what makes Nadal way more dangerous than if he just stayed back is his eagerness to punish the short ball. He's probably the best at it. No one does all the little things necessary to turn those difficult short balls into clean winners as consistently as he does. And it is here when he takes some spin off the ball and finishes the forehand across his chest. The thing is, this is not a flat forehand. It still carries a lot of spin, and it's still a high-percentage shot.

- The backhand. If you took someone who never saw Nadal play and made that person watch last Sunday's final, that person would have been hard pressed to name Nadal's weak side. You could have told him that once upon a time Nadal never even considered attacking with his backhand (unless he was attempting a pass---he was always good at those) from the back of the court. It used to be that everyone and their mother started their gameplan by attacking Nadal's backhand. Good luck these days, as he has more than one alternative to make you look dumb.

While he still rarely (in the final he hit two, in the semi I think he didn't get a single one) attacks with his backhand down the line, his cross-court backhand has become vicious. He's developed incredible timing on it, especially because he hits it flat (this might be the lone flat stroke in Nadal's arsenal).

So if three years ago Nadal hit his backhand short and spinny, with no aggression to it, almost inviting you to pummel him on that side, he now can hurt you with it immediately, or at the very least, give himself a chance to hurt you properly with his main weapon. And in the past year, he's developed a new tool:

- The slice backhand. I remember when he started using this shot a little over a year ago. It was hilarious. He was obviously not very good at it. I would even say "thank you, Nadal" when he hit one of those pathetic slices to Djokovic. The basic problem was that he hit it short and his ball didn't skid. So it sat there, waiting to be killed. Any other player would have pulled the plug on this little project, but Nadal being Nadal, he kept at it. He kept trying to get better at it. Incredibly, his slice worked even on clay, a surface where you're not supposed to hit slices. Then again, Nadal could probably try any shot and it would work on clay.

Still, from that sad little shot he used to hit, we arrive to those ridiculous, Federer-esque slices he threw out there at Verdasco, trying to buy himself some time, trying to disrupt Verdasco's timing. It was just amazing to watch how good that slice backhand is these days.

- His volleying. Again, when he started improving this aspect of his game, it was clear he needed to put in the long hours. There's a video from Queens from about 2 years ago when Nadal hits the most hilarious volley of all time. So bad he had to laugh himself.

Last Sunday, Nadal hit one of the most amazing volleys of the tournament against Federer in that pivotal third set tiebreaker. It looked classic, it looked perfect. And to think that two years ago he would have driven it to the ground is just astounding.

About the net game, I think Nadal is the one person that truly understands the point of going to the net in the 21st century. Mainly, you cannot charge the net trying to find something. Trying to dare your opponent to hit a great shot. That used to be the old wisdom: you attack the net because you have a higher percentage shot by volleying than does your opponent by hitting a perfect passing shot. Now, EVERYONE can hit perfect passing shots. Off any wing. So hitting a volley after someone hits a killer pass these days is way more difficult than hitting that same passing shot.

Nadal understands that you come to net to finish a point. Not to tempt anyone, not to dare someone to come up with something great. You come in with the point half in your pocket, so you can truly have a high-percentage shot. So you'll rarely see Nadal get passed, and you'll rarely see him miss a volley. He'll get to net, but he'll only get there when it's absolutely right to be there. Which is the most important piece of strategy you can have.

- The Serve: It's still not great. And this is the one item on the list that probably won't improve that much for the rest of the way. Like Tío Toni says, this is not a natural movement for Nadal, and the serve is the one instinctive, organic part of everyone's game. Sampras said it best himself, by not saying what exactly made his serve the best ever. He said he didn't know. It just happened.

Nadal had to learn it, and he clearly understands what needs to be done. And his serve is very successful anyway, because it carries so much spin, and has that tricky lefty trajectory. Only two or three players force him to come up with something special on this side, and nowadays, he does.

He is using the lefty wide serve on the ad court a lot more, and he should. But he's hitting that hard one down the line (the one used on a couple of break points against Federer) that gives him a free point more often than not, since everyone is covering for the dreaded wide serve. And he's developed a very efficient body serve that forces people to adjust in a milisecond. This gives him either a short ball or a free point.

So while he doesn't serve particularly hard, on a good day Nadal will place his serve really well. He'll look for corners, he'll surprise you most of the time. And again, this is for the times when the basic, serve-to-the-backhand strategy doesn't work. Which is rarely.

