Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Soul Searching


Our own dapxin has led me to Matthew Syed's probing analysis of The Rivalry, entitled in the print edition, “Rafa’s priceless gift for Federer – defeat”:

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier will probably for ever have the last word on great sporting rivalries, but there is something about the tectonic collision between Federer and Rafael Nadal that has taken their struggle for supremacy beyond anything we have seen in tennis.

It is not just the exquisite contrast in styles and temperaments and the special talent that, in their unique ways, they share. It is not just that they have elevated each other's games to levels that leave us shaking our heads in disbelief instead of merely clapping. It is not even that they have produced two successive five-set finals, first at Wimbledon last July and now in Melbourne, so epic that Tolstoy could have written novels about them.

No, the true meaning of this rivalry - as with that of all great rivalries - is to be found deep within the two men as they ask questions of each other that they never imagined they would have to answer on a court.

There was a time when Federer's pursuit of Pete Sampras's record of 14 grand-slam titles had all the trappings of a procession, particularly after he defeated Fernando González, of Chile, without breaking sweat in the 2007 Australian Open to move into double figures. He was, like Ali in 1966, surveying a world so bereft of adequate challengers that his opponents seemed part of the act. Here you go, Roger, why don't you pass me; here, matey, a nice forehand for you to smash away a winner.

Fair use disallows me from quoting too much more of this outstanding essay, but surely you will all read it for yourselves.

I've become tired of this rivalry, moreso because of the way in which it is covered, not the way in which it has been played out. Clearly, this blog comes alive after a Rafa-Raja final, and so do I. The psychology of this rivalry is about as compelling as any I've ever seen in tennis and some of that has to do with the ways the talking heads cover it.

Syed is the first person I've read or heard that has lauded Rafa for his "brilliant tactical brain." Of course, Rafa is the greatest competitor on the tour, but he also possesses one of the greatest minds. As Syed sees it:

Part of the joy of his contests with Federer is watching the way he mercilessly tests the arc of the Federer backhand, those high, looping, teasing topspins forcing the Swiss to execute a stroke that looks almost vaudevillian.

Federer responded in Melbourne by stepping in and taking the backhand, where possible, on the up. But Nadal was not discouraged, switching the play, using the expanses of the court, testing Federer's legs, before shunting it back into the backhand side. The ebb and flow, thrust and counter-thrust, was magical.

That, for me, is the crux of it. Rafa outsmarts Raja. On every surface. Back when Raja dismissed Rafa as "one-dimensional" his fans defended him for simply telling the truth. But I never saw Rafa's game that way. Unconventional, yes. One-dimensional, no. And, from where I sit, part of Raja's breakdown on Sunday had to do with him finally realizing that he wasn't just being outplayed by Rafa, he was also being outsmarted and that, above all else, was the thing that was "killing him" the most.

Syed concludes his essay thus:

Nadal will loom large over Federer's every waking thought as the Swiss attempts to regroup, the world No1's muscular shadow forcing Federer to ask himself a string of searching questions. Should I enlist the services of a coach? Should I remould the backhand to cope with the vertiginous bounce of Nadal's topspin? Should I cut the amount of court time and get down the gym to fashion a level of fitness comparable to the indefatigable Spaniard? Should I restructure my season to focus exclusively on Wimbledon and the US Open?

But amid the questions, Nadal has also handed his greatest rival a priceless, if daunting, opportunity. It is the same opportunity that Frazier handed Ali, McEnroe handed Borg, Prost handed Senna, Duran handed Leonard and Spassky handed Fischer. It is an opportunity to demonstrate the resilience that so many of Federer's erstwhile cheerleaders think is beyond him. It is an opportunity to make believers of those who question his mettle.

But ultimately it is an opportunity to make a believer of himself - and that, one imagines, is likely to prove the greatest challenge of all.

I couldn't agree more.


dapxin said...

I read this essay on the tube to work morning, and god! his comparisons with boxing - the lines to Ali/Frazier etc got me: the reasons I enjoy sports...

Brilliant essay.

I agree with our takes Craig.

But the rivalry, unique on its own merits, is some lots to wonder/expect about.

I think, in the end, it teaches us more than we can understand about the underling bravery/strengths/lows of our very selfs.

I am gutted the BBC didnt let me see the trohphy presentation realtime. "It killed me"

oddman said...

Great article, thank you, Craig, for putting this out there.

I've been wracking my brain this morning trying to think where I'd heard that 'it's killing me' phrase before. Then I recalled - the Wimby 07 match, when Fed was becoming unglued by Hawkeye.

For those who say Fed was simply overcome by the love of the Aussie crowd shouting to him at that ceremony, I say go back and watch Fed's expressions as that fifth set wound down. At 2-4 in the fifth, Rafa gave him such a strange look, like 'wtf, man?' Rafa asked Fed right after the handshake 'are you all right?' I'm sure part of Fed's tears had to do with the crowd love, but I also think it finally hit him, that he had been outsmarted on the very surface he thought he still had control on. And it shocked him.

lynney62 said...

Craig..I read your blog daily and really enjoy it, but rarely post comments. Today, reading Oddman's comment I had to take in a breath. Those were my exact thoughts during the 5th set.....Roger, serving out the last points, looked like he might cry right there on court. You could read his mind....the realization that Rafa was going to beat him because Rafa had completely outsmarted him. You could see the shock on his face as he just "gave up" a switch had clicked on in his brain, finally. I saw Rafa ask Roger at the net, "are you okay".....Rafa looked worried when he asked. I think that realization was what was "killing him" more than anything.

rabbit said...

I didn't watch the match, but I can very much believe both oddman and lynney62. (Also, thanks to Craig for the very insightful article. I liked its tone very much.)

It is pretty clear that Roger has to up his ammunition in order to deal with Rafa for the rest of his career. And unlike a lot of others, I believe he can do this.

oddman said...

Hi Rabbit! Nice to see you back. That's the next logical question, isn't it - how Fed will respond. I'm sure Craig's busy writing it up as we speak :P

You know, every time I want to go all Chevy Chase Where's The Tylenol rant on Rogelio, I always remember what you said long ago, about how you saw the lonely little boy in Fed. I was so touched by your words. Makes it just a tiny bit harder to stay with the rage, so to speak.

Have a great day!

SarooQ said...

I love this blog. It gives you a real mature analysis from all sorts of perspectives. You dont' see any crazy Rafa loonies or Fed loonies posting here. Everyone is mature, insightful and thoughtful about their comments.

I consider myself a Fedal! I love them both. But at the same time i appreciate a real and mature tennis discussion and analysis.

Thank You Craig!! :)

Savannah said...

Great essay. As Oddman said you could see when Fed realized it was over. That's about when Mirka started crying.

Rafa kept asking the questions and in the end Fed had no answers for him.

dapxin said...

"Rafa kept asking the questions and in the end Fed had no answers for him."

And that is the problem defined, right there for Raja.
In effect,t o beat Rafa, you've got to stockpile more answers...

Helen W said...

There has been a myriad of insightful articles quoted on this blog after the AO final. I've seen lots more as well. IMO, the Times Online has perhaps the best coverage on tennis of all the papers.

It's almost a renaissance in men's tennis coverage. Perhaps the sports journalists feel the weight of Roger Federer has been lifted from their shoulders and they now feel freer to write bout other players?