Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Tuesday Tirade: Red Brick Wall

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.


oddman said...

OK, I'll bite ... nice article, BTW. For those who aren't Rafa KAD's (to use Bodo's term) I would guess clay season might be considered a snoozefest. No different than my feeling sometimes that any other season featuring Roger is a snoozefest - as he usually wins. You could well ask 'is Federer's dominance on HC/grass eliciting yawns amongst casual tennis fans?' Is Tiger's domination on the golf course boring? IMO, if you're a fan of Rog/Tiger/Rafa, it's hard to be objective when answering that.
It's a funny thing - I love seeing a competitive match - a real dogfight - between two players that I don't 'fan-worship'. If it's not, I get bored. Yet I'm quite happy to see 'my' players put a beatdown on anyone else.
Re: stopping Rafa this spring, and does anyone care - well, I can say that I do. But for the casual fan, who knows? Domination by any one player is probably not good for the sport. I think the fact that Rafa has been Fed's main challenger is a good thing, however. Hype away, TTC! (oh, yeah, and Vamos Rafa!)

Craig Hickman said...

Make no mistake, I ask that question a lot during tennis' "regular" season. Which is what made Canas' victories over Roger such a breath of fresh air.

But you hit the nail on the head. Domination is okay IF it's competitive.

Maybe Mathieu will meet Nadal before the clay season ends and give us another competitive match.

That's really all I'm asking for at this point.


edma1022 said...

I had the very same feeling watching the match. But you wouldn't know just by browsing thru the ESPN boards. Some folks, Maddison especially, are drooling. I did not find it entertaining at all. I enjoy watching clay court tennis the way it's played by Guga, but Nadal needed somebody who is different (ie. not a grinder). And maybe that fellow is Federer. After all, he was the last man to take a set off Rafa.

oddman said...

Yes, Fed's one who could take down Nadal, also Canas and Berdych too. After that first set bagel, Tomas really made Nadal work for the win, IMO. (Monte Carlo)
Drooling........I love it! Hope I've been less obvious :D

oddman said...

Domination is OK if it's competitive - yes, a good example for me is Fed-Roddick at wimbledon. Even though Andy's lost each time, I still feel he has the best shot at beating Fed, and the matches were very competitive. He says it's not a rivalry, but to me it is.

Vlad said...

All players simply have to get stronger physically if they want to compete and beat Nadal on clay. We have seen some players push Nadal in patches but they can't sustain that level for duration of the match. Most of the mental toughness on clay comes simply from physical edge and Nadal is heads and shoulders above anyone else in that department. Yes, he has foot speed and great clay court skills, but the reason he gives 100% on every points is because he knows that even after 4 hours he will still be able to play at that level.. other players can't.. therefore they have more lapses of concentration and usually fade toward the end of their matches with Nadal.

oddman said...

Good point. It's very difficult to keep up a positive and aggressive mindset once you feel your physical toughness isn't as good as your opponent's. That in itself will sap your strength. There's lots of talk that no one works harder than Nadal - and he shows that on court. I know the fist pumping and throwing, jumping and stare-downs annoy some - I love it.

Craig Hickman said...

Juan Carlos Ferrero once stated that clay-court tennis is 50% physical, 40% mental, and 10% tennis.

Probably why I'm not a huge fan.

That said, Nadal is not really a grinder on clay. He has weaponry. And he's aggressive.

Berdych has weapons, and oddman is right, he pushed Nadal in that second set, but in the wake of the bagel, it's hard to take that set seriously.

PHM is brimming with confidence. He has weapons. He knows his way around clay. I bet he could get a set off Rafa right now.

oddman said...

PMH? Nope.
It's funny, your tirade reminds me of myself last fall - got a friend who's a diehard Fed fan, and she just couldn't understand why I didn't even want to watch tennis anymore. I found it sooooo boring cos Fed was winning all the time. You must be feeling that now, Craig. If I harken back to those days, what I said then was 'damn, I just wish there was more competition!' Are you sure it's the clay, or the person dominating right now?

oddman said...

Oh, oh, I might have to take that back. See PHM just took out Gonzalez in Estoril.
You are, indeed, wise, Mr. Hickman.

oddman said...

(bowing respectfully)

Craig Hickman said...

Oddman, I don't know how wise I am, but I remember history. PHM, given his own chokes and penchant for underachievement, wouldn't get much attention as a potential challenger to Rafa's throne. But he did challenge Nadal at Roland Garros last year. And he enjoys playing the role of giant killer (check his ATP profile) even if he can't/hasn't back/ed it up with much of anything throughout his career.

oddman said...

The chokes - that's why I don't really consider him a threat. And speaking of that, about the banana incident, I'm choosing to believe it was innocent. But, in my Rafa fanhood, I must see it that way.

Savannah said...

I'm not biting.

oddman said...

Good thing I wasn't eating when I read that!!
....not biting... too good!

Craig Hickman said...

I wouldn't expect you to bite, savannah.

I still love you.