Rafael Nadal d. Tomas Berdych (6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 6-3)
Well, that was an adventure.
First, I struggled to find enough free hours to watch Rafa-style slam tennis. Nadal does present a fan with scheduling issues—nonetheless my inner-artsy-type loves that his fiery matches need an extra-long time in the kiln. Rafael Nadal has refined the art of delayed gratification. Second, I made the mistake of watching the first set-and-a-half of the Roger Federer/Juan Martin del Potro quarterfinal beforehand. Not that I wasn’t impressed, of course. Roger looks like he’s bringing Mary Poppins’ carpet-bag-of-tricks to all his matches so far; he’s been practically perfect in every way.
When I watched Novak Djokovic defeat Lleyton Hewitt on Monday, I suspected that Novak had sucked all the tennis-aura out of the Australian atmosphere and into his shiny-black-clad self. But watching Federer handle del Potro’s furious forehand and serve tennis balls like he was born to the motion, I realized that there’s still plenty of magic-dust clinging to to Roger’s aura too. If I squinted hard, I could almost see it, shimmering on Fed’s forelock as he shook off the memory of an error made, or a point lost. Sometimes when Roger does his post-point head toss, he looks like he’s in denial, as if he’s attempting to reject the truth of imminent failure. But other times, yesterday being one of those times, the head-toss looks supremely confident. Maybe there’s a subtle lift in the tilt of his chin, or perhaps it’s because his shoulders are squared with self-assurance, but whatever the difference, when Roger’s winning, the head toss looks like perfect mental technique—as if he’s playing the high-stakes sport with complete calm and without the burden of “memory and desire.”
I couldn't help but question: Even if Rafa should make his way through Tomas, he would surely smack his racquet into the hard wall of perfection that is Roger Federer, right? Thus I arrived to my spectatorship of Rafael Nadal’s quarterfinal entirely without “the calm,” and overburdened with 2011 memories and desires. What, I thought to myself, was the guarantee that Rafa would be able to beat Tomas anyway? Why had I felt so certain of his chances? After all, Tomas is serving so well. It's a night match and Rafa’s ball would probably only bounce high enough to land in Berd’s wheelhouse of punishment. Rafa will be anxious and superstitious about being injured in a third straight quarterfinal down under. He won’t care whether or not he wins, because Rafa only wanted to defend his quarterfinal points before heading back to Mallorca anyway… and so on. Thus did I fabricate painful truths and forecast tennis-doom with startling aplomb.
My anxiety was not lessened by the programming folks at ESPN. I’d DVR-ed the match, which actually took place in the middle of the California night. (Incidentally, one no longer “records” television shows, right? One does something to them involving “DVR.” But is DVR already a verb, or must it be “verberized,” like so many other words in American English? We are a people of action, people!) When I turned on the television mid-day on Tuesday (Wednesday in Australia) with the intention of watching the match from the beginning—it was already on. Eek. ESPN must have been showing a replay.
Immediately, I squinted my eyes shut, the same way Nadal does when he misses a forehand he went for and should have nailed. But it wasn’t fast enough.There on the screen was a slo-mo, fist-pumping Rafa. And there, on the giant ESPN scoreboard (was it always so big?) were many sets worth of numbers. At least six or seven it seemed. Or possibly eight. So. Not a straight sets victory... but not a straight sets loss either. I couldn’t help but try to make sense of the numbers I’d avoided seeing clearly just seconds ago. Was it four sets? Or five? Was Rafa down 1-2 in the fifth? Or up 2-1 in the fourth?
As I struggled, like a mole on a sunny day, to find the play button without sharpening my focus enough to make the score line fully legible, I hummed. Loudly. But not even an off-key rendition of The Cure’s Friday I’m in Love is capable of drowning out the enthusiasm of Brad Gilbert, the tennis’s most jovial (and detail-oriented) commentator. (At the start of the Fed/DelPo match Brad cheerfully told us, without a hint of tongue-in-cheek, that the temperature would drop 10 degrees in the next 37 minutes. How does he know these things?) As Rafael Nadal’s bicep contracted slowly, very slowly—the slo-mo is off the charts this year— signaling the champion’s determination to win (or not to lose, I couldn’t be sure!), BG compared Rafael Nadal to the basketball star, Kobe Bryant. I hummed louder. But I also wondered, why is he making that comparison? Is it because Kobe has a reputation for being a cold-blooded assassin? A clutch player? Or is it because he tasted bitter failure just when everyone expected the most success? But before I found out, I found the play button. With a sigh that was equal parts relief and anxiety, we were back at the beginning.
