Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Rafael Nadal rises to the challenge of Federer

Taken the The Times.

It has become something of a truism to say that progress emerges from conflict. In The Fruits of War, Michael White shows how everything from encryption to the internet was born out of military rivalry. “Almost all major technological developments can be traced back to times of war . . . the best of humanity often flows from the worst,” he writes.

In his book Rivals, White takes the point even farther, examining the lives of some of the world’s greatest scientists, such as Darwin, Newton and Edison. He shows that these remarkable men were motivated not by the greater good of humanity nor even by the pure love of science, but by grittier and altogether more primal instincts.

Alexander Graham Bell worked day and night to invent the telephone largely because he was in competition with Elisha Gray, whom he beat to the patent office by a matter of hours. Crick and Watson followed a similar work ethic, spurred by the knowledge that rival teams were on the verge of cracking the structure of DNA. Joseph Priestley and Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier battled around the clock to discover the elegant secrets of chemistry.

The idea of beauty and truth emerging from intense, almost demented rivalry seems particularly pertinent whenever a grand-slam tennis tournament comes around in the calendar. Roger Federer was already a joy to watch while he was dominating the sport like a benign dictator, a kind of latter-day philosopher king with sweatbands. But when Rafael Nadal, his first credible rival, came into view, everything changed.

The Spaniard made his first mark on the clay of Roland Garros, of course, but over time he dared to dispute Federer’s supremacy on hard courts, indoor courts and even grass. He chased and snarled, and eventually made the great man cry. The consequence has been one of the most thrilling rivalries in sport, each man coaxing the other towards ever more thrilling evocations of greatness.

It is not just the on-court collisions that have revealed the fruits of this rivalry, although the finals at Wimbledon in 2007 and 2008, and in Australia in 2009, rank among the most revelatory tennis matches to have been played. It is also the duel beyond the duel as both men grapple with new techniques and strategies in the quest to exploit the other’s weaknesses.

Federer has not only constructed a subtly different second serve, which has created a conundrum for Nadal’s double-hander, but has also modified his backhand in an attempt to nullify the steep bounce of Nadal’s cross-court forehand. The Swiss has also learnt the art of greater disguise on his drop shot, although Nadal’s agility is often equal to it. Nadal has responded with enhanced power, greater technical variety and an even more audacious inside-out forehand, if such a thing is possible.

What new tactical innovations in Australia, assuming they meet in the final?

Many rivalries are constructed upon personal enmity, but a defining feature of the Federer-Nadal confrontation is that it has always been conducted in the context of camaraderie and, to use an old-fashioned word, honour. You only have to witness the two men talking and joshing to see that they share not only respect, but a deep friendship, too. When promoting their Match for Africa last year, they hugged and giggled as they attempted to get through the script.

Nadal is conspicuous for his modesty and civility. In every interview and magazine profile, a constant truth emerges of a young man with values and grounding. He is rarely, if ever, impolite to opponents or umpires, even during the white heat of competition. His only vice, if we can call it that, is greed. He has won the past three grand slams, but his appetite for a fourth in succession has not been dimmed. In this instance, perhaps we might agree with Gordon Gekko: greed is good.

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