The world can sometimes seem irritatingly divided into two groups: the overwhelmingly hormonal, and the irritatingly pedantic. Most of us sit somewhere in the middle. In so far as I fit into any of the two, it would be the latter.
I’m a stickler for form, procedure and detail. I don’t say that with any type of pride – but then I’m not ashamed of it either.
So when most were busy (rightfully) basking in the dizzying, rarefied heights of the last set of the Miami mens final, I was having, what most would think of as, an utterly inconsequential soliloquy on why the preceding two sets couldn’t have been even half as good.
Leaving aside the question of my own idiosyncrasies (some of which are best kept to myself), let us just remind ourselves of what was at stake – because, quite honestly, some of us have simply forgotten.
The world’s top two players (indeed, two of the best ever) contesting the final of what some call the “fifth Slam”. One of them in GOAT contention, who only missed out on the calendar Slam last year by a mere two matches and a physical complaint. The other, the best player on the planet right now, winner of the last Slam, winner of the last 26 matches he’s played.
Call me a stickler, call me a pedant, call me a feckless nutter if you must – but I don’t think I was out of line in demanding something a little more, nor in calling out the first two sets, both of which I felt fell far short of what these two were capable of.
OF COURSE THE WIND WAS A FACTOR.
Question: Have these two not played (well) in wind before? You’d think not given some of the early reactions to the ‘quality’ of the first set.
Isn’t that precisely the kind of impediment they’re supposedly uniquely equipped to overcome? Who, if not the worlds top two players? Who, indeed?
I’m not sure I accept some of the more generous estimates of the role of the wind, but even if we concede the wind rendered conditions largely unplayable, are we to believe all of that suddenly disappeared in the last set? It didn’t.
The somewhat inconvenient answer is that neither Nole nor Rafa were up to scratch. Not initially. Sorry, but there it is. Nole, having not been broken the entire week, was duly broken in his opening game and (third set aside) was as erratic thereafter as he’s been since before his run began. Rafa, listless, lifeless and uncharacteristically restrained (the odd winner aside) had nothing on any of his balls.
Nole picked things up marginally in set two. Rafa, remained largely comatose. All of which is to say, Nole won that 2nd set by simply not letting Rafa get away with the criminal depravity of set one. Nothing more, nothing less. Glad that he did so, but hardly the stuff of epics. Or, for that matter, “the most compelling rivalry in mens tennis”.
Set three was what it was – and what it was, was simply spellbinding. But before we all get too carried away consider this: when these two played in Madrid 2009, they produced this quality over the entire three sets. Worth remembering too that neither were the player they are today.
I realise I’m being a pain, I just don’t believe in letting two of the best players ever get away with junk.
Leaving all that aside, Nole’s run is, of course, something quite special. Its not just the IW/Miami double (Fed’s achieved that twice), it’s not even Oz followed by the Miami double (Fed achieved that too) – its actually DC, followed by Oz, followed by the IW/Miami double – and more importantly, going through some of history’s best players to do this.
In the final set tie break (a set that most expected Rafa to win on fight alone, now that he’d raised his game), Nole did something that I’ve only ever seen one other player (guess who) do when Rafa’s been injury free: run Rafa ragged to a degree that left him winded and bent over double in between subsequent points. He would never recover.
Perhaps this wouldn’t have been possible had Rafa played a more tight first couple of sets. That really is neither here nor there. No one, not even Rafa, is capable of playing every set of every match at 99.99%. Its seems a very strange condition to place on him – and worse, to then blame ‘form’ or ‘injury’ when he’s fails to meet that impossibly high grade. Let us, also, please not forget how poorly Nole played set one – coz I sure as hell haven’t.
The streak will come to an end of course – they always do. I’d argue, in any case, that he seemed to have lost his utterly carnal edge in the last few matches he played in Miami. The bigger question, of course, is what’ll remain in place once he does re-enter earth’s atmosphere. If he’s grown as much as I think he has, we won’t be seeing very much of the self-perpetuating despondency that marred his previous lows during late 2008 and 2009.
One final point about Rafa: ever since the year began, he’s been susceptible to these fleeting, utterly inexplicable, emotionally crippling lapses in concentration.
They’d be more understandable if they lasted for most of a match – but they tend to wreak their havoc in just a single set or part of a set (see IW final, Miami final or Miami QF vs Berd), and as far as I can tell, don’t proceed from any injury.
What’s perhaps more troubling is his own reaction to it. He’s quickly reduced to a panic-stricken, un-Rafa-like shell, which is something we’ve only seen when he’s badly injured.
How this affects him going into the clay court season remains to be seen – personally, I think Nole’s playing well enough to score his first win over Rafa on clay this year anyway.