by Craig Hickman
I have nothing against Rafael Nadal. Well, okay. Sometimes his calculated stalling tactics when his opponents seem to have a bit of momentum in a match irk me. But overall, he’s matured quite a bit in the last year or so, cutting the histrionics and theatrics from his on-court demeanor (conserving energy, I suppose) and celebrating his opponents’ errors no longer. He’s actually become a bit subdued on the court. But this new approach hasn’t taken anything away from his ferocity. It may have even focused it more. So much so that he seems virtually unbeatable on the red stuff. He’s played two clay-court events this spring and hasn’t dropped a set.
And so the question begs to be asked: Is Nadal's dominance on clay eliciting yawns amongst casual tennis fans?
Full disclosure: I’m no huge fan of this time of year. All this chatter about clay being the pre-eminent surface that features “real” tennis that proves above any other surface which players know how to construct points and which don’t is, to put it bluntly, bullshit.
Sure, it’s a surface that tests a player’s endurance, mental and physical, and can, if both players buy into the grinding-is-the-only-way-you-can-win-on-the-dirt hype, feature some long, drawn-out grueling
snoozefests wars of attrition. I concede: some of the matches can be exciting, too. (See the Rome 2005 and 2006 finals. Which, incidentally, Rafa won by saving match points in both.) But I’ve seen long, drawn-out matches on every other surface as well, and every now and again, a clay-court match is over in under an hour. (See just about any WTA mis-match early in a tournament.)
Last year, Paul-Henri Mathieu gave Rafa his stiffest challenge at Roland Garros. It was in that match that Rafa ran to his chair and feigned choking on a banana in order to interrupt Mathieu’s window of momentum. Not that the Frenchman would’ve won the match, but Rafa, always aware of the slightest bit of encroachment to his throne, had to make sure he kept control of the match’s tempo, which is to his credit, whether I like it or not.
But I digress.
Who can stop Rafa this spring? And does anyone really care? Surely his die-hard fans don’t want his streak to end. I certainly understand that. But where are those who will step up to the plate and push Rafa to the limit? The Barcelona final, featuring Canas the Roger Slayer, was uninteresting. The Monte Carlo final was interesting only inasmuch as Roger and his camp couldn’t stop frowning throughout the entire encounter, but then, when it was all over, Roger was giggly as a schoolgirl. I guess you could also say that Roger’s delusional post-match interview was pretty interesting as well, but it wasn’t televised.
How many viewers switched channels after Rafa won the first set of each of his last two finals?
The Tennis Channel is doing a great job hyping the Road to Roland Garros, which it will cover this year, by airing highlights of years past, as well as classic matches in their entirety. Thrown into the mix are sound bites by players and analysts extolling the virtues of red clay. It makes it all seem soooooooooo exciting.
It’s not. Not unless or until someone can put a dent in the Red Brick Wall called Rafa.
Tuesday, May 01, 2007
by Craig Hickman