Sunday, June 27, 2010

Giant-Slaying: The Final Frontier

Rafael Nadal is one of the greatest tennis players ever because of his relentless fighting spirit. It doesn’t matter who is on the other side of the net - whether it’s one of his good pals from the Spanish Armada, or an opponent from a country whose name he can barely pronounce - Rafa aims always to win. Another opponent, when playing one of his friends, might let him off the hook, might try not to make him look bad, might allow him to win a game or two instead of completely humiliating him. True giants however, don’t allow their emotions to dictate the score.

I remember some years ago an early round match at the 2008 Australian Open between Roger Federer and the now retired Frenchman, Fabrice Santoro. I can’t prove this of course, but it seemed to me and every commentator as if Santoro was practically begging Federer not to feed him a bagel in the third set. At the changeover Santoro could be observed making his case at the net to Federer. But Federer showed no mercy - he destroyed Santoro 6-1, 6-2, 6-0. True giants show no mercy. And ironically, it is this very quality that constitutes the second-to-last step in my list of ingredients in the TennisChick recipe for giant-slaying.

2.  Show no mercy/Don’t fear success
Would-be slayers would do well to copy Nadal’s relentless, never-say-die attitude, as well as Federer's mercilessness. Giant-slayers must possess Rafa’s ability to keep on fighting, along with Federer's tendency to show no mercy when he gains the upper-hand. Having lit the fire in their belly, would-be giant-slayers must also have the cojones to move in for the kill. But this is harder to do than you would imagine. And I have a few ideas why.

There are few experiences more annoying than watching a tennis player play out of his or her mind, push their opponent to the absolute limit, have her or him against the rope, neck bare, just waiting for that final lethal blow - only to back off and let the other off the hook. Think Falla against Federer at Wimbledon a few days ago. Think Petzschner against Nadal just yesterday. It’s like these pretenders couldn’t believe that they were up two sets to none against opponents who are both larger than life. So they backed off.

True giant-slayers have the guts to move in for the kill. True giant-slayers wouldn’t be caught dead playing a match that lasts three days and eleven hours. Folks who don’t know tennis, or only watch it at Wimbledon, would have found the Isner-Mahut storyline fascinating. Me I found it embarrassing. Two pipsqueaks dragging out a pointless contest that left them both too beat to stand two days later. What was the point? True giant-slayers step up and move in for the kill. And I believe that this is because they have absolutely no fear of success.

One of the biggest mistakes that people make is mislabeling the fear of success as a fear of failure. Of course the fear of failure is a very real phenomenon. It can make some people so risk-aversive that they never jump into the pool. But I believe that it is the fear of success that drives some players to back away from closing out an unexpected big win.

Trust me when I tell you that I now regret screaming myself hoarse in support of Isner when he beat Roddick at the US Open last year. I thought I was watching a giant-slayer in the making. In hindsight I was wrong. Isner doesn’t have the guts. He is a baseline-loving pipsqueak willing to battle against another pipsqueak for a pointless place in history.

I am more into giant-slaying, watching to see who has the guts to step up and declare herself the next big thing in tennis. A changing of the guard is inevitable in any sport. As much as I adore Serena, I already accept that her days on top are numbered and that she will be felled one of these days by a would-be slayer. It’s just a matter of time. And this brings me to the final step in my list of suggestions for giant-slaying. Watch your back, slayer.

1.  Watch your back
Why? Because you are now the giant. You’ve bested the giant and usurped her place on the throne. So now they’re gunning for you. They’ve studied your every move. They know every aspect of your game, having patterned their game after yours. They know your strengths and your weaknesses. And a small handful of them has the guts to try to take you down. You’re not paranoid, they are out to get you. So watch your back.

(Part 4 of 4)

LONDON, June 27, 2010 Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates scoring during his third round match of men's singles against Philipp Petzschner of Germany at the 2010 Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London, Britain, June 26, 2010. Nadal won 3-2 to enter the last 16.

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