In sync with clay

Clay is the grandest canvas tennis could ever offer Rafael Nadal. The surface allows him the space and the narrative. It has made him the force that he is now. Despite his loss to Roger Federer in the Madrid final, Nadal will still be the overwhelming favourite at Roland Garros, writes Nandita Sridhar.

Rafael Nadal is often an experience curiously devoid of emotion. There is still an incredulousness that greets him, like it doesn’t rest easy on the one bearing witness. Nadal’s layers subsist on a strange balance. It is something that isn’t easily discernible to the rather one-dimensional pattern of human logic that finds it easier accepting a genius who is less accessible. Unlike that of Roger Federer, Nadal’s genius is more of a riddle one hopes to solve and expose the player that the Spaniard really is.

The more Nadal achieves, the more one searches for answers to make sense of it all. The experience is exhausting. The sheer nerve-wracking energy he spends on a point, the limitless physical exuberance, the risk that’s ingrained and the imaginative intelligence masked so imperiously by the sheer physicality of his game leave one with little room for acceptance. The pure, aesthetic and incomprehensible genius such as Federer’s is accepted. The cold, concealed energy and the mental fortitude of Bjorn Borg were accepted. But Nadal’s is something else.

Both Federer and Borg, in their contrasting styles, were mastered by their comfort zones. Nadal has no comfort zone. In fact, there is a zone of complete discomfort that breeds the competitive instinct in him. With Nadal, there is a superhuman athleticism, and the heft of desire. Nadal never makes it appear easy. The battle is there to be seen. One watches him fight, expecting him to crumble. He thrives on that.

What has steadily gone on to shape Nadal’s evolution has been his unmatched desire. The World No. 1 has supremely negated the gap between a wish or a simple desire and one that’s backed by a devotion to its purpose. His feelings are reined in remarkably, belying the emotional demands such levels of desire and intensity can make on his mental faculties.

There are many aspects to Nadal’s game that are less visible in the face of his more overriding attributes. Nadal’s is as sharp a mind as anyone will see on court. Backed by a brilliant support staff, he understands his body, backs himself and is a remarkable student of the game. There is a great deal of pride and self-belief, but never an unhealthy ego that impedes one’s desire to learn and to improve. He uses his fractured vocabulary as a smokescreen to keep his feelings where they rightly belong. He has never told us what it all meant to him. The desperate scramble while saving match points do.

The Spaniard is courageous, not just in the manner in which he fights on court, but in the risk that he’s willing to invest in pursuit of a constant evolution. No one embraces change in the manner Nadal does. There was never any pressure to submit to a pattern or a style. That has been liberating.

The Spaniard’s career so far has been appended to everything Federer has and hasn’t achieved, which has made it difficult to put his career in purely its own context. But after six Grand Slam titles and his run as World No. 1, Nadal will have his destiny all to himself now.

Historically, Nadal is playing at a time when opportunities present themselves. Some believe Nadal is building on the foundation Borg had laid, but too much has changed since Borg retired for there to be a justified comparison.

But when compared to a host of others whose careers were made solely on clay, Nadal’s desire for constant change and incredible ambition has raised the bar spectacularly. Technically and stylistically he is a maverick, but he has built himself on the sound and tried principles of solid work ethic. His support staff, led by his uncle-coach Toni Nadal, has been hugely influential even if he is his own man when it matters.

Nadal’s success on different surfaces has resulted in limitless possibilities on what he could achieve. Andre Agassi went on to predict that the Spaniard could go all the way this year. “If Nadal retains Paris like he has done for the last number of years and comes to Wimbledon with the confidence to put together two good weeks, I think we could be looking at him in New York with a realistic opportunity of going on to achieve the unthinkable,” said Agassi.

“I never thought for a second his game could ever translate on grass but he calls his shots and he executes it. The most difficult part of the season would be the transition from clay to grass in two weeks. If you ever did well enough in Paris it was a pretty significant challenge to show up at Wimbledon feeling ready physically, emotionally or mentally.”

How much of a mental hold Nadal has on his opponents has been repeatedly displayed. What Nadal does is expose every top player’s greatest fear — their best not being enough. Novak Djokovic discovered he could be brilliant and have three match points, but yet not enough to cross over to the other side.

“In a game like that with so many match points I think you need luck to win, there’s no doubt about it, but I played with great courage and I think everything went well for me,” said Nadal after the Madrid semifinal.

“The important thing is I don’t have a lot of mistakes. I have to play aggressive with my forehand and try to have control of the point with my forehand. If I don’t do that it’s going to be really difficult, because if he is attacking me is really tough to play against Novak.”

Nadal gives himself no excuses for mistakes, which is why clay is the grandest canvas the sport could ever offer him. The surface allows him the space and the narrative. It has made him the force that he is now. Despite his loss to Roger Federer in the Madrid final, Nadal will still be the overwhelming favourite at Roland Garros. Something about Nadal on clay feels perfectly in sync. In fact, everything about him does.