Doubles with Rafael Nadal: Ambivalence in the crowd
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You could sense a definite ambivalence in the crowd gathered to watch the BNP Paribas Davis Cup doubles match between India and Spain on Saturday. On the one hand was a longing for India to win it, to stay alive and take the fight into Sunday and then win Sunday’s matches as well.
On the other hand was a longing to see a truly beloved superstar of the game, Rafael Nadal, in action—and given how much love there is for him, to even see him win.
Where I sat in the crowd, the ambivalence was on display all through. “Jeetega bhai jeetega, India jeetega” chants from behind were morphed by a few men near me into “Rafa jeetega”.
All four players on court—Marc Lopez, Leander Paes, Saketh Myneni and Nadal— produced their own moments of spectacular tennis and all got applause—but Nadal’s winners seemed to attract particularly loud and heartfelt cheers. I don’t recall another match—tennis, cricket, football, whatever—involving India that has seen similar admiration showered on an opposing player.
In the post-match press conference, Paes was even asked about it, whether it bothered him and Myneni.
“He’s such a global star, you know,” Paes explained with a smile. Meaning, he’s one of the few sportsmen who may just transcend boundaries. “It’s great to have him here,” Paes went on, really speaking for the crowd too, “and an honour to compete against him”.
And compete they did. This doubles encounter was one non-stop roller-coaster of thrills and gasp-inducing shots out of the blue and delightful touch volleys and down-the-line shots that fizzed past desperately outstretched rackets. In merely writing those words, I can remember such shots from each player on court. Which means there were really no weak link, and these were two evenly-matched teams and they produced a cracker of a match.
Like in the very first game, with Nadal serving.
On first serves, Lopez crouches right down till he is below the level of the net, his body an almost contorted mix of bent legs, arms holding his racket out in front, and a head on top. Just before Nadal serves, Lopez hits his racket strings with his palm and mutters a few words to himself. As soon as the ball whistles past his ears, he is up like a jackrabbit, ready to leap left or right as needed. Two points in a row, he is right there on top of the net to put away a smash-volley to win the point. A journalist near me is moved to say, “these are easy pickings.” Not really, though. While Lopez makes the volleys look easy, they are clearly the result of a whole lot of practice that he and Nadal have put in: Nadal has to serve in a certain direction, inviting the kind of return that this jackrabbiting Lopez can intercept.
But Paes and Myneni also learn their lesson quickly. Having got burned this way twice in that first game, they don’t give Lopez too many more similar chances the rest of the way. After that first game, it’s the rare return that Lopez is able to put away like that.
Nadal and Lopez break Paes in his first service game, and are soon ahead 4-1. But out of the blue, the Indian pair win five games in a row, breaking both Spaniards’ serves in succession, to win the first set 6-4.
The crowd goes ballistic, whistling, waving long green plastic tubes and bellowing “India, India”. I hear some moans of disappointment too, but not too many. This is a five-set match, after all. (And in fact a man just behind me turns to the woman to his left to confirm — “it is five sets, no?”).
But it’s about now that I start hearing some qualitatively different remarks too, in the audience. The first time is when Lopez is serving at 1-1 in the 2nd set. Nadal races back to send back a high lob. As Myneni moves into position to respond, I hear a quick “Yeh !!@#&!@# miss karega!” (“This !!@#&!@# is going to miss!”), and that term of abuse is one of Hindi’s more choice ones, if you know what I mean.
Myneni doesn’t miss, instead he smashes it for a winner. Words like these will repeat through the match, usually when the Indians make a mistake, and with a wide selection of epithets in both Hindi and English.
Speaking of Myneni, though, he is playing with the passion, intensity and precision that David Ferrer never allowed him to find in Friday’s singles match. Whether that’s because of Paes or because of India’s desperate position in this tie or something else, it serves India well. He and Paes actually break Lopez in that game, and hold on to that lead for several more games. Can India actually go two sets up? But when Myneni is serving for the second set at 5-3, he is called for a foot fault on the first point. As that relatively rare call often does in tennis, it seems to throw the Indian team off balance for a bit. (“Idiot Saki!” from somewhere behind me). An expert Lopez volley and an arrow-like Nadal backhand return crosscourt are too good for the Indians. Myneni volleys long to give the Spaniards a break point, and then he tries to be too cute with Lopez’s next return, his drop volley dropping into the net. Spain has broken back. They ride that momentum through the tiebreaker and the next set, to lead two sets to one.
The fourth set is a mirror-image of the first. It’s India who take an early break and make it count through five games. In the fourth game, Nadal concedes a point because his racket touches a ball that flies out; Paes and Myneni applaud this act of class. As they go to their seats at 4-1, Paes in particular is fist-pumping and signalling to the crowd for more noise.
But then Myneni’s next service game is a huge struggle. Through four deuces it goes. A double fault gets a shouted “Why are you such an ass, Saketh?” A high Lopez return next, and Paes shouts “You, baby!”, Myneni replies “Yeah!” and leaps to smash away a high Lopez return, and the crowd and the Indian bench is up and screaming. But eventually Nadal smashes one at Paes’s toes that he can’t handle. Nadal holds his hand up to apologize, but the Spaniards have the break back—to excited chants of “Ole, Ole!” from the small Spanish section.
Two games later, Paes is broken, and then Nadal serves it out. Spain has won the match 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-4—and the tie itself, 3-0. This doubles match has been close and electrifying. But Nadal and Lopez had that little edge—having played together so often and having won gold at the Rio Olympics just weeks ago—and at the level these pros play at, that edge was enough.
There are warm embraces and kind words said, and plenty of cheering for Rafa Nadal (“I love you, Rafa!” from many female voices) and this stellar Spanish team. There’s clearly plenty of mutual respect between the two sides—but the reality of this Davis Cup tie finally could not be denied. Spain was simply too deep, too strong, too experienced for India.
As Paes himself said at the press conference, they had no business playing here. There’s no shame admitting that. With the talent Spain now can call on—11 players among the top 100 in the world, the most from any country—they really belong in the higher echelons of the competition.
Defeating India has put them back there.