Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The rival knights of lawn tennis

"This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object" -- The Joker in the Dark Knight.

Two players who form a complete contrast in style of play, but adhere to the spirit of tennis and are paragons as gentlemen off court, fought yet another epic Grand Slam final at Flinders Park, Melbourne the day before yesterday.

The World Number 1, Rafael Nadal is a street fighter, who plies his game using top spin from the baseline and revels in an all-court offense-defense system. His game relies on wearing out his opponent through relentless intensity and aggression. The World No 2, Roger Federer, already an accomplished all-time great is a master of finesse, angles and the percentage game - i.e. always pinning on a high percentage of winners. The latter's game was what that made him invincible for a few seasons before the arrival and transcendence of the former from a clay court matador to a all-court workaholic. In short, Federer forms what is metaphorically acknowledged as the irresistible force and Nadal is the immovable (lets say im-passable in tennis terms) object.

So, what happened when these guys met yet again, evoking memories of their earlier contest at hallowed grass in Wimbledon (long five-setter resulting in a Nadal win)? Did the irresistible force gush past the immovable object or did the "object" withstand the "force" and ground it out? It was the latter that happened.

Why couldn't the greatest player possibly to play tennis, Roger Federer manage to overcome Nadal, despite Nadal having to play yet another grueling tennis match following his marathon 5 setter against Fernando Verdasco in the semifinals? It was obviously Nadal's indomitable spirit that triumphed in the end, but that is not a good enough answer to the question. One has to delve into parallels from history to answer it, in my opinion. And I will try to do that by focusing on the women section of tennis to answer this.

Around 19 years ago, Freulien Steffi Graf of Germany was having a most dominant life at the top of the tennis world. She had just won the Golden Slam in 1988 and 1989 was a cakewalk except for a blemish at Roland Garros against Spanish upstart Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. The dominance of Graf was built on the twin pedestals of exuberant finesse and power backed by precision, as she sliced her backhands and boomed her forehand cross-courts to simply demolish every competent opponent of her time, from Gabriela Sabatini to an ageing Navratilova and others.

Enter circa 1990 though and the irresistible force of Graf met up with immovable object of the Grunting Slav, Monica Seles. Seles' game was completely a contrast to Graf's. If Graf with her bangles and blond hair, pranced around on the tennis field as a gazelle, combining the prose of her forehand with the poetry of her backhand; Seles grunted and galloped her way across the court, relying on an ugly but powerful and effective double-handed play. Suddenly the wins for Graf were drying up. And soon, so was her dominance challenged, by Seles' complete antithesis of a game. And just about the time Graf was about to crumble in the face of Seles' relentless onslaught, a deranged fan (Gunther Parche) of hers dug in a dagger on Seles' works, injuring her enough to stop her on the tracks to great-dom.

Fate took a twist and Graf retained her dominance, settling down after 1992 to become one of the best ever. Seles had to get out of injury and out of psychiatric care, trudge onto court, but with the stabbing, she was never her old self.

Rafael Nadal's game is very much like Seles as much as Graf's was like Federer's. His reliance on grit, muscle, power and a never-give-up during a baseline rally has much in common with Monica Seles. Other players in the world have their own unique strengths; Andy Roddick with his booming serve and rasping forehand, Djokovic, who is a middle class Nadal; and others. None of them have been good enough to overcome the finesse laden excellence of Roger Federer. Much like, none of the rest during Graf's time being able to overcome her, before Seles came in, resisted her and was herself stopped by a Gunther Parche aided murderous and unsolicited assist for Graf.

Roger Federer dominated tennis like never before in the earlier half of the 2000s. He laid an easy claim over the tag of best ever and was poised to take that title to the bank. The biggest challenge he received though, was from a marauder from Mallorca, produced as if from an assembly line of clay courters from the hot fields of Spain. The world expected the inevitable conquering of the clay in Roland Garros by Federer; but that was not to be. Instead, the nephew of Miguel Angel Nadal adapted his game to all surfaces, much like what Seles did and even went on to win in his alien environment on grass in Wimbledon. Nadal laid out a layer of friction on the pathway to "forever great" for Federer; and steadily this layer of friction turned from a hurdle to a formidable obstacle, enough to wear Federer out, as was seen in the Australian Open finals. The mental fatigue that Federer has had to endure trying to overcome this obstacle, wore out his inner calmness to the extent that he was engulfed in a bucket load of tears at the presentation ceremony of the Australian Open; much like Batman losing his cool at the continuing and festering irritability of the persistent Joker.

The immovable object has finally got the better of the irresistible force. Men's Lawn Tennis of the 2000s has given an answer to this fictitious physics question. Can Federer re-invent and resurrect himself to once again commence the battle for overcoming Nadal at the Roland Garros. One certainly hopes so; for Federer is pretty much the "White Knight" of lawn tennis.

1 comment:

Yayaver said...

The article is superb and I like the comparison part of Nadal-Federer with Batman-Joker rivalry.The first line set the mood of the article. Adding you in my list;