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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  • farida

    Far too early to write Nadal’s tennis obituary! I am a fan of both Nadal and Federer. and both of them have given us glorious Wimbledon (and other Open) finals, but I don’t think Djokovic has given us a glorious Wimbledon final…yet. I didn’t watch the final but by all accounts Nadal was not at his best. For a final to be glorious, both players have to be at their best. I think Djokovic’s best final, that I have seen, was the Australian Open (I think) final against Tsonga some years back.

    I think Nadal and his team need to be willing to take advice from people outside their inner circle. I love the Williams sisters, but I think they were at times too protective of their style of play to take “outisde” advice and I think that too took some toll on their bodies. I think Nadal is young enough to make adjustments to his style of play: not just to ensure his longevity in the game but to add variety to his game, more texture if you will.

    As for Blake..I think the beauty of Federer’s game and the reason for his dominant reign in the kingdom of tennis is that the tiger and lamb in him are perfectly balanced on the court. Sampras was much the same; and for me there is little between Sampras and Federer except the not so small matte rof Federer’s two French Open titles. In my not so expert analysis, I think Nadal needs to find the lamb in/to his tyger on the court.

  • Robin Bates

    I agree that Nadal-Federer Wimbleon matches have been glorious. The one that was concluded in the dark is in my opinion the greatest tennis match ever played.And I agree that Nadal’s obituary can’t be written yet. But I had the same feeling watching him lose to Djokovic that I had watching Federer lose to del Potro in the U.S. Open: he could no longer intimidate, and once that happens, the ending is beginning. The intimidation factor gives great athletes an extra edge–when Tiger Woods was in his prime, experts said that his simply stepping on the course added two strokes to everyone’s total–and that’s what I see Nadal losing. Now, after Federer lost to del Potro, he then went on to win the Australian Open.

    I don’t think that Nadal’s loss can be attributed to injury. After all, he has lost 5 straight matches to Djokovic on three different surfaces. But I think if he took a page from the Williams sisters, he might benefit. They play selectively, not all the time–and have therefore been winning tournaments beyond the age when most women do. If anyone can add new variations to his game, it is Nadal. It is amazing how he transformed himself from a clay court player to a grass court player and then a hard court player. But he’s not Federer–which is to say, if he can’t outhit you and outrun you, he’s going to have problems. But who knows, maybe he can develop a better serve-and-volley and drop shot game.

    I like your image of tiger-lamb balance in Federer. Unfortunately for fans of his, big hitters now seem able to negate his tigerness (Djokovic, Nadal, Soderling, del Potro, Berdich, Tsonga on a good day). He does better against other lambs (like Murray).

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