Nadal has the talent to be the greatest of all time – but only if his knees are up to it
Rafael Nadal bounded up another couple of steps at the tennis pantheon yesterday, overtaking Johnny McEnroe in the number of Grand Slam singles titles he’s now won (eight), looking ahead to see who else he can muscle past. The beef from Majorca is phenomenal, amazing. His movement is sensational, inexplicable. I’m going to need to get a slo-slo-slow motion replay version of some of yesterday’s action to see what’s going on with his feet. How he reaches some of the balls that he does defies belief. He has no right. But he gets there, time and again.
He’s only 24. The limit to what he can achieve in the rest of his career will be determined only by whether his body allows him to continue. But he says that he’s healthy, and with some careful scheduling of his season, why shouldn’t he play on, at this level or something close to it, for another three, four, five years? There is no reason. Holy cow!
Could he even win another eight Slams to match Roger Federer’s 16? It’s utterly extraordinary that we can even pose the question. But it’s not outside the realms of possibility. Rafa is one of the greatest and can go further.
In the bracket of eight-times Slam winners are Fred Perry, Ken Rosewall, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi. Rafa will go beyond them, that is certain. His career statistics show he’s won just shy of a third of the Slam events he has played in (eight from 25, and eight from the last 19). That’s heading towards the monumental conversion rate of Bjorn Borg (11 from 28) before the Swede’s retirement at a young age.
Notable for me yesterday was Nadal’s “jockey forehand”, as I call it. Just as a jockey coming up the home stretch has that follow-through with the whip, so Nadal’s forehand follow-through is distinct, not following through on the same side of his body but following through to the shoulder.
Tomas Berdych had no chance at all of winning this match from the baseline but that’s what he tried to do, and he paid the price. What he should have done is come in, over and over again, because he just wasn’t going to get any change from Nadal in a battle of the strokes, where Nadal’s forehand is so magnificent.
Hell, Nadal could beat 99 per cent of players using only his forehand! It’s an extraordinary weapon and he’ll run all the distance he needs, from outside his backhand and all the way round, just so that he can use that shot. What a weapon. It’s got pace and power and he moves the ball around with it. With the strings he uses today, he can keep balls in play that would have been impossible as recently as 10 years ago.
Berdych’s serve broke down but he wasn’t entirely without chances to stay in the match: chances he didn’t take.
Another big factor in Nadal’s domination yesterday, in my view, was when the Spaniard was serving to the ad court, he could choose to serve it out wide or