Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Rafa - The Perfect Package?

Courtesy: Official Wimbledon Website

Photo Titled Nadal on Centre
Nadal on Centre

Rafa Nadal seemed the perfect package to promote the game as he established himself in its higher echelons. A champion. A ruthless on-court 'killer'. An off-court gentlemen; gracious in defeat, humble in victory. Someone with dark, lank-haired bandana-ed rock star looks.. A family-orientated, home-loving individual eschewing the party scene.

A series of contradictory characteristics which dovetailed to the centimetre.

Yet something was missing. He might have won four French Opens and the hearts of the young and old in and out of the game but legendary status had not been bestowed on him.

The moment duly arrived on Wimbledon's Centre Court on Sunday, July 6, 2008 at 9.16pm.

The yellow lights of the scoreboard flickered in the growing dusk. They spelt out that Nadal had defeated Roger Federer to seal the men's title.

A win over five sets and almost five hours, with two rain delays thrown in (a year before the roof was operational ), enshrined Nadal in the pantheon of tennis greats.

It might have meant he had become the first player since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win the French Open and the Championships in the same year.

It might have confirmed the billing of Nadal v Federer had equalled the potency of either Sampras v Agassi or McEnroe v Borg.

It might also have seen him become the first Spaniard since Manuel Santana in 1966 to win the coveted crown.

But what gained him entry into the exclusive legends club was that he had emerged the victor in a match hailed the greatest ever played by many, including John McEnroe, for the planet's greatest title on the world's greatest court.

It had been coming, of course. Inching ever closer in the two previous finals, both against Federer, a defeat in four sets in 2006 and one by five in 2007. His Swiss opponent might have equalled Bjorn Borg's record of five successive Wimbledon wins but the hot breath of a genuine rival to his supremacy on the lawns of London SW19 was burning the back of his neck.

The match which secured him his second men's singles success at the All England Club last summer after injury forced his absence in 2009 did not have the experts reaching for their dictionary of superlatives. But the routine three sets win over Tomas Berdych, the Czech Republic player who had accounted for defending champion Federer and Serbian Novak Djokovic in the quarter finals and semi-finals respectively, firmly underlined his credentials as a master of grass.

Question marks had been placed against Nadal's name when it came to discussing his ability to adapt his game to the natural surface Santana, also a French Open champion on the red clay of Roland Garros, had once described as being more suited to cows than his own game.

The King of Clay, an epithet first attached to Nadal from his first Slam triumph in the City of Lights in 2005, had a different outlook. He loved playing on grass.

His energy to run down lost causes, patience to construct points, and ability to put such a heavy spin on a pulverising left-handed forehand while minimising mistakes were qualities made for performing on clay. To break the will of almost all opponents on it.

He knew, though, alterations in his style had to be made for him to be a true force on the quicker, slicker green sward.

His early Wimbledon appearances in The Championships left the jury out on whether he could manage it.. His Wimbledon main draw debut in 2003 saw him fall in the third to Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan and little-known Gilles Muller from Luxembourg beat him a round earlier in 2005 after the Mallorcan has missed 2004.

With his uncle and coach Toni, however, he stuck to the task of tailoring his game to provide a good-enough fit.

Everyone has discovered just how well since the summer of 2008.

As Nadal himself puts it: "I improve my tennis.. I can slice some more balls, I can go to the net more times. The confidence is not so much different, it is that I have more options."

No-one would bet against him completing a hat-trick of Wimbledon successes as he steps out on court for the first time in defence of his title this year , having missed the opportunity to do so through injury after his classic against Federer.

His sixth French Open crown was lifted - equalling another Borg record - in this year's final against Federer at Roland Garros on June 5. It added to 2009 Australian and 2010 US Open glory.

But his non-Wimbledon Grand Slam triumphs merely add layers to the foundation of stardust which covered him as he bit the trophy inscribed 'All England Lawn Tennis Club Single Handed Championship of the World' in his trademark style that magical Sunday summer evening three years ago.

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