A few hours later I would come to understand that Rafa was up two sets to one, and two games to one, when Brad Gilbert said that Rafa and Kobe make similar “sneer faces.” But I had to get through two tie-breaks, a barrelful of disastrous line calls (one of which could be credited with costing Rafa the first breaker), handfuls of tension—and then some— before I found out that the Kobe comparison was entirely superficial. But by then it was too late, I'd already developed my “Nada Berd Kobe Hypothesis.”
All through the first two sets I used the Kobe reference as an emotional salve. Brad must have been making a reference to Kobe on account of the basketball star’s reputation as a closer, a cold-blooded assassin, a ruthless winner… but even as I quieted my nerves with the Kobe-comparison, I was sure it didn’t fit. Aside from Nadal’s wonderful third set adjustment to his return position, the mid-match discovery of his killer-forehand, his well-timed serve & volley #sneakattacks, and the overall re-emergence of scintillating tennis and “the calm,” there was something else about Rafa’s game that I was very happy to see. Call it positive energy, passion or bounce. Call it happiness, love or fistpumping-like-you-mean-it. Nadal called it called it “character.” He said that his on-court mind-set was “perfect”—and it showed. In the latter parts of 2011, and some of the earlier parts as well, Nadal seemed to be trying to convince himself of his own passion. Not so yesterday. It came naturally, and arrived just when he needed it.
Following up on my highly sophisticated yet hardly serious, Lope Nada Theorem, the “Nada Berd Kobe Hypothesis” postulates that when Rafael Nadal brings his best “character” to the court, his tennis is more than clutch, it’s heartwarming—for us, and for him.
Kobe and Tomas both have a chill demeanor that is admirable in its focused energy, but also gives their sporting attitude a mercurial coolness. Does Kobe fight for his team, or for his own glory? Tomas has massive talent and clearly wants to win, but pays little attention to whether he makes friends or enemies of his audience in the process (Gael being Berdych’s natural opposite in this tendency). As he closed out his quarterfinal victory, Rafa started to “feel the ball” wonderfully well, but he also seemed to feel the fullness of his own “character.” If I’m judging the Roger/Rafa semifinal on the tennis alone, I’d still give the edge to the practically perfect Roger Federer. But if I invoke the basic premise of the Nada Berd Kobe Hypothesis, Rafa has a good chance of countering perfect tennis with “perfect character” —and also some high, heavy forehands to Roger’s one-handed backhand.
Post Script: Speaking of “character,” as I type (way past my bedtime here, folks) David Ferrer is showing Novak Djokvic the full Chili Pepper Effect. He's down a set, but so far he's made Novak run more than Dean Karnazes on a Sunday morning. Respect. (Fine, Respect to both.) It's great stuff. To quote Darren Cahill, “it's like tennis on skates.”
Photos: Getty; AP; AP
 This quotation is taken from the work of WR Bion (1897-1979), a brilliant and strange psychoanalyst, who wrote creatively and with remarkable insight into the workings of “groups.” I’m mentioning him here because there was some discussion in the comments about the way tennis fans “hold” different aspects of a player’s experience in the process of identifying with their favorite.
Bion’s theory is drawn, in part, from his experience as a Tank Commander in WWI, so he was well-versed in the raw, embattled and primitive aspects of the psyche. Among his many contributions is a concept he called “valency,” which changed the way psychoanalysis conceives of group dynamics. He believed that a person was "valent", or susceptible to a particular type of experience in groups and that a person is unconsciously drawn to playing that particular role in a group time and time again—perhaps in an effort to understand, on an experiential level, a particular past trauma or unmetabolized piece of personal history. (For example, Tomas Berdych appears to be drawn to attracting the ire of “the group.” This experience is clearly unpleasant for him, yet he repeats it, why?) Anyway, Bion is a fascinating, if not an easy-to-understand read for those of you interested in the psychology of group experience. For those of you who are interested, but not perhaps into heavy theory, I’ll try to relate Bion to things-tennis at some point in the future—but I have to admit, writers far more experienced than I have tried, and failed, to make Wilfred Bion fit for general consumption.