Spain’s Tiger Burning Less Bright

Rafael Nadal--end of an age already?

Sports Saturday

Can the Age of Nadal have ended so abruptly? The man who finally claimed the world’s top ranking after laboring for years in Roger Federer’s shadow—Federer has the sport’s longest streak as world #1, Nadal the longest as #2—has been dethroned himself.  Indeed, at Wimbledon last Sunday he was beaten in almost the exact way that he has beaten others: superlative defense and punishing groundstrokes.

When I watched Nadal beat Andy Murray in the semifinals, I was reminded of nothing so much as Blake’s tiger waiting to pounce:

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Am I too melodramatic in invoking Blake?  But as a Roger Federer fan, for years I have felt like the lamb to Nadal’s hard pounding tiger. In his poem, Blake is trying to figure out what kind of creator would fashion the tiger, and the images of this creator seem to apply to Nadal as well.

Immortal hand? Check

Immortal eye? Check

Fearful symmetry? Check (Nadal is a righty that plays left-handed)

Powerful shoulder? Check

Dread feet? Check

Hammer blows? Check

Furnace for a heart? Check

Dread grasp? Check

Deadly terrors? Check

Forcing opponents to throw down their spears and water heaven with their tears? Check and check

Did the god that made the elegant strokes of Roger Federer–maybe the most beautiful the sport has ever seen–also make the bruising style of Nadal?  Like Blake we can only shake our heads bemused.

In Nadal’s finals match against Novak Djokovic, however, it was as though I was watching two tigers, with the one that was favored losing. Djokovic mastered Nadal’s spin and responded with flat, hard stokes that landed so deep that the Spaniard was continually playing defense. Djokovic also retrieved virtually all of Nadal’s shots, forcing him to hit extra balls and to go for too much.  Usually that is what Nadal’s opponents are forced to do, not Nadal.

Nadal will probably win some more Grand Slam events (especially the French), but it no longer appears that he can reach Federer’s record of 16 championships.  In some ways, I wonder if Nadal hasn’t made a kind of devil’s bargain.  While he has a topspin forehand that blows opponents not named Djokovic off the court, he achieves it by applying incredible torque to his body.  As more than one commentator has said, “I would not want to be Nadal’s ankle.” Nadal also practices incessantly, which is how he was able to move from winning only clay court titles to mastering all surfaces. His body, however, has paid a terrible price.

Federer’s beautiful game, by contrast, puts little pressure on his body.  He is never hurt, which is why he has records that will never be broken.  In addition to his 16 major championships (out of 23 finals appearances), he has made it to 23 straight Grand Slam semifinals and 29 (and counting) Grand Slam quarterfinals.

So should we talk about Nadal the way that Odysseus talks to Achilles in the underworld?

But was there ever a man more blest by fortune
than you, Akhilleus? Can there ever be?
We ranked you with immortals in your lifetime,
we Argives did, and here your power is royal
among the dead men’s shades.  Think, then, Akhilleus,
you need not be so pained by death.

Actually, obituaries are probably premature.  Nadal, whatever his aches and pains, is not prepared to be buried just yet.  He feels he has a lot of tennis to play.  Thank goodness for that.  He, Federer, and now Djokovic have been giving us one glorious Wimbledon after another, and we don’t want it to end.

To quote another Blake poem, they have been building Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.

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