Sporting Life

Sporting Life: You can try anything against Rafa, he'll just try harder

Rafael Nadal celebrates after defeating Kevin Anderson during their 2017 US Open Men's Singles final match at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York on Sept 10, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

You can try many things with Rafael Nadal. You can try prayer, hexes, shamans, stares, rain dances, coughing while he serves and knocking over his water bottle. But you've seen his implacable face. Probably won't work.

You can try to carefully build a plan to unsettle him, like players tried at the US Open, though as Mike Tyson once said: "Everyone has a plan till they get hit." Indeed, everyone - theoretically - can find a chink in Nadal's armour, till they actually start playing Nadal.

You can try, for instance, to probe his backhand, which apparently does not qualify as a weapon, till he strikes, as he did in Sunday's final, three of four passing shots off that side and now you have to reconsider: Okay then, maybe not a weakness.

You can try and lure him into errors - how, we don't exactly know - and even if it did happen he's about as likely to get rattled as the stone-faced guy sitting in his box. As he wrote in his book, Rafa, about Tiger Woods: "I like most of all his attitude... he might hit a bad shot and get angry with himself, but the next time he squares up to hit the ball, he is back in focus."

You can try and convince yourself that he is a clumsy volleyer, no protege of Edberg the Elegant, yet he wins 16 of 16 points at the net in the final. It's 13 years since his first Grand Slam title and shouldn't he be deteriorating? A little? Instead he's improving?

You can try and unsettle him by playing a little serve and volley because he is camped so far behind the baseline he's almost in another borough, except in the fifth game, off balance, he hits a forehand down-the-line winner with Kevin Anderson at the net. Already a rival must think: Where do I have to go? Which geography of this court is safe? Who is this guy?

You can try to dominate because who wants to rally with The Great Moving Wall of Manacor and two days before the final the humble, gritty Anderson, a terrific revival story in his own right, said: "I really need to be dominant and control proceedings as much as possible."

Dominance has to start with the 2.03m South African's Sidewinder missile serve. He's laid down 114 aces in six previous matches, which is 19 per match, but in the final he produces only 10. He's also served an average of 65 per cent of first serves in the tournament but in the final it falls to 59.

It's just pressure. Pressure that makes a rival try too much. Pressure that comes from Nadal, who Anderson said "made it very difficult for me tonight. I felt he got a lot of returns back". Pressure that results in break points. After facing eight break points in total in his previous three matches, the South African is confronted with four break points in his first three service games. It must be hard just to breathe.

You can try and shorten the rallies against Nadal, avoid sweaty conversations by muscling big shots, aiming for the lines, taking away his rhythm, making him doubt, all of which is hypothetically possible. Except Anderson's second service game goes 18 points and his next one lasts 16 points - in between Nadal holds to love - and the first seven games will take 47 minutes.

Nothing is short against Nadal, nothing is easy, nothing is quick, for he is tennis' greatest miser, who won't give you a single point, till you snatch it from him. As the South African put it neatly: "He never goes away." Anderson played bravely and stirred his great sporting nation but when Nadal is in this mood no one can withstand him, except a Serb in the old days and an old Swiss on his best day.

You can try and say Roger Federer is too far ahead in the Grand Slam title race with 19 but only a goat, in lower case, would bet Nadal, with 16, will not get there. Still, not a single Nostradamus among all us clairvoyants was able to guess that Nadal and Federer would win all four Slams in 2017 and injury would claim Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, so trying to divine 2018's script is simply futile.

You can try instead to forget the comparisons and just enjoy Nadal and marvel at this destroyer of sporting obituaries, who at 31 still brings to his work the zealous commitment of a young priest. He's running on those same knees we said would never last, is five years younger than Federer, is ironically a still-standing hero in an injury-wrecked tennis universe, and continues to ply his trade with a familiar integrity.

Anderson, generous in his praise, elegantly analysed Nadal's mindset later and said: "A lot of guys, you might see them get angry at a line call and suddenly they start playing better tennis." But Nadal, he continued, never requires an external factor to drive him to play better. He simply "brings that high energy every single point".

What Anderson was telling us was that all these years later, for every shot and every rally, Nadal remains a threat because he's dedicated to the one idea and the one word that sustains him:


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2017, with the headline Sporting Life: You can try anything against Rafa, he'll just try harder. Subscribe