I’ve written a lot of late about Roger’s problems facing Nadal. When he lost to Djokovic at the US Open I blamed it on the fact that he sub-consciously feared losing to Nadal in yet another slam final. So I wanted to make a post that looked at the flip side of the coin. That doesn’t mean I have changed my mind, but it’s always good to look at other viewpoints in order to keep an open mind. Sometimes you can project your own feelings onto someone, and I don’t want to be guilty of that. For example, the Australian Open of 2009 was the lowest point for me as a Fedfanatic. It was literally traumatic. Roger had done well to play himself into form after having a dip in form due to mononucleosis. He won the US Open in 2008 and I had high hopes for him at the Australian Open in 2009. The 2008 Wimbledon loss to Nadal was also still fresh in the memory.
So when he ended up facing Nadal in the final it was the ideal opportunity to set a few things right. And what is more is that Nadal had played a marathon against Verdasco in the second semi, which meant he had one day of rest less than Roger. Everything was in Roger’s favor. Surely there is no way he is not getting revenge here. Yet somehow he let Nadal off the hook. In the third set he had chances to really put it beyond Nadal. Yet he lacked the killer instinct to really finish his opponent off, and of course that is fatal against Nadal. He smelled his opponent’s lack of finishing power like a predator and went in for the kill. If Roger just seized the moment in that third set and won it, Nadal would have given up the ghost. He was physically really battling at this point, and going down two sets to one would have been too much.
All things considered, this was an extremely disappointing loss for me. And apparently it was for Roger too, because he was an emotional mess during the prize giving ceremony. But maybe that was just his way of dealing with it. Maybe he is the kind of person who lives very much in the present and immediately discharges his emotions when called for. If that is the case then there will be no emotional residue left over from the past and the prospect of facing Nadal again would not be a problem for him in the least. But somehow I could never quite buy into this theory. I think Roger is the kind of guy who has a great amount of self-belief. He has to have great self-belief to achieve what he has achieved. To be that good you almost have to have a kind of unrealistic self-belief. It is that feeling that you are basically invincible.
And given how dominant Roger was in his prime, he couldn’t help but have this feeling of invincibility. But this feeling of invincibility is dangerous, because no tennis player is ever invincible. So when Nadal came along and showed that Roger wasn’t invincible, he had to deny those feelings. This is why I believe he never came to terms fully with what Nadal did to him. He was a tennis god, and along came a fearless Spaniard who hurt him in unimaginable ways. I don’t think Roger ever really came to terms with that loss in Australia, because whenever he was asked about that match, he responded that people forget how well Nadal played. That is fair enough. There is no doubt Nadal played amazing tennis. But why did I never hear him take some personal responsibility? There is no doubt that if he had more killer instinct that he would have won the third set and the match.
So for me this borders on denial. Another reason I believe this to be true is how he performed after that loss. It was a terrible stretch of form after that loss, until he finally got it together in Madrid. If it was just a question of crying and getting it out of his system, then he would not have struggled that much after Australia. Clearly there was something deeply bothering him. But of course in Madrid he defeated Nadal, after which I thought he exorcised his demons. But Nadal was going through some personal problems with his parents’ divorce there himself, which would have made him mentally fragile. And after all it was not a grand slam final. It was a satisfying win, but it wasn’t enough to offset at least two very tough grand slam final losses to Nadal. Roger then went on to win the French Open where Nadal was upset early, and Wimbledon where Nadal didn’t play.
He also made the final of the US Open after Nadal was beaten by Del Potro in the first semi-final. This year he won in Australia after Rafa was upset by Murray. It was a satisfying win after what happened the previous year, but again did nothing to relieve the hold Nadal had over him. In Madrid Roger and Nadal would square off exactly a year later after the Madrid final of the previous year, only the second meeting since that match in Australia. And to this day they have only met twice since that match in Australia. That is strange in itself, given how often they met before AO ’09. The only place they met was on clay, which is Nadal’s favorite surface and therefor no pressure on Roger to win. It is like Roger is trying to avoid Nadal all the time. When he gets asked about meeting Nadal, he says that they have met enough in the past and they are ‘tired’ of each other.
I don’t think Nadal feels that way. I think he would love more meetings with Roger. When Roger was asked after his loss to Djokovic whether he would have liked to face Nadal in the final, he said yes, but that losing to him would not have been nice either. That is pretty much a dead giveaway right there. He realizes he could have lost, even though he has the far superior record at the US Open and it is the best surface for him to beat Nadal on in slams. The pre-AO’09 Roger would not have even considered the possibility of losing to Nadal at the US Open. So what about the other point of view? The other point of view says that he lost to Nadal in AO’09 and then exorcised those demons in Madrid, even though Nadal erased that loss the next year in Madrid. After that he became the dominant player once more and Nadal’s injuries and drop in form has nothing to do with it.
The fact that they have met on so few occasions since then is just random coincidence, and the fact that Roger lost to Djokovic at the US Open was just a continuation of his struggles since Australia, even though he was the most in form player going into his favorite slam. The fact that he said he could lose to Nadal in the final was just him being realistic, even though he used to be a supremely confident tennis player. In this view Nadal have no kind of mental hold on Roger. I think most of you would agree with me that this argument is flawed. We know Roger is a real person with real feelings, otherwise I might have bought into this theory myself. It comes back to why we like Roger. He is not just some machine. He is an artist as someone put it so well in a comment on my last post, and artists are creative.
To create a certain amount of uncertainty is necessary. I think Nadal comes from a place of fear and thrives on certainty. All the compulsive habits he has on court points to the fact that he needs certainty to be comfortable. Roger comes from a place of love, and therefor he is not afraid of uncertainty. He thrives on it, because it allows him to be creative. Nadal is pretty much just a machine who plays with brute force. You know exactly what you’re going to get from him, which is an incredible mental and physical effort. With Roger you never quite know what you’re going to get, which makes it interesting to watch. There if nothing artistic and creative about what Nadal does. It is all so utterly predictable. In fact it doesn’t even take much raw tennis talent. What makes him so good is mental and physical, two things which is a part of almost every sport.
He doesn’t have much court craft, but rather relies on brute mental and physical force to better his opponents. Roger’s effortless talent and jaw-dropping shot-making ability is really what fascinates us. Sure Nadal can come up with an incredible passing shot on the run, but we all know it comes right down to physical strength and belief. Tennis talent has very little to do with it, relatively speaking. Nadal doesn’t have the genius factor, not in the purely tennis department anyway. So the answer to my question is yes, Nadal does ‘own’ Roger in the mental department to a certain extent. But so what? It had to be that way or else Roger would be a machine and we wouldn’t like him. We wouldn’t identify with him on a personal level. If he was a machine and was never bothered by Nadal, he would be on 20+ slams now and Nadal wouldn’t have a prayer of ever catching him, and nor would anyone else.
But it would have been empty. Winning and being the best by itself means nothing. The only meaning it has is given to it by a human being. Machines have no being, and therefor no meaning. There is a spiritual connection here. Do you think the universe is an dead and devoid of meaning, or do you think it is conscious and infused with meaning? This is pretty much what being a Fedfanatic is about for me. In Roger I see limitless possibilities and meaning in the way he plays and who he is. It is more than just liking a certain tennis player. It is almost a way of life and being his fan can certainly be classified as a spiritual experience.