Wimbledon: Rafael Nadal, destroyer of centre court7 min read . Updated: 25 Jun 2016, 01:55 AM IST
Will we ever see the Spaniard at Wimbledon again?
Time. Sssshhhhhhh. Quiet.
This is Centre Court. Wrapped in ivy and laced with wooden panels. Green, purple and a third colour called pristine. It’s a court for dukes and queens and royal boxes, and here, the meaning of grandeur is defined. If you strain your ears during points, you can almost hear Symphony No.40 in G minor in the silence. Here they quote from Rudyard Kipling and read the time from a giant gold-plated Rolex. There’s Pimm’s, strawberries and a bottle of wine older than your parents. This is Centre Court, a place where you can smell, lick and touch a very physical thing called tradition.
Then, Rafael Nadal happened.
This, now, is not Centre Court. This, now, is the mosh pit at a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert. All broken bottles and bloody knuckles. Before each stroke, Nadal growls like a beast rattling cages. The sound is primal and erupts not from his throat but somewhere further down, perhaps his intestines. This, before even hitting a ball. When his racket does makes contact, it doesn’t thwack like other rackets, but twangs, much like Flea on his bass guitar. It’s the sound of punk and the look of it too.
His mane hangs by his shoulders, dripping with sweat. His muscles burst out of his sleeveless tee. His fingers are plastered and his knees taped. He wears pirate pants and knots his forehead with a bandana. He sneers and he clambers. He hunts down balls, breaks souls, damages egos. He defends like his family’s prestige depends on it. He runs till the air is rich with his opponent’s desperation. He sniffs it and unleashes a forehand that’s less a forehand and more the swirl of a whip over his head. Wuh-pssshhhh! He wins the point and raises his knee to his ribs and pumps his biceps. The routine is relentless. The routine is breathtaking. The routine is grossly intimidating.
Nadal’s opponents are playing a game of tennis. Not Nadal. On grass, especially on grass, he is always in the middle of a round of Russian roulette. When the barrel is pressed against his temple, he shows no fear. Not when he’s two breaks down in a set. Not when he’s facing a set point. He grunts and scowls and smacks the tennis ball harder than a tennis ball has ever been smacked on these lawns. Now the set is back on level terms and Nadal knows he’s broken a lot more than a serve. He’s broken his opponent’s spirit.
Now it’s his turn to load the chamber and spin the cylinder, and Nadal knows only too well that he will live and his opponent cannot possibly survive.
When an era ends, or shows visible signs of winding down, as is the case in tennis today, nostalgia takes a feverish grip. These days, I often find myself spending copious amounts of time replaying matches from the decade and a half gone by. Not so much on the telly or YouTube. No. This archive reel runs effortlessly in my mind’s eye. The blur is fluid at first and then specific moments begin to crystallize. These moments are clear and vivid enough to frame and hang on the wall, and the one I seem to go back to more than any other is an image of Nadal.
When I think of Nadal, his tee is not caked with his favourite red mud in Paris—an image that will forever define him. Rather, he is clad in white in the serene lawns of south-west London, SW19. He doesn’t fit in with the surroundings, of course, a gatecrasher doing an awful job of blending in. A guzzler at a wine-tasting. But what fits in the least of all, a whole lot more prominent than his appearance and choice of clothes, is Nadal’s style of play.
On grass, the game is fast, the surface is skiddy, players are known to camp around the net, the strokes are terrific and the points are short. Everything about this game is skewed towards a full frontal attack. Nadal believes in defence. He excels on clay, and on those courts the game is slow, the surface is bouncy, the players are allergic to the net, the strokes are a test of your endurance and the points are long. Very, very long.
Yet, somehow, in just his third-ever showing at Wimbledon, in 2006, Nadal made it to the final. He won our hearts and even won a set against Roger Federer but couldn’t win the title. Nadal didn’t mind much because he had achieved something his entourage hadn’t even dared to let him dream of. But when Nadal and Federer reached the following year’s final and Nadal lost again, this time in five sets, something changed. He took the loss badly, weeping in the shower of the locker room for an hour. But as tears rolled down his cheeks, he began to believe.
