Australian Open 2017: How Rafael Nadal adapted his game to reach another Grand Slam final

It has never been about the score, or has it? I remember the 17-year-old lad from Mallorca in pirate cargoes and a sleeveless vest who raised eyebrows at the French Open in 2005. A phenomenal returner, standing yards behind the baseline, giving up angles only he could take advantage of, to get to balls that only he could reach. The transmutation into a tennis gladiator, who could push Rodger Federer on the Center Court at Wimbledon, is something this generation has been blessed to have witnessed.

Rafael Nadal celebrates after defeating Grigor Dimitrov in the semifinal. AP

Rafael Nadal celebrates after defeating Grigor Dimitrov in the semifinal. AP

The game that Rafael Nadal plays can’t simply be tennis, however. If style were the economy of movement for the apotheosis of execution, then Nadal may perhaps be called a lousy tennis player. In a generation of glittering shot makers, the question he poses is not answered in the purity of a winner down the line, though he makes those. I wish I could say that it emerges tenderly, but that isn't true. The erasure of chalk lines on clay and the uprooting of leaves as he slides into the place of what must be unreturnable have felt the pain that even his knees cannot ignore for ever.

There is a slice of communion there, he has taken from Roland Garros, a piece literally of the Philippe Chatrier court. It may have been given to him, but there is no doubt who it has belonged to for the past decade. The contour of his bones may have been shaped by what he has done there.

There is a tendency to identify players with a signature stroke. The glory of an inside out forehand, the singular satisfaction of a whistling one handed pass as an opponent approaches the net. Strokes such as those have been framed into sculptures to immortalise moments that were beyond our grasp of what the human body, a racket, and a ball are able to realise together. And yet, as magnificent as Nadal’s forehand down the line is, it pales in comparison to what it means to face him. If the profound injustice were to be committed, of seeking to represent him by a stroke then I would choose the 3/4 length rally ball that he gets back.

It is the means via which he has examined, with merciless and intricate insistence, the most eulogised weapons in tennis. The Federer backhand, capable of bending around rackets to find that fleeting pocket which opens for just an instance, into which it is buried forever as a million cameras and eyes light up in awe of a precision that pulls at the strings of what we thought was human. The subject of sculpture and song alike, as dictionaries could be filled with adjectives that commentators have gushed with. During Verdasco and Nadal’s five hour epic in Australian Open semi-finals in 2009, Verdasco hit 95 winners. If you can imagine what it means to hit those many winners against a man, on a court, and still lose, you perhaps have an inkling of what was witnessed

Rarely, will Grigor Dimitrov hit the ball cleaner and with as devastating effect as he did into the chilly Melbourne night. The adage of baby Fed is truly well earned and one has to ask whether the master himself is still capable of stroke play of such caliber. Of both wings, Dimitrov’s groundstrokes singed the bylines and he will do well to remember that few will be able to live with what he brought to tennis in the match and the years ahead will probably see him win much silverware without having to do so. Rafael Nadal however is rarer than that.

On a night where his lasso whip forehand down the line failed him, repeatedly, Nadal adapted. He came to the net to finish off points in a manner that would be unrecognisable in the Spanish clay courter of youth. He flattened out his backhand and hammered winners with a straightness of trajectory that could just about keep up with Dimitrovs’ strike power. This was not Nadal’s game, but it needed to be, and he found not so much as a way, but a will, to keep it in play.

The question that Rafael Nadal asks must be thought philosophically, for it is that of repetition. The genius of the shot maker is not often met in kind, perhaps it never can be in it’s entirety by Nadal, but it is yet demanded, again. The drive to ask that of Dimitrov, not merely to constellate the collage of a highlight reel of two tennis players, a collage that could only do disservice to Nadal for the cherry picker in the battlefield will never discover the forge in which Nadal’s groundstrokes were cast.

They were built to hone into this question, ‘when can the guy on the other side not do it again’. There is nothing quite like a five set Nadal war. For when he is in the mood, it is always genius itself which is on trial. That is what he extracts from the opposition. We have seen it with Rodger Federer and with Novak Djokovic, who often find that against Nadal they reach for a freedom of expression that can only be manifested in a rhythmic violence of ball striking brilliance that would leave just about any other man, living or dead reaching for the towel already to prepare for the next point. Nadal, however will ask for that, again.

A superstitious lad, he never passes the net after the game without both towels. He also always sips from both bottles before starting one. It isn’t ever the same however, and the ability to probe the integrity of an opponent’s groundstrokes constitutes the unique, and perhaps yet Spanish artistry of Nadal’s game. The topspin forehand that leaps into the backhand corner from a lefty, who works the angles on the deuce court as backhands grope to find a depth that may liberate them from having to do so yet again, creates the space for the merciless forehand into the ad side. And over the years Nadal has incorporated attacking the net, cutting of angles on the rare occasion that an adversary can actually hit through him; he has found when a drop shot can finish a rally that is on legs too unsteady to hit through the ball.

He needed every ounce of his guile and resilience in the semifinal and it finally ended in a way microcosmic of what Nadal’s game has been about. Dimitrov couldn’t put back another back hand winner into the court, he shanked it long and Rafa fell to his knees. From the comfort of my mattress, I can say, without looking at statistics, that no tennis player has induced as many forced errors.

On Sunday, he will face his historic rival once again. There is a poetry to it, two men both having scaled the heights of the tour, returning from injuries that at this stage of their lives, may have dissuaded other mortals. They have both grown leaner, and Nadal’s mane is thinning and in the twilight of their grandeur we see them talk to themselves between points. Encouraging themselves, as their boxes look on in supplication. We often see younger players glare and ask questions of their box. These two know, who in the instance of final reckoning, makes the difference.


Updated Date: Jan 28, 2017 19:46 PM

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