Apologies for my silence. I have been busy house-hunting, and have been deeply disappointed to discover that my choices are essentially reduced to a bright and shiny cookie-cutter Spec house, or an over-priced aging beauty. But as in all things tennis, my heart tends to have a soft spot for the Old Farts, and one of these days, soon, I hope to be moving into one.
What I did not expect was to find myself wondering if Rafa Nadal may be on the verge of becoming an Old Fart. Not in age of course. Rafa is only 25 and 25 is a baby in the world of tennis. Well maybe not a baby. Perhaps more like an adolescent. Still with many more years before he joins the Old Farts on the Old Fart tour. (And yes there is a glimmer of a new Dampass entry forming in my mind – I’ve just been too busy to give it proper attention).
I started thinking about Rafa’s possible Old Fartery over this past weekend when it became crystal clear that his game has lost its freshness. When Rafa first came on the scene, his game seemed impenetrable. (Of course I was one of many who predicted that it was just a matter of time before his opponents figured out a way to get past his weapons.)
I like war analogies and I think of the changes in tennis as no different from the way the nature of combat has changed. The days of face-to-face or hand-to-hand combat are essentially over. Now we live in the era of IEDs, and defense strategies now must include using technology to disarm or survive these explosives.
For a while Rafa’s game was like an unexpected IED. He exploded on the scene and repeatedly beat the crap out of Federer who, in all fairness, seemed to be the only player with guts enough to even try to beat Nadal. And he did, many times, but particularly in shorter forays. Once the battle extended to best of five, Rafa seemed to have a distinct advantage. Like a confident gladiator, Rafa would repeatedly strike deathly blows in the chinks of the Federer armor. Heck, he even made him cry.
And then came Djokovic. Unlike Federer, Djokovic’s double-handed backhand proved to be the right weapon to survive the onslaught of Rafa’s vicious forehand attacks. And now, looking at the match this past weekend against Murray, it seemed clear to me that Rafael Nadal has been detonated.
At every single moment, Murray knew exactly what Nadal was going to do. He knew to expect the lethal topspin forehands. He knew that the backhand was consistent but not particularly potent except when he aimed for deep in the crosscourt pocket. He knew that when Rafa was in a hole, he would either serve flat down the T or deep and hard into the body. It was clear that Murray was not only prepared, but that had he not gotten off to a slow start, he would have won that match in straights.
This is not to say that it is in any way easy to beat Nadal. Or that anyone outside of the top tier have a chance in hell of doing so. But inside the top echelons of the sport, Rafa’s game seems to have been becoming increasingly defused. And the cost of trying to defend against the onslaught has been costly and painful.
Rafa’s game has become surprisingly predictable. His combinations have lost their novelty. Everyone knows what he is going to do. He’s on the verge of becoming a five-trick pony. He may also be playing too much tennis in a desperate attempt first to hold on to, and then to regain the #1 spot. In other words, he’s at risk of becoming an Old Fart well before he’s due.
But perhaps I am being unfair to Rafa by throwing him in with the Old Farts. Perhaps, like my ideal house, he belongs to a category in between – a sweetheart of a new house designed and built along the lines of an aging beauty. (Alas I am not a professional tennis player so I cannot afford this option.) Rafa is now old enough that he can benefit from his eons of experience, and young enough to still be able flip tennis on its head. I hope he relishes the challenge.