Saturday, June 4, 2011

Rafa Nadal: Fighting for every point

Rafael Nadal / The King of Clay

Rafael Nadal has a Curriculum Vitae that is the envy of young adults.  In an age where most 25 year-olds are still trying to find their place in the world, Nadal woke up on his 25th birthday Friday ready to go to the office.

Not just any office mind you. Nadal's office was on the terre battue of Roland Garros in Paris, where he has won five French Open singles championships. He probably had his C.V. zipped up with his Babolat tennis racquets.

While it might have been easy enough for Nadal to call in sick on his birthday, take the day off and go out sight-seeing around the City of Lights with his family, the undisputed King of Clay, as he is nicknamed, put on his kit, grabbed the tools of his craft and went to work under the watchful eye of his Uncle Toni, his coach.

Or was it play?

In front of an enthusiastic crowd of 15,000 tennis spectators in Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros ~ plus a world-wide television audience numbering in the millions ~ this elite-level Spaniard from Mallorca, who is easily identifiable simply as Rafa, painstakingly plied the genius of his craft. He won his semifinal match over Britain's Andy Murray 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 to advance to the final of the 2011 French Open, where he will try to tie Bjorn Borg's record of six French Open titles.  Borg has become an ally of Nadal and is expected to be in a court side box cheering for Nadal to tie his record.

A few hours after he left the stadium court victorious, Nadal found out the identity of his next opponent for Sunday's championship match ~ and, it would be a familiar foe. Namely, Roger Federer, who broke the 43-match winning streak (41 matches to start the 2011 season) of Novak Djokovic in four sets as darkness began to set in over Paris late Friday evening.

Over the course of this French fortnight, Nadal overcame a dismal start ~ he needed five difficult sets to advance over the American John Isner in the first round ~ and his other first-week wins left him feeling in a state of resignation.  Plus, he came into the French Open having lost four consecutive finals this year to Djokovic, including two on clay, his best surface.

Had Rafa become obsessed by his defeats to Djokovic? Many of his most loyal Facebook fans recognized something was troubling Nadal, whose confidence seemed shattered.

Nadal's press conferences at Roland Garros became a kind of daily confessional.  He wasn't happy with the way he had been playing and he acknowledged that it was a matter of time before Djokovic, currently ranked No. 2 in the world, would move up to No. 1 and replace Nadal at the top. (Had Djokovic beaten Federer on Friday night, he would have surpassed Nadal in the rankings. If Federer beats Nadal in the final, Djokovic will climb to No. 1 when the new rankings are released on Monday.)

Then, a funny thing happened on the way to the final: Nadal regained his confidence and his ability as the second week of the French Open developed. The Matador, as he's been nicknamed, put together a string of impressive victories ~ including a straight-set win over Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals ~ to carry him into his semifinal against Murray. Now, with six consecutive victories at this year's Roland Garros, Nadal will go after another French Open title on Sunday afternoon against Federer, 29, who is the career leader with 16 Grand Slam titles.

Nadal and Federer share a bit of history at Roland Garros, where Nadal has never lost to Federer in three previous French Open finals (2006, 2007, 2008) and also beat Federer in a 2005 semifinal en route to winning his first French Open title. Nadal owns an impressive 44-1 career record at Roland Garros, a statistic that hasn't gone unnoticed by Federer.

"It always seems to me that Rafa needs to be in a French Open final to make it special, and I got the match I guess I was hoping for," said Federer, who won the 2009 French Open when he beat Soderling in the final, as quoted in Sunday's edition of the New York Times. "After beating Novak, in a way it's a nice gift that I get the chance, and I am looking forward to it."

I am intrigued by what it is that endures Nadal to so many of his most loyal fans, who adore him and daily post "Vamos Rafa" and pictures of their idol on Facebook profile pages across many continents and on tennis forums with much aplomb. And, it's nice to read what tennis critics have to say about the nine-time Grand Slam champion, too.

"Lately with him, it's been like being on a roller coaster ride," said John McEnroe, a tennis legend himself who is an analyst at Roland Garros for American television audiences. "Make no mistake, though, he fights for every single point."

Indeed, Rafa's fan base is tremendous.  As of Friday, there were more than 6.8 million fans of his official Facebook page.

One Facebook admirer of Rafa's penned a birthday ode to him that began:

Happy Birthday, my sparkling Rafa!
You're everything to me!
You're the god of beauty!
You're the god of tennis!

Pretty serious stuff, yet very poetic ~ and, most importantly, very sincere.

Sincerity has always been a trait that endures Rafa to his fans. After his win against Murray, Nadal downplayed Borg's record, saying: "I don't think about that. A lot of respect for the great Bjorn, but I ... focus on (trying) to play well. For me, it is much more important to win at Roland Garros than equal Bjorn."

So, we have arrived to Sunday's epic final, another classic in the Nadal-Federer rivalry. The two have met 24 times overall and Rafa holds a 16-8 advantage.

By now, at least on Facebook, everyone is on a first-name basis for the biggest stars of men's professional tennis. Nole, as Djokovic is known by his nickname, has been eliminated. And what had been, in the words of American tennis analyst Mary Carillo, a "trivalry" has been reduced simply to Rafa and Roger, following in the tradition of other great tennis rivalries like Borg and McEnroe, McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, and Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.

As the San Francisco Chronicle's Bruce Jenkins noted for readers of his Saturday 3-Dot column about the Rafa-Roger final: "Just like old times ~ and as contemporary as it gets."

And, win or lose, Rafa will be out there on Sunday fighting for every point. He wouldn't have it any other way.

A postscript: Sunday evening, Rafa Nadal defeated Roger Federer 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1 to win his sixth French Open title.

Rafael Nadal image courtesy of Tennis Channel (c. 2011).

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