Of course there must be a slew of Spanish juniors who have been incredibly inspired by the accomplishments of Rafael Nadal. You have only to look at the audience of any clay tournament to see the scores of kids gleefully waiting for Rafa’s scribble on their oversized tennis balls. But my question (and the point of this entry) is this: Will these children – or more importantly their parents or their coaches – really want them to grow up and play tennis just like Rafa?
Outside of Spain and perhaps a couple of the Spanish-speaking countries in South America, I am not convinced that there are a whole lot of tiny tots who will be encouraged to grow up to play tennis just like Rafa. Certainly not in Argentina where efficiency has long led to a shortening of the service motion. Who wants to play like Rafa when Del Potro will do?
The problem of course is not with the effectiveness of Rafa’s style of playing, but with the tremendous amount of effort it requires. Coaches may encourage their students to copy Rafa’s intensity and his fighting spirit. But not his style of playing tennis.
I’ve lost count of how many times I have heard people say that there is no way Rafa can keep this up, that his style of play is just too taxing on the body, that injury and sheer wear and tear are just inevitable. With this undertone of negativism, few juniors will be encouraged to play his kind of game – despite how impressive his results have been.
For the record, I do not think that Rafa's being a lefty is relevant to this discourse. Johnny Mac was a lefty who inspired scores of right-dominant American juniors to play tennis. The same can be said for the lefty Martina Navratilova who inspired girls worldwide, and even had babies named after her.
Similarly I believe that not only has Roger Federer inspired countless juniors, but many coaches still require that their students look at his videotapes for guidance on how to construct points intelligently and execute game plans with efficiency. I believe that Federer was and will be the role model for tennis form that Rafael Nadal never will be – despite how great they both are as players. But I am fast wondering if even the great Federer is about to be eclipsed by Novak Djokovic – if he hasn’t been already.
Over the past weekend, all of the conversation around the clubhouse was about the pending match between Rafa and Nole. You’d swear Roger never went to Madrid, never won a set off Rafa. Poor Federer seems fast to be becoming a footnote in the current tennis conversation. Boyfriend had better win a major or a Slam soon if he wants this to change. But I digress.
Back to the clubhouse where my friends seemed equally divided. Some felt that Nole was about to get his comeuppance in Madrid; they swore up and down that Rafa was never going to lose to his latest rival on clay, of all surfaces. Others (like me) felt that all this persistent chatter about Rafa not being able to keep this up must mean something. Why else would people keep saying it?
Perhaps I also felt a need to defend the limb I had gone out on recently in declaration of Djokovic’s transition from good to great. Surely a truly great player would find a way to beat Rafa on his best surface, in his own country, in front of his former mentor, Carlos Moya, not to mention his estranged parents and Uncle Toni?
Look I don’t mean to discount Rafa in any way. But you must concede that the string of tournaments that Djokovic has won this year is nothing short of impressive: Australian Open, Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami, Belgrade, and now Madrid. And yes, I admit that if there is anyone who could erase all of this, surely his name must be Rafael Nadal?
But if I was coaching students to play tennis, I would rather them copy the streamlined efficiency of Djokovic’s current game than Rafa’s tortured effort. I would encourage my students to be inspired by Nole’s instinctive intelligence, not to mention his whipping backhand, strategic planning, and keen anticipation. Most of all I would ask my students to copy Nole’s ability to remain calm and centered in the midst of screaming and chaos.