- His return of serve: This is also an area where Nadal wasn't really that good. He's not an instinctive returner, and too often he used a longer swing. But slowly but surely, he was reading serves better, and he was shortening that swing. He rarely goes for winners off returns (and he can), but he's also understood the changing times, and he's becoming increasingly good at not missing second serve returns. And he's getting them deeper and deeper. Which is a problem for everyone. Because if you once could serve Nadal out the court, now he rarely gives you free points. And the more he steps in for second serves, and the deeper his returns get, the more pressure he puts on other people. Which is why he leads most of the return of serve statistical categories.

- His positioning on the court. This one is the key, because it enables him to dispatch opponents quicker. And the strategy is simple: you want to stay close to the baseline so you can pounce any short balls that come your way. If you're too far behind, the odds that you come up with a momentum-changing shot are slimmer, and you're going to be doing way too much running. And while sometimes that's inevitable (e.g, the Verdasco match), it's not advisable that you're running around like crazy in the third round, chasing down balls from someone ranked 58 spots below you.

So the kid worked on all of these things for a couple of years. He worked hard, and he worked relentlessly. Of course, it wasn't a one-man journey: Toni Nadal might just be the greatest coach of this era. If anything, Toni is successful at keeping Nadal hungry, giving him constant reality checks. Everyone remembers how after Nadal won his first French Open, the gift his uncle gave him was a list of things he did wrong in that match. As an example of what's more common on the ATP, Marian Vajda's reaction to Djokovic winning last year's Australian Open was to proclaim that Djokovic could become no.1 by the end of the year. Which of course, he didn't.

Toni Nadal understands tennis. He understands his nephew. He understood what needed to be done, and what still needs to be done.

It was particularly touching to read Nadal's presser after the final. If the French Open was his destiny, Wimbledon was a dream, then this Australian Open was about reaping the rewards of hard work. A symbolic prize for all those hours working on his game. For all those minutes spent on hardcourts everywhere.

And it was fitting that his 9 hours and 37 minutes in the semis and the final were more like a gruelling comprehensive grad school exam than a virtuoso performance in front of an audience. He was drilled on every little thing he learned, and on the things he already knew. He was drilled over and over again.

And he passed. Knowing that his former self wouldn't have been able to do it. Knowing that if it weren't for all that work leading up to that fateful weekend, he wouldn't have done it.

And that's why I'll always remember those 9 hours plus as the most impressive feat I've ever seen on a tennis court.

Posted by tcool 02/03/2009 at 09:38 PM

I loved your article Pete! You expressed beautifully the way I think Rafa feels about Roger. I just hadn't thought of it in that way before you wrote it so eloquently just now.

I do feel, however, that Rafa is a great thinker and tactitian on the court. Perhaps he doesn't need to change the way he plays Roger because he usually beats him when they play. But I think he does things a little bit different, when necessary, depending on who else is across the net from him.

I think you did an excellent job on this story.

Posted by mcakron 02/03/2009 at 09:41 PM

thanks, moderator.

enjoyed the article, sir. my only quibble is just that: a quibble. but since you referenced connors, actually thought he was more comparable to rafa than samparas. connors too had that "here's my game, nothing will change, deal with it" mentality, and moreover his game was closer to nadal's than sampras's. now, if we're talking jimbo's class, humility and sportmanship ... yeah, whole different story.

Posted by maedal (Vamos Rafa and the Armada!) 02/03/2009 at 09:42 PM


Thank you for this article. As I kept scrolling down, I feared it would end with the next paragraph, and the next...but you stayed with it. You gave full voice to the reasons many of us respect, appreciate, and love Rafa--the man and his game. I can't thank you enough.

Posted by Juan José 02/03/2009 at 09:47 PM

Again, sorry about the length of that. But I did say I had a novel in me about Nadal.

On a side note, is anyone else having trouble reading the post on this particular piece? Not all of them come up at once: you post something, and in the page you end up, comments end at around 7 pm. Then you click on a mysterious "Next" link below the comment window, and you go to another page where comments end at around 8. You click that weird "Next" link and you arrive to the end of the comments.

Is Typepad going berserk?

Posted by Genuine Realist 02/03/2009 at 09:53 PM

Some love letter.

But you should have seen Borg in 1977-1980. The king of the 5 setters.

Posted by Ku 02/03/2009 at 09:55 PM

I agree with the assertion that the true mental strength of Nadal is evidenced in his butt-picking and laboured rituals. I think if that had been any other player, criticised for that, he would have stopped. But he doesn't care, he just plays the same way he always has.

