Rafa (2011), by John Carlin and Rafael Nadal

Also: “They’re Coming Right At You,” L. Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated, August 29, 2011.


On its dust jacket, beneath a photo of Nadal as Adonis apparently looking down from a pedestal, the order of authors of Rafa is Nadal and Carlin, but you can’t bring yourself to believe that Nadal had much to do with the generally awful, hurried hack narrative except to bring about a few wonderful passages by telling the truth in talks with the ghostly Carlin, “a Senior International writer for El Pais,” about Nadal’s match play psychology and, indirectly and, I think, unintentionally profoundly, about how it is that he has beaten the great Federer more often than not.

The kinds of confessions Nadal makes in Rafa, typically found in not-such-great books and articles, are among the most important in the rather tightlipped account of tennis that we have in its sparse histories and memoirs.

Until very recently, tennis has been pretty much a secret. Nadal’s memoir almost makes you wish tennis were still a secret.  Nadal’s comments must be heard with the recent changes to the game in mind, changes of which he seems unaware. Nadal is young, still near the top of the world, and, at least in Rafa, has no real sense of the tradition. Carlin, of course, wants to avoid that tradition because his publisher’s (Hyperion) editorial savvy says it has no reader pull in today’s shrinking world of readers leaving books and training their brains for shallow, instant rewards, the quick fix on the little screen.

Yes, Carlin, not Nadal, wrote the book; and, of course, it is full of fluffy “human interest” stuff about Nadal’s family and friends and tensions amidst together with other “personal” matters in a style calling to mind, say, Piers Morgan. Family and culture must have much to do with Nadal’s game, but they are presented with no connection to it whatsoever.

Accordingly, I don’t imagine Carlin has much interest in, if much understanding of, the significance of what the young Nadal has told him about the drama of big-time tennis itself: Carlin and Hyperion are out for the quick buck, the “book deal,” and no doubt hurriedly since Djokovic has just started to savage Nadal, having beaten the Spaniard five times without a loss to him in 2011 and taken over as the number-one-ranked male player in the world.

The shunned point: Nadal does not play beautiful tennis. He plays a uniquely effective, almost entirely contemporary, winning tennis. This is important on several levels, none of which is dramatized by Carlin. Nadal does indirectly talk about it, and what he says is telling in the annals of tennis.

Not a few think there have probably been five immortals in men’s tennis who have played beautifully, indeed sublimely. They are like the handful of great ballet masters. They are Federer, McEnroe, Rosewall, Gonzales and Tilden. You can’t really compare them except in their natural, graceful, artistic games; too much has changed down the decades in tennis for other comparisons, especially the forlorn argument about GOAT (greatest of all time). The beauty of their games, a human triumph, is, except for Federer, fading away in forgotten videos, and there isn’t much more time to see Federer, now thirty and still capable of playing for spells better almost than imaginable but probably less and less likely to sustain his highest level through several difficult rounds in major tournaments (though we can always hope). There do not presently appear to be any successors to Federer in his beauty of play. For most of tennis history, we have had to wait for such players to come along. They are certainly not the rule.

In Rafa, in one of his few memorable descriptions, Carlin talks of Federer’s “lethal precision.” That is part of it for each member of this quintet. But perhaps the essence was best and plainly said by Jenny Hoad, the great Aussie champion Lew’s wife, when, during his long, losing-but-competitive barnstorming tour against Gonzales, she said that sometimes both she and Lew would mentally drift from the fierce, majestic competition between Hoad and Gonzales on the carpet of an indoor court in some or other city and just marvel at the beauty of Gonzales’s game. “He was so beautiful to watch playing tennis,” she said of Gonzales. (Beautiful style has its limits: Gonzales, who narrowly defeated Hoad, Harry Hopman’s choice as the best Aussie male player ever, in that barnstorming series of matches, once said that Hoad, at his best, was better than Gonzales.)

There have been other players with beautiful styles, but they are not immortals: for example, Henri Cochet,  Frank Kovacs, Frank Parker, Tom Brown, Ramanathan Krishnan, Yannick Noah, Stefan Edberg, Xavier Malisse, and Feliciano Lopez.

Among immortal women players, Suzanne Lenglen, Evonne Goolagong, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Serena Williams come to mind as playing sublimely beautiful tennis.

There have been superbly athletic tennis immortals: Vines, Budge, Kramer, Laver, Borg, Connors, Lendl, Agassi, Sampras, Wills, Connolly, King, Navratilova, Graf and now Djokovic, to name some obvious ones.

I think Nadal is closest to the latter group, but his observations about himself and about Federer, and what you see about Nadal when you watch him play, make him seem to me something of a new kind of player, one not imaginable until this era of the polyester strings in the ever more technologically sophisticated design of forgiving rackets together with the modern fitness regimen.

Nadal came out of nowhere, just as many other great tennis players have done. Not usually with the natural sublimes, but often with other great players, someone in the family, a sadist, relentlessly drives the youngster out of childhood and into daily, desperate apprenticeship. Here it has been “Uncle Toni.” Nadal is a superb athlete but he is not anywhere near being a rare natural, an inherently beautiful stylist, a Fred Astaire of the court. Uncle Toni, not in so many words but plainly, has pounded into Nadal the youngster’s lack of talent compared to Federer and others. It is a frank, faintly chagrined litany of Nadal’s in Rafa.

What Nadal does have is at least two essential gifts: he has possibly the best hand-eye coordination in tennis history; he has possibly the most hysterical desperation to win ever displayed on a court.

Here is what he says he does to win: he strips away from his personality, away from his very cognition itself, all but the will to return the last shot in every rally. That is the essence of his matchplay psychology. You won’t hear much about angles, pace, keeping the ball away from your opponent, compensating for environmental conditions and so forth.

To ready himself for matches, he takes a painful ice cold shower in the locker room just before the walk to the court for the match; perhaps you can think of it as a sort of ironic baptism. He then jogs around the locker room oblivious to all else and shouting in Spanish. Outside, he jogs to places on the court. His demeanor is fierce.

In short, you must conclude, he does not think much. His great stamina and his desperation is what scares most opponents; his will is greater than theirs.

Players who play sublimely beautifully have all the shots, want to range all over the court, want to display their full virtuosity. Nadal knows this very deeply. It is the peak of his tennis knowledge, and it is a high peak, a simple but brilliant insight. Rafa doesn’t belabor this insight, but my guess is that Nadal is acutely aware of it and that it brings him great satisfaction when he can frustrate an opponent’s all-court game. He is, in short, an affront to style.

Nadal is often seen to be humble, and my guess from Rafa is that his insight about how to beat his natural tennis enemies is somehow all mixed up in his often self-effacing appearance. After all, there is a dark side, or perhaps better put a cunning side, to humility, is there not?

You learn in the heart of Rafa that Nadal and Uncle Toni, with encouragement from friend and fellow Spanish tennis star, the very astute Carlos Moya, concluded these things about playing Federer: he will outclass you; there will be spells when he runs you off the court with a level of play perhaps never before equaled; indeed, its sheer beauty may demoralize you; so, you must steel yourself and somehow ride out these bursts of heavenly tennis, interludes diminishing as the years overtake Federer; there remains but one basic strategy to beat Federer: Moya puts it this way: When Federer plays Nadal, it is not the complete Federer playing: this means that Nadal need not think much about how to beat Federer but simply concentrate on hitting ball after ball with heavy topspin to Federer’s one Achilles heel, Federer’s irritability at returning high-bouncing balls to his backhand–the sheer drudgery of it–and thereby keep Federer from doing what he loves to do, play all-court tennis in which he ranges all over displaying all his shots, running the table on you–Federer has every shot there is and strikes every type of shot peerlessly and gracefully.

Federer playing Nadal is like a great boxer taking on a wrestler in an elevator.

Aside from Nadal’s natural gifts of athleticism and will (hysterical will, no doubt of it, as reported in Rafa), the emergence of Nadal could not have happened, I believe, without the racket stringing technology of our times. Studies by physicists have provided the details. There is considerably greater room for striking the ball less than cleanly and getting away with it. The topspin which players can impart to the ball is much greater than in the past.

So: Nadal plays as many shots with heavy topspin to Federer’s backhand as he can. Nadal is left-handed, Federer is right-handed. On clay courts, Nadal’s strategy works nearly every time. It’s created a nearly even record between the two on other surfaces, most of which suit Federer much better than clay.

The two consequences of Nadal’s ferocious focus on playing Federer this way, a very old and wonderful story of stylistic consequences in the drama of tennis, are: 1) Nadal has almost obsessively “optimized” his game against Federer (as the structure and content of Rafa make clear); 2) Djokovic, not really taken enough into account in the Federer vs. Nadal hype, has appeared with a great knack for taking the ball on the rise and powering it back, giving his opponents less time to react because the ball is coming back at them sooner; and since heavy topspin shots such as Nadal’s tend to make the ball arc sharply and hit short in the court, Djokovic controls most rallies when playing Nadal because he moves forward, cuts off the short shots from Nadal, and puts Nadal on the run. Djokovic isn’t irritated by Nadal; he’s happy to strike Nadal’s looping topspin shots on the rise and jerk Nadal around.

Djokovic’s gift of taking shots on the rise goes back all the way to Cochet, perhaps the first master of this style, in the long ago and far away wooden racket era. In short, it’s a traditional answer.

Djokovic is a supremely athletic player.

We’ll have to wait for another player with a beautiful style.

The good news is that tennis, like the ballet, seems always ready to welcome such rare greats, no matter how much the conditions of the game change. Even the US Open–a moneygrubbing, tabloid-driven, embarrassingly inept tournament (psychoanalyze Wertheim’s article in Sports Illustrated)–may not after all loose the modern dogs of the great dumbing down on this wonderful game, one of our prevailing refuges.