Nadal’s pay dirt

Rafael Nadal is no artist vis-à-vis Roger Federer, but when it comes to red dirt, he is simply matchless, writes N. Sudarshan.

In the world of sports debates — most debates for that matter — that pit two different eras or two different but equally matched individuals to measure up to each other, there is always a yearning for the bygone era on the old timers’ part. The younger generation, meanwhile, swears by what it watches and experiences in this ‘truly professional’ age.

Even as the belief that sport was much better-off then, with diverse characters throwing up interesting match-ups, and existed as a more humane art form dominates the outlook of the seniors, for the juniors the current ‘one-dimensional’ course it has taken, where emphasis is more or less on ‘winning at all costs’, is what matters.

There has rarely been a ray of convergence between these two schools of thought until say a Roger Federer arrived. But what happened in Paris on a gloomy, rainy Sunday afternoon that was June 9, settled once for all the debate about who the greatest-ever clay court player was.

Rafael Nadal is no artist vis-à-vis Federer, but when it comes to red dirt, he is simply matchless. As the legendary Bjorn Borg said recently, “There’s no-one better than him on this surface. People don’t realise this — maybe the public has been spoilt to a certain extent. Rafa’s (Nadal) quite simply an artist when it comes to clay.”

Artistry need not always be aesthetically appealing through delightful shot-making, but can also involve grafting, defending and counter-punching. On clay it’s more about the other three and along with these it has taken Nadal eight titles each at Roland Garros, Barcelona and Monte Carlo, seven in Rome, three in Madrid, an 81-match winning run (previous best was Guillermo Vilas’s 53 in 1977), a 13-2 record over Roger Federer and 12-3 over Novak Djokovic to get to being called the ‘greatest’ dirt-baller ever.

The broad contours of his achievement on clay that led to this tag were drawn in 2011 when he drew level with Borg’s six titles in Paris. The latter won these six in eight attempts from 1973 to 1981. One of the reasons that has until now tilted the debate in Borg’s favour is the fact he retired when he was only 26 and the accomplishments came in such a small time-span. However, Nadal turned 27 only earlier this month and already has two more titles than Borg and a 59-1 record in Paris.

Borg, without any disrespect to any of his feats, was largely unthreatened in that era. True, there were players such as Vilas and Adriano Panatta, both former French Open champions, the latter the man to have beaten Borg the most on clay — five times — Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors. But none could match the current levels of competition presented by Djokovic and Federer that Nadal is always up against.

Though Nadal possesses head-to-heads that look as one-sided as it can get against Federer and Djokovic, they are by no means duds on the surface. The Swiss, since 2005, has reached two semi-finals, five finals and won once in Paris.

Djokovic, even if yet to win the French Open, is widely believed to actually possess the game that can dethrone Nadal. And he showed this in last year’s final, this year’s semi-final and perhaps in the only stretch when Nadal seemed beatable — in the tune up to the 2011 French Open.

Borg also won those titles when John McEnroe was yet to happen — though he was hardly a force on clay except once — and before the next era of great dirt ballers took shape, particularly Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl, both of whom have three wins and two final defeats each against their names.

At the turn of the millennium, the 2001 Wimbledon champion, Goran Ivanisevic, summing up the depth in men’s tennis and the homogenous nature of most surfaces, said, “In tennis now, you don’t have any favourites. It doesn’t matter if it’s clay or grass or hard court. Anybody can beat anybody.” For Nadal, to dominate a single surface, in this sort of an era is simply mind-boggling.

But regardless of all the above facts, it was always considered safer not to compare eras and settle for status quo. But Nadal’s injury after last year’s Wimbledon, his subsequent seven-month layoff and his stupendous comeback since then lent a certain context to his latest feat that tilted the balance in his favour.

There was an air of uncertainty leading up to Paris this year. True, Nadal had had a sensational run of six titles from eight outings. But still doubts persisted whether his knees would hold up in a best-of-five set match. He was also beaten by Djokovic in the Monte Carlo final. Even in the first week in Paris, he looked far from convincing and as modest as he always is, went on to question his own chances.

But the response to this was from a different Nadal. Usually on the defensive when playing Djokovic, he decided to go for broke in the semi-final. Down a break in the final set, his desire to hit deep and go for the lines showed clear signs of his aggression and his relentless drive to master his recent nemesis and etch his name in history. Nadal after the victory said: “Five months ago nobody of my team dreamed about a comeback like this. Because we thought that it’s going to be impossible. But here we are today, and that’s really fantastic and incredible. I’m just enjoying a lot all these emotions since I came back.”

“It’s completely 100 percent settled now,” said Wilander when asked to compare Nadal with his compatriot Borg. “He’s more perfect than Borg.”

The tag of the ‘greatest’ wasn’t just spoken about with respect to Nadal at this French Open. Serena Williams marched towards her own — of that of all-time. She is just two shy of Chris Evert’s and Navratilova’s 18 and Steffi Graf’s 22 Grand Slam titles. Margaret Court has 24.

But what has been incredible is that both Nadal and Serena, at 27 and 31, seem far from finished. However, the caveat for Serena is always her motivation levels and for Nadal, his knees. But for now, it’s time to forget the question marks and put exclamations to their incredible wins.