Posted by Tony 02/03/2009 at 09:56 PM

Finally, a piece, the whole of it, on the best male tennis player at the moment. This piece more than makes up for the lack of attention that Nadal's game on this hard court has generated. It establishes Nadal as a bona fide tennis player on ANY surface. With due respect to the Fed and his accomplishments and records, sometimes it is not about him. It is about somebody else, a person in his own right, unique and gifted in his own way. For far too long, Nadal was in the shadow of Federer, even when he was beating the lights out of Federer. And Nadal himself seemed to prefer it that way. But Nadal is 22 years old. He must step out of the shadow of Federer and be his own man, on and off court. How that will play out in the long run will be a story of its own, to watch and to see what happens to this creature from Menorca, no longer a boy, already a man. Will he be his own man from now on? Respectful, yes, and humble. But will he be the man he must be?

Posted by Jenn 02/03/2009 at 09:57 PM

Awww, JJ! You are really on fire with your posts. That was an amazing, comprehensive analysis of Rafa's improvements. I know you have spent a ton of time watching Rafa, and not all of it voluntary. You see so much, and write very well about it.
One might even conclude that you are a converted Rafa fan. *wink*

It truly is remarkable to track the improvements. A normal kid who busted out of the gate and won RG on his first try would not necessarily focus so singularly on how he needed to improve. I cannot think of anything thus far that Rafa has set his mind to doing on a tennis court that he has not been able to achieve. I cannot wait to see what else he can accomplish in his career. Like I felt about Agassi, watching Rafa just makes me happy.

Posted by Jenn 02/03/2009 at 09:59 PM

JJ at 9:47 - I'm having the same issue. First Typepad eats Pete's original article, and then it starts acting possessed.

Posted by imjimmy 02/03/2009 at 10:00 PM

Thanks so much Pete! I was waiting for this post for the entire day. And it was well worth the wait. There's no one who can analyze the mindset of players better than you can. Thanks again!

Posted by mcakron 02/03/2009 at 10:01 PM

andrew miller -- nice post but i don't know if it's certain we can parse roddick's motives from his diplomacy. who's to say he wouldn't have been just as diplomatic at the AO if he had beaten the Djoker at the USO? it might have been that he just wished to avoid the media distraction, issuance of an apology, the questions to follow, etc. or that, having won the match, he thought it wasn't his place to question his opponent's decision to retire.

anyway, just a thought ...

