Wimbledon sees Nadal with feet of clay

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 9.44.52 PMRafael Nadal, the world’s No. 1-ranked tennis player, recently won his ninth French Open in ten years.  Which might as well be squash as far as the All England Lawn Tennis Club is concerned.  The gentry who govern the splendidly flowered piece of sod known as Wimbledon dispensed only a No. 2 seed to Nadal.

Top seed for the most cherished tennis trophy is Novak Djokovic, 27-year-old Serbian who lost to Nadal in the Paris final.  More significant, apparently, was Nadal failing to reach Wimbledon’s third round in the past two years, when he was hobbled by knee and back issues.

Djokovic lost in last year’s final to Andy Murray, who became the first Brit in 77 years to win the golden cup.  He did it in the very unBritish heat of 104 degrees.  He’s seeded third as defending champ. 

Djokovic, who has won four of his past five matches against Nadal, is perceived as ascending, while his rival, a year older, contends with a still sore knee that he says troubles him more on grass than on clay.

The gentry are correct to note a distinction that’s a difference:  the French Open is played on clay, a surface on which Nadal has won 93 percent of the time.  He learned on it as a 6-year-old on his native Spanish island of Majorca.  His parents could see by then that he had extraordinary talent that would be nurtured at whatever the cost.

Meanwhile, Novak, growing up in Belgrade, was also a prodigy.  At 6, he told his parents he intended to be the greatest tennis player in the world.  And he didn’t care what the surface was.  In his autobiography, Serve to Win, he recalls being 11, dodging NATO air raids by scurrying to a bomb shelter in his aunt’s apartment building.

The next day, “Nole” and his pals would venture out to see what tennis court was available.  “We’d go to the site of the most recent attacks, figuring that if they bombed one place yesterday, they probably wouldn’t bomb it today.” 

With this background he has passionate appreciation for the tranquil splendor of the eternal English garden that is Wimbledon.  When he won there in 2011 he dropped to his knees and uprooted a clump of grass and stuffed it into his mouth.

“I felt like an animal,” he said.  “I wanted to see how it tastes.”

So how did it taste?  “Like sweat.”

Since then, he’s made Wimbledon his personal domain, sweating or relaxing.  It may not have gone unnoticed by the seeding committee that he rents an apartment (or “a flat,” as the Londoners say) near the tennis club that began as a croquet field in 1868.

When the gentry switched to tennis and began playing an annual tournament in 1877, the surface naturally would be grass.  It’s been grass ever since.  Advantage Djokovic.

At 6-3 he’s two inches taller than Nadal and has a faster serve, 130 mph.  On clay, the slowest of surfaces, the ball loses enough zip at impact for the quick-footed Nadal to catch up to it.  Nadal lost the first set to Djokovic in Paris but then won the next four.

At Wimbledon, the only major on turf, Djokovic will dominate his service more than he did in Paris.  Should they meet, he will keep Nadal off balance and direct him to the borders of the court.  And Djokovic is solid enough defensively to break serve if Nadal has to rely often on his mediocre second try – perhaps the only weakness in his game.

Not that Novak has a picnic on the lawn.  Nadal has won twice at Wimbledon with a forehand that’s lethal anywhere, the ball spinning at 4,000 revolutions per minute – 50% faster than most ATP players achieve.  The fact that he’s left-handed (though born a righty) enhances the effect of the torrid topspin.

Nadal is thinking legacy.  He’s won 14 majors, three fewer than the record holder, Roger Federer, the 4-seed this time who’s won six Wimbledons but at 32 is in his twilight.  Thus, ESPN hopes for a Rafa-Novak final, to air Sunday, July 6 (7 a.m. Central). 

Described as “swashbuckling” more often than anyone since Errol Flynn, Nadal is adored by the crowds, does nothing to offend them.  He signs autographs on his way to the clubhouse and anywhere else people can catch up to him.

But usually he’s an isolated figure, shielded by a hulking entourage (almost entirely family members).  He seldom speaks to reporters, though he’s fluent in English.  

He’s moored to his island, figuratively and literally.  Only occasionally do the paparazzi produce a photo of him kissing his girlfriend or playing high-stakes poker (he’s reportedly one of Europe’s best).

Djokovic, who speaks five languages, is accessible and is in fact something of a ham.  Responding to women shrieking at an exhibition match in England, he stripped off his shirt to display sharply etched abs.  Ever the showman, he scolds himself on court for the audience to hear.

Off the court he does impressions of other tennis stars, including, famously, Nadal battling a wedgie.

In his autobiography Djokovic mentions Nadal not showing him respect in his early touring.  “There were two men in the world who were the best – Federer and Nadal – and to them, I was nothing but an occasional annoyance, one who might quit at any moment when the going got tough.”

He acknowledges some truth to their suspicions.  You’d think that after the bombs of the Kosovo war his nerves would withstand anything Federer or Nadal could hurl at him.  But it did take Djokovic a few years to overcome the gag reflex.

Given the dogged reticence of Nadal, Djokovic remains the only hope tennis has for a media superstar, a colorful, engaging presence.  “Djoker,” he’s called, sometimes as a compliment.  His irreverence is not always appreciated in a sport as stuffy as this one.

Tennis is and always will be a country club game.  But word is that many rich kids are switching to lacrosse.  I wouldn’t know much about that, none of my kids being rich.  If it’s true that tennis is no longer cool, it could be the next croquet.

When tennis was most popular, in the 1970s and ’80s, it had megawatt star-power in Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi (further brightened by his marriage to Brooke Shields), John McEnroe, Chrissie, Billie Jean, Martina.  All of them tremendously charismatic.  Even McEnroe – ESPECIALLY McEnroe — with his innovative tirades against officials.  One of the first reality-TV shows. 

Then came the 1990s and the boring reign of Pete Sampras, who rarely uttered a non-cliché.   Federer, the next titan of tennis, turned out to be the stereotypical stoic Swiss, invariably polite, never verbose whether speaking French, English or German.  Rafa, for all his underwear-ad appeal, is another of the let-me-hide-from-you ilk.

Novak may not be so exciting to watch, but he’d be an interesting person to know.  The world could grow to love him more than it wants to love Rafa.

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