Friday, June 29, 2007
Updated: June 30, 11:07 AM ET
Let's talk about Rafa
OK, this is the peak of the grass-court season, and we're not supposed to be thinking or talking about Rafael Nadal, who owns the European spring, right? After all, he's just about all we've discussed for the past three months, and this is Wimbledon time -- Roger Federer time.
Rafa Fatigue is a real phenomena, no doubt about it. But it's a dangerous one, especially for diehard Federer fans who dismissed Nadal's run to the Wimbledon final last year as some sort of fluke, facilitated by an easy draw. For all those doubters, I have just two words: Bjorn Borg.
You'll remember that Borg dominated the French Open, much like Nadal now dominates that event. But you also know that Borg dominated Wimbledon (he won the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back on three occasions, and he culled five Wimbledon titles in all). He did so with precisely the same gifts Nadal has: awesome concentration and fighting spirit, a fidelity to his game despite the presumed disadvantages of having to play it on grass, outstanding athleticism (needed for chasing down balls and adapting to bad bounces) and all-around solidity off the ground. The only thing Borg had that Nadal lacks is a great serve.
Remember, very few people win baseline struggles with Nadal on any surface, while Borg had to contend with attacking players at Wimbledon -- they were, in fact, the only guys who beat him there once Borg got dialed-in on grass. But back in the day, the grass was faster and so were the balls (they changed after a few of those mid-1990s' rock fights between Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic), and today almost all the players are baseliners. The bottom line is that it's never been easier for a baseliner to win Wimbledon that it is today. Advantage to Nadal.
The real issue with Nadal is whether he wants to win Wimbledon. A legion of great clay-court players failed to make winning Wimbledon a priority, but Nadal is a different breed of cat. The bad news for Federer and company is that Nadal is like an Indian war pony when it comes to an appetite for grass. (Can't you picture him astride one?) He's dedicated, determined and he has a great attitude. They asked him the other day about the court speed and his reply was basically: "Baloney. I've played here for four years and it's always been the same. Who cares?"
This guy isn't worried about the court, one way or another, or about the mind games. When asked what tactics he might adopt against his next opponent, a raw-boned, big-serving Swede, Robin Soderling, he replied: "Tactics? Not much tactics. Just try the best in every match, no? The tactics is try to return the ball the first time and, after, try to play more aggressive as you can, no?"
That "tactic" will take Nadal far; perhaps all the way to the title.