Posted by Pascal 02/03/2009 at 10:05 PM

Excellent article Pete! I was not a big fan of your previous one on Federer but this one I loved, my perception is that you actually write better about Rafa than Roger now, maybe another sign that Rafa has eclipsed Roger. Your article is just more interesting and has more passion, maybe you naturally dug deeper, guess we have to admit that Rafa is an inspiring player, once in a generation (or a century?).
An article could be titled "The Prodigal Father". Rafa acted like a father with his son when he said to Roger that he would/could win another major, that he should feel proud of his achievements, and then embraced him... typical behaviours that a good father would have with his son, consoling him, encouraging him to hang in there. You almost felt that he could have kissed him on the forehead to make him feel better (I am French but I won't go there). And it did make Roger feel better, he had a slight smile on his face and found the courage and energy to utter a few words. To me, beyond the extraordinary spontaneity of Rafa's attitude, it also means that Rafa now completely "owns" Roger. Rafa is the younger guy, 22 vs 27, be he is the "Father" in this relationship. Roger looked like a little boy, unable to control his emotions and needing some love and consoling from Papa Rafa. I honestly cannot imnagine such a scene with individuals such as Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Sampras, Agassi, Wilander, Edberg, get the point...this rivalry has taken an amazingly interesting turn. I even wonder if Roger will have the courage to enter the finals of Roland Garros this year, will he be worried to be spanked by Papa? Will he be worried that he is just not playing well enough and that he is deceiving his daddy? will he be afraid of crying again at the end of the match? will he be scared that this time around Rafa won't console him because he is tired of his "son" loosing? I am pushing the point to an extreme here but I believe that what we saw on Sunday will have a huge iosuimpact on how Roger approaches matches against Rafa in the future, maybe his entire career.
I fully agree with Patrick McEnroe (and others I am sure) that Roger has to do something very different in the future if he wants to overcome what happened on Sunday. Granted he is still a very strong number 2 but it does not cut it for someone who has 13 slams, the ambition to reach 15+ and an outside dream of winning the French. Also believe that he would not feel too good to finish with a severely negative record against Rafa. Obviously a coach is in order. Rafa does not pay his uncle (Toni does not wnat any money from his nephew, one of the best move to keep relationship in the correct order), maybe Roger will offer Toni $5M to coach him, that would be funny, but it won't happen, we are talking about Spaniards here, not Americans (I had to take that shot when outraged by $4B of bonuses given to Merrill Lynch employees in December, after they got YOUR public money). I am not sure who could coach Roger as a matter of fact, can he trust anybody when it comes to Tennis, not sure. Maybe a Vilas that would teach him a backhand with a humongus amount of spin that could counter Nadal's Forehand's spin?? Maybe using the spaghetti strings that Nastase used to beat Vilas before it got banned?? Maybe a new girlfriend, Mirka Vavrinec looked worried by her beau's emotional reaction on Sunday, is she falling in love with the "Father". In a nutshell (right...), I don't really care what Roger does but he needs to do it if we want this absolutely incredible rivalry to go on. Roger will not be at peace before he beats Rafa on clay in the final of the French, this is reality. And he clearly did not look at peace on Sunday. Actually interesting to think about it, it seems to me that Roger has that clay issue in the back of his mind during the whole year, it does pollute his attitude in a certain way. He knows he is the second best clay player of his generation but Nadal is flying so high on that surface that the mountain looks impossible to climb. That missing link is a major disconnect in Roger's dream for perfection. Anyway, I could go on and on. My point is that what Roger needs is to beat Rafa on clay first before he can find his way back to greatness on other surfaces. Rafa took his grass turf from him, the same thing and go hurt Rafa on clay...that's what we do in business...a Japanese competitor takes a customer from you in the go and take a shot at one of his account in voila! Coach suggestions: Vilas (spin, clay, leftie, big muscles, poet, calm) and Wilander (serene, smart as no one on clay, beat a spinning leftie in the finals of the French in 82, drove Lendl nuts a few times).
Pete, thank you for writing a few lines about the incredible stupidity of having semi finals played on a different day. If George Carlin were still alive he would just say: STOP THAT YOU @#&$%CKING AUSSIES!!! IT IS RIDICULOUS, WE HATE IT, STOP THAT!!! and he would also tell the US OPEN Management: ARE YOU @#&*%$CKING STUPID???? PLAYING THE SEMIS ON SAT AND THE FINALS ON SUNDAY??? STOP THAT!!!
Maybe one way to make it happen, create a Facebook group called: "boycott the US Open semis on Saturday" and ask every tennis fan in the world to boycott the US Open semis (and also the women's finals since it is "sandwiched" between the two and women's tennis has become somewhat boring since Justine retired, reviens Justine!). Lack of audience watching their silly commercials might do the trick. I know we can make it happen, Yes We Can!!!!!

Posted by sblily (Gil Reyes KAD) 02/03/2009 at 10:06 PM

Juan Jose @ 9:37 -- Excellent. Especially like the line comparing the AO semis and final to a grad school exam.

(And yes, I'm having the same problem with Typepad)

Posted by imjimmy 02/03/2009 at 10:07 PM

Juan José at 9:37 PM,
What an excellent post. You continue to astound! Thank you so much. I almost agree with everything you say. The Rafa- Verdasco match was a brilliant slug fest. I know how good Verdasco was that day. I am sure, as night and day, that no other player could have beaten him that day.
Once again, an awesome super post. I am saving all your stuff in a pdf to be able to savor it time and again and feel happy. Thanks!!!!

Posted by Tony 02/03/2009 at 10:10 PM

Juan José, that was a remarkable piece of analysis of Nadal's game, as good as Pete's and far better than many others. Thanks. Keep the novel going. I wouldn't miss it for anything in the world.

Posted by naughty T, blank stare at typepad 02/03/2009 at 10:14 PM

typepad is so annoying now

1 2 3 4 5 6      >>

We are no longer accepting comments for this entry.

<<  Your Call, 2.4 Your Call, 2.3  >>

Wild Women of the U.S. Open
Wild Men of the U.S. Open
Roddick's Imperfect World
"It's Kind of a Dance"
Nadal's Kneeds
The Racquet Scientist: Canadian Tennis
The Long and Short of It
This blog has 3693 entries and 1646148 comments.
More Video
Daily Spin