Tag Archives: Rafael Nadal

The greats master the art; the greatest reinvent the canvas.

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Australian Open Men’s Final
Melbourne, February 1st, 2009

Reinvention. It was as beautiful as the Melbourne night sky. Yet another Grand Slam final played out by two of the greatest ever tennis players, was a true study in reinvention.

That Rafael Nadal won his sixth Grand Slam and maintained his apparent hoodoo over Roger Federer in Grand Slam finals is but a sub-plot to what was on display here. Here was a tennis match we should discuss and savour for as long as we play tennis. That’s not because it was the greatest tennis match ever played. It wasn’t. Their previous Grand Slam dalliance at Wimbledon in 2008 was better for its sheer technical brilliance. But that’s not the point. The point is that we should talk about this match in the context of all tennis because it proved that we, as sports players and fans, and as people, must constantly reinvent what we do and how we do it if we are to better ourselves and better the way we live.

Nadal has reinvented the sport of tennis. He plays it in a way no other player before him has ever done. Where we once marvelled at the pure grace and sublime skill of Roger Federer, and the way he seemingly played his tennis racquet as a virtuoso violinist would play a Stradivarius, now we gasp at the way Nadal moulds the entire edifice of tennis – the court, the racquet, the ball, the point – into what he sees fit.

Where Federer mastered the art, Nadal has completely reinvented the canvas. It was unthinkable, even at this time last year, that Federer would have to raise his own supreme level. And yet this is now the inescapable truth. His tears in defeat revealed not just that he knows this to be true, but also that he knows not where that next level will come from.

Of course there were moments when Federer was in the ascendancy and a victory for the Swiss looked possible, notably in the third set before the tie-break and in the fourth set. But in the wash-up, was victory ever truly in doubt for the Spaniard? Federer later felt that he gave the fifth set to Nadal. Of course he did; he was broken mentally through the sheer emotional effort of winning the fourth.

Nadal has the terrifying ability to reinvent parts of his game as he plays. Imagine facing up to a player knowing that you constantly have to better your best efforts – literally evolve your game – just to win the next set. That is a daunting prospect, and one that not many players, in any sport, are always able to do. Yet that is the problem Nadal poses because he himself is doing it; evolving, set after set, match after match.

Here we have a player who is changing the way we see the sport of tennis. Nadal has reinvented the tennis player’s physique; he has reinvented the way the ball is struck; he has reinvented the notion of defensive tennis; he has reinvented the importance of the service break. But most importantly, he has reinvented the nature of the game to make it a combative sport where, like in boxing, pain is a barrier that must be burst through in order to clinch victory.

In his book The Meaning of Sport, Simon Barnes hypothesises that the great champions in all sports are great because when they don’t like their reality, they change it. They impose their will on their environment. Federer has achieved this out of necessity, but Nadal seems to do it out of habit. This is the difference between them and the apparent reason Nadal has beaten Federer in their last three Grand Slam final matches, even in Federer’s stronghold: Wimbledon. Nadal can reinvent any reality Federer attempts to impose. He has a grasp of the building blocks of physics that Federer can but marvel at. For now, anyway.

I say for now because champions like Roger Federer don’t just go away. They look deep in themselves and when all the tears have dried they find that next level. They appreciate what the likes of Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg and Andre Agassi have done before them and they strive to prove, again and again, that sport is at its best when its players have to reinvent themselves and their sport and that only when we exceed our own expectations do we truly become better, not just as sports people but as people.

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Barber shop punditry: December 12th, 2008

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Unfortunately, not that much punditry was being offered today at the Marylebone barbershop. I guess that says something about how hum-drum the final group games of the Champions League really were, and also how generally unexciting this weekend’s Premier League round appears to be.

However, as one gent was getting his hair shaved closely, the barber remarked that Wayne Rooney’s hair had grown all the way back from the Rio-inspired shaved look he sported a few weeks back, and what a shame that was.

‘Rooney looked good with a shaved head’ the barber mused, ‘and’, he added,  ‘it did wonders for his baldness.’

After a minute of mirror-staring, the customer remarked ‘He played better when he was shaved.’ Then a few sage nods as the barber contemplated that Rooney’s shaved head could in fact have been positively correlated with his performances for England and Manchester United.

Rob Bagchi wrote about the Roo’s new ‘do in The Guardian a few weeks back, and it got me thinking: maybe an athlete’s haircut is not only correlated to a) their performance, but also b)  how seriously they are taken by their opponents and the watchful media.

Consider Roger Federer:

Pony-tailed, The Fed was a) great but b) still considered an upstart to the likes of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.

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Trimmed and floppy-haired he was a) in a different tennis dimension and b) the inevitable conqueror of Sampras’ all-time Grand Slam tally and the greatest ever player, probably.

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Or Agassi himself.

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On the left, Agassi was a) brilliantly temperamental and b) an affront to the decency of the blazers at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club.

On the right he was a) brilliantly consistent and b) cementing his place amongst the pantheon of all-time tennis greats.

Ok, so far my sample of two has yielded the desired results. What’s that you say? Rafa Nadal has gotten better and his hair stayed the same length? Zinedine Zidane remained a bald genius from Juventus to Real Madrid? To that I say Nadal will obviously win the Grand Slam if he shaves his head and Zidane…er, well, he only won the World Cup after he went bald. Yeah, that works.

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