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Joel Drucker: Day Twelve: Holding Court on Tennis

Hello from Melbourne, where over the next two weeks I’ll be deep in the thick of things with Tennis Channel’s Australian Open production team – in the booth with our announcers during matches, in the studio for our pre-game show and overall, embedded in bringing you our broadcast of the event Roger Federer has dubbed, “The Happy Slam.”

Rafael Nadal: Hit the Wall & Start Over

Early Thursday afternoon, Rafael Nadal and his team stood in the rather austere waiting area that lies in between the tournament desk and the player dining area. The plan had been to head out to practice. But rain had hit. The movement towards the court would be halted. Nadal, killing time seemingly everywhere but on a tennis court, was now in his familiar coiled pace mode. For others, it would appear a nervous pose. You could almost imagine Nadal putting one hand in a pants pocket, jiggling a few coins without even knowing what he was doing. But for Nadal, this was routine, what a delay of time at a tournament was all about. Time again to kill. The ball he lived to strike would have to wait.

Or would it? A tennis ball was placed on the ground. Another. Nadal’s new coach, Carlos Moya, took a thoughtful look downward at four tennis balls that now sat on the white linoleum floor.

Like Nadal, Moya was raised in Mallorca. Nearly a decade older than Nadal, Moya had at one point been a mentor for Rafa. A longstanding tennis tale: Moya, who had been ranked number one in the world, won the French Open and been runner-up here in Australia, asked the young Rafa if he hoped to have as good a career as Moya had. Nadal paused, but not for long. Photos of the young Rafa reveal a rather cute lad, graced with soulful brown eyes and ample hair; but also, the devout, understated confidence of a boy certain his life would be lived as a world class athlete.

Well, Carlos, said Nadal, I actually think I can do even more. And, of course, he has, winning a staggering 14 majors, a feat tied with Pete Sampras for the second-most all-time behind Roger Federer.

Moya, Nadal and others in the team watched Moya’s kick roll towards a wall. It arrived roughly a foot short.

Then it was Rafa’s turn. His ball rolled. Gently, slowly. Would he again surpass Moya?

Not this time. Nadal’s ball had hit the wall. He would have to start over.

To hit the wall and start over. This had happened so many times to Nadal. Intending to first play the French Open the year he turned 16, Nadal had missed it two years in a row with injuries – then defied time by winning it the first time he played it. A significant foot problem came when he was still in his teens. Since then, plenty of wrist, knee and other woes.

Nadal had lost in the first round of last year’s Australian Open. He’d withdrawn mid-way from Roland Garros with a wrist injury, not been able to play Wimbledon, gone down in the fourth round of the US Open.

Having reached his first major semi since 2014 French Open title run, Nadal is in his familiar, contradictory place. On the one hand, he is attempting to merely go about the business of tennis in the boy-like fashion that has governed his entire career. See Rafa run. See Rafa hit. But as has also often been the case with Nadal, his journey has often on the qualities of a crusade. This is a man who once said that the most important asset an ambitious tennis player should have is the ability to be suffer. Indeed, a spirit of sacrifice and pain underlie many of Nadal’s matches. The nature of his playing style – so much defense, grand shots from remote corners, all issued from a natural righthander playing lefty – lends itself to a much different set of emotions than emanate from the tennis played by Nadal’s greatest rival, Roger Federer.

Federer is tennis’ exemplary artist, the man who in every gesture shows us what life on earth could well become. Suffer? Are you kidding? But the Spaniard’s proposition is quite different. Federer shows us what life could be – a vast, elegant, cosmopolitan world, ruled by a man who speaks fluently in multiple languages and hails from a nation that doesn’t even go to war. Nadal brings us smack to the essence, his conquistador-like manner not far removed from the taste of blood. If Federer is the man you’d have play for your pleasure, Rafael Nadal is the one you’d have play for your life.

Australian Open ’17: Flashback

(big thanks to key source -- “This Day in Tennis History” an app created by Randy Walker and Miki Singh)

January 27: Grace & Grit for Serena

The plot line for this 2005 semifinal match had been set six months earlier at Wimbledon. On that occasion, 17-year-old Maria Sharapova had shocked the world when she’d taken down world number one Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final. In Melbourne, Sharapova picked up where she’d left off, winning the first set 6-2. But Williams squeaked out a tight second set, 7-5. The third was a battle for the ages. Sharapova, serving at 5-4, held three match points. But Williams won them all, fought off break points at 6-6 and broke Sharapova in the next game to take the match. Said Williams, “I’m still the top fighter out there.” She’d go on to take the title.

Read more articles by Joel Drucker

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