Many works of literature exist to tell you what happened next. In 2008, in arguably the greatest and inarguably the longest Wimbledon final of all time, Nadal fought his waning belief, a waxing Federer and two thunder showers to sip the nectar of victory from the holiest of grails. Federer had fallen and right there, on his turf, he also conceded his rankings crown to Nadal. After three long years, No.1 was No.2 and No.2 was No.1. Nadal was 22, in the prime of his career, and was expected to win everything. Everything.
Then Nadal blinked, and when his eyes opened, Novak Djokovic had risen from the dead. In 2011, when the two met in the final, Nadal was the overwhelming favourite. He had, after all, won his last two Wimbledon finals and had thoroughly thrashed Djokovic in the US Open final the previous year to complete his career Grand Slam. Plus, Djokovic had never been there, the second Sunday of Wimbledon, before.
Djokovic didn’t just win that day, he achieved something far more implausible. Somehow, over one Sunday evening, he managed to pound out Nadal’s will to fight on grass. It had taken years for Nadal to accumulate that belief; it crashed in one swift fall.
For a moment, for a fraction of a moment, try and put yourself in Nadal’s worn-out shoes. Can you feel the soft padding under your blistered heels? Yes? Good, you’re getting there. Do your feet hurt? Not as much as your limp left wrist? I see.
Are your knees and back and shoulders sore? What? Not as sore as your heart, you say? Did I hear you right? Mind if I ask why? Ah, Wimbledon. Of course. Should have known. Always bloody Wimbledon. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse than playing and losing to four nobodies in the last four years, you lose to your own body and don’t play at all. Shucks, man.
Tie those laces. Just a few more questions, I promise. What do you, Rafa, think of when you think of the big W? Do you think of your current run of four straight losses to outsiders ranked in triple digits (Dustin Brown, 2015; Nick Kyrgios, 2014; Steve Darcis, 2013; Lukáš Rosol, 2012; ranked 102, 144, 135 and 100, respectively)? Or do you think of that spell prior to the shame, where you, an outsider yourself, went toe-to-toe with the greatest grass-courter of all time and made it to five consecutive Wimbledon finals?
What’s that? Wimbledon reminds you of home? That’s your answer? How, again? Okay, got it. The rented house across the street from the All England Club, quite like your home in Manacor that overlooks the tennis clubhouse. Nothing fancy, just the way you like it, but big enough to fit your family, friends and team. A house bustling with noise and warmth and dinner-table chatter, a far cry from the isolated life of extravagant hotel rooms that you spend the rest of your season in. A house that forces you to shop for your own food, like normal people. Your can of olives, your packet of crisps, your jar of Nutella.
Here’s a tough one. What do you, Rafa, think about when you think about grass? Do you believe that by winning two Wimbledon titles (2008, 2010) you overachieved? Or do you believe that by winning just four out of your 69 titles on this surface (two Wimbledons, Queen’s, 2008 and Stuttgart, 2015), you in fact underachieved?
Neither? Yes, your answer now makes sense. Just to be able to compete with the best on a surface that was always beyond your reach, beyond any Spaniard’s reach, beyond any clay-loving country’s reach for nearly half a century, is reward enough. Everything else is just a bonus.
Final question. Can you hear those voices? Those arrogant, sniggering voices emitting from press rooms and commentary boxes? Voices that say it’s over, you’re done. Voices that claim this wrist injury is the final strain to snap in an injury-plagued career. Voices that say only a miracle allowed a game so ferociously dependent on your body to even last till 30.
Can you hear those voices screaming in your head? They’re chanting now. Listen carefully. There it is again—“Nole! Nole! Nole!"
Sssshhhhhhh. Quiet. The umpire has called time.
Aditya Iyer is a freelance writer based in New Delhi. His maiden reporting at a Grand Slam was at the Australian Open in 2012, where Rafa played the match of his life and still lost to Djokovic, over five sets and 6 hours.