20 July, 2010

The Summer of Rafa II: The Reckoning

Rafael Nadal

I grew up a tennis fan in the ’80s and ’90s in a house without cable. In the noband (pre-internet) era, that meant generally the first image of professional tennis I’d see in a given year was from the Martian-esque red clay of Roland Garros (aka The French Open). While the fine print boxscores in the daily newspaper told a different story entirely, for this fan, the real tennis season effectively commenced at Roland Garros and ended with the US Open.

The whole truth is, the real season included, the ATP tour runs from January until Thanksgiving, from Adelaide to Zagreb on hardcourts, fast and slow, red clay, grass and indoors. The 2010 campaign only halfway in the record books, Rafael Nadal has played in Qatar, Australia, Palm Springs, Miami, Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid, Paris and twice in London. He spends his downtime in Mallorca (just try getting a direct flight to Manacor) and he’s expected in Toronto week after next.

The frank reality is that for all the globe-trotting, the tennis season hinges on a relatively short European jaunt stretching from mid-April to mid-July from Monte Carlo to Southwest London.

Rankings for the ATP Tour are based on a 52 week rolling point system with different events offering different points roughly matched to the depth of the fields. Where we stand in late July, the current rankings reflect a player’s performance from this time last year to today, but again, that only tells a part of the story.

Try these figures on for size: 7,045… 6,905…6,885

These are point totals belonging to the top 3 players in the world, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. The difference is that Djokovic and Federer earned those figures over the entirety of the last 52 weeks. The Spaniard collected 7,045 (of his total 10,745) between Monte Carlo and Wimbledon alone.

Somewhere between the uncharacteristically “early” exits of Federer in Paris and London (as much as quarterfinal losses can be considered early), the Neverending Story III, a.k.a. the Isner-Mahut spectacle and the match Serena lost against the glass in that as-yet-unnamed restaurant, Rafael Nadal earned a season’s worth of points somewhat under the radar.

Yes, the knees are still wonky.

Yes, Robin Haase and Philipp Petzschner, guys only the most intense of tennis fans (and their respective families) had heard of, both stretched him to five sets in the early rounds of Wimbledon.

Yes, he’s still only won half as many majors as Roger Federer. (For the record, Rafa’s eight ties him with Agassi, Connors and Lendl, and puts him ahead of McEnroe, Wilander, Becker, et al)

Put all that aside. The man from Manacor is putting on a virtuoso performance that only a Federer fan could deny.

Nadal enters the homestretch of the summer, the real season, with one real goal, and it’s eight weeks from here, a US Open title. Two years ago, during the original Summer of Rafa, he was in a similar place. World No. 1, French Open and Wimbledon champion, even bagging the US Open Series crown. That year, the US Open Series was blithely interrupted by a weird little competition known as the Olympics, half a world away in Beijing. Oh yeah, Nadal won that too. Nadal would arrive at the US Open in ’08 with a head full of steam, two arms full of accolades and little to no gas in the tank. He’d fall to Andy Murray in a listless semifinal.

A lot of fans seemed to lose the plot, they returned to the old narrative “Oh, Nadal, that rapscallion, it’s too bad about his hardcourt problem.” The blatant ridiculousness of that statement underscored by his wins at the Rogers Cup and Olympics played on the same DecoTurf hardcourt surface as the US Open just weeks prior.

Never mind Rafa’s bad knees, abdominal tear or parents’ divorce last year. His saison interruptus again allowed people to revisit that other anti-Rafaelite story, that Federer was merely a superior player. After all, the Mighty Fed reclaimed his Wimbledon crown and for good measure, swiped the French Open trophy that Nadal had owned in 2009.

2010 started off with some nerves, some dispiriting losses and some more knee issues for Nadal. Then the summer hit and he hit back. Nadal never faced a top dog in Monte Carlo, but his form was devastating in dispatching his countrymen Ferrero, Ferrer and Verdasco to win his unprecedented sixth consecutive title in Monaco. He looked more mortal in Rome, Madrid and Roland Garros, but passed each test, leaving with a mouth full of trophy. 5,000 points and over $3 million in the bag, Nadal struggled a touch on the grass, but ended up in the winner’s circle where it counts at Wimbledon.

Now comes the run to the US Open. The knees are undergoing treatment, the bid for a fourth Davis Cup has been sacrificed and the Olympics are two years away. 5-time US Open champ Roger Federer seems far from his best form; Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are in year-long fogs. Last year’s champ Juan Martin Del Potro is questionable and if he somehow does play, it’ll be a rehab start, his first event since the Australian Open in January. There are obviously other guys who can make a run, Andy Roddick, Robin Soderling, the surging Tomas Berdych, etc., but as Rafa told John McEnroe in an interview moments after he won his fifth French Open, “See you in New York.”

That’s where the real season ends, and that’s the direction in which Rafa and the rest of the tennis world are pointed.

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