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Storm Fronts Hatching at Wimbledon: Djokovic Defeats Nadal

July 3, 2011


So much of who a tennis player is can be observed in how they wait. As an audience we tend to focus on the power of the forehand, the grace of the volleys, and the dizziness of back and forth flight--you know, the whirlwind of the moment--that periods of incubation between each serve slip from our memories, like a yolky membrane running through our fingertips. But, it is in these moments that a player's identity is hatched and nurtured, that their personality grows warm enough to survive and endure.


Despite coming in second today at Wimbledon and getting outplayed in four fairly quick sets, an everlasting image of Rafael Nadal was cemented in my head, and it had nothing to do with how hard he hits the ball or how much ground he can cover or even that his twenty match win streak is now a broken wing on the green lawns of London: Rafa waits for his opponent's serve, always, like a stupefied baby learning to walk.

The easy, and stereotypical, metaphor to make would be that the counter step Nadal takes just before his opponent serves, where he swings his right leg in front of his left, is the equivalent of the tango or a gesture made by matadors, but that's not it at all; and to say so would be to boil Nadal down into a Spanish figurehead, when tennis is truly an international sport: the current top ten features players from eight different nations. That, and the move is much clumsier than any of those stereotypes. No, Rafa waits for a serve like a baby on the cusp of mobility and the independence that is soon to follow an individual's first steps.

The paradox presented by Nadal's naive stumbling is that it still exists amidst six years of striding with confidence. So, how does the winner of ten grand slams still manage to present himself as being on the verge, like an infant inside of a bar? Part of it is his energy--he almost always plays harder than any of his opponents. Today, during the second set, when Djokovic won 6-1 was one of the first times I thought another player looked hungrier than Nadal. There was also another play later in the match when Nadal chased down a lob shot and carelessly shot it back through his legs on a prayer when he still could have managed an actual tennis shot. Usually, his energy makes him appear more youthful than even his younger counterparts. But today Nadal was made youthful by his timidity and not his unabashed enthusiasm, like a hatchling that is scared of the light pouring in from a new day.


During the Wimbledon final, Nadal appeared youthful despite his atypical effort, which saw him look sluggish compared to Djokovic in all but the third set, and the fact that he was the elder of the two players.  Following his first loss in a Grand Slam final since 2007, he still managed to look like a man full of potential, rather than the diminished old man that the role of the former champion usually plays at these ceremonious exchanges in dominance.

Perhaps this event occurred in this manner because Rafa's baby face caused him to watch Djokovic's acceptance speech (said with a mouthful of grass) like a toddler staring at an upside down book, his brow furrowing in concentration, his lips quivering at the words he doesn't understand; but a child stares at a book because they have seen adults stare at those same pages and tell beautiful stories of magical places, hoping that one day their efforts will render the same effects. The parent models a process that will be both the fruition of one's natural maturation and the hard work that goes into the application of one's intellect, and the child mimics it, almost always resulting in success and stimulation. But for the first time in his career, the certainty of Nadal's potential has been called into serious question, and for once, the question changed from when would he get it to if he would ever get it again.

The former question was last asked of Rafael Nadal in 2008. He was coming off his fourth victory at the French Open--his third over Roger Federer-- but, still, he had yet to defeat Federer on grass. They were two rivals, each with a habitat all his own, and the question was when would age allow Nadal to annex Federer's grassy kingdom; and the answer came in 2008 when Nadal beat Federer in one of the greatest matches ever played.

Prior to 2008, Nadal's whole career was an awkward learning of how to walk on a surface other than clay, but after 2008, with the exception of injury, he has done nothing but sprint through Grand Slam finals, like a man in midst of his prime; and in the fury of all that forward movement, perhaps Roger Federer was modeling the future for Rafael Nadal, demonstrating the details of aging and having to let go--our parents teach us so much more than how to live; they teach us how to die as well. And while Federer was teaching, Nadal was soaring, and Novak Djokovic was incubating, his orange beak just breaking through the white shell that separates the future from the present. Nothing is singular; plots happen simultaneously; acts in a storm--only Djokovic usurping Nadal isn't quite a carbon copy of Nadal's grass court coup that toppled Federer.



Djokovic has hatched, and we'll soon learn whether Nadal's awkward counter is the end of something or merely a slight hesitation before beginning a new--the pause between the lightning and the thunder--; after all, twenty-five is much too young to already be so old, which makes the birth of this rivalry all the more compelling, because age may have nothing to do with it.

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