What I realized during this Australian Open is that Nadal sets the tone for this state of affairs more than anyone else, certainly more than Federer. Roger is so cool and frictionless that, most of the time, he seems less like a prism of epic intensity than a dispassionate analyst of it. Djokovic, since his ascent, has been so much better than everyone else that he’s largely been able to act like a careful clinician, the administrator of his own talent. And Murray has lost to the other guys so often that his anger and frustration seem basically inconsequential. In other words, the game may be epic for the fans, but you won’t always catch that ground note of holy-shit intensity if you only watch the other three players. Left to themselves, they don’t exactly project deep contact with the secret fires of time.
Nadal, though? He plays like he’s fighting giants. It’s not just the sneer, or the muscles, or the hair, or that forehand — you know, the one where he swoops the racket all the way around his head like he’s whipping the team pulling his chariot. It’s also that frantic tenacity that used to drive me so nuts. Federer seems devastated when he loses but he also seems to sense losses coming and accept them before they arrive. When Nadal falls behind, he turns the match into life and death. He gets mad. He hesitates less. He hits the ball harder. He doesn’t look sad or scared. He looks defiant, and he plays like he’s possessed.
As a result, he carries matches to a higher plane than they have any business reaching. Djokovic could and should have won the Australian final in four sets, but Nadal refused to surrender, played lethal tennis, and took Djokovic to a place he’d never been. Instead of notching a routine victory, Djokovic had to tap into the same well of inspiration that Nadal was already drawing from. You could say that all these guys have learned what it means to fight on the plains of Troy because Nadal does it in every match. And we see him do it, so we know what it means, too.
Watching this week’s tennis reminded me of this essay on Grantland. Such a great description of what Rafa brings to tennis. Watching Andy Murray play any of these guys just feels so empty. Maybe that will change if Murray actually wins a title (but I doubt it). Murray looks defeated before the match even begins.
Without Nadal there is an intensity that is lacking. I think a lot of people are irritated by him. His butt picking and his long pre-serve habits. But I find that when he’s gone you realize just how much you love to love or hate him. It’s the intensity that got me so into tennis. And sometimes I wonder if I’ll be nearly as into it when Rafa’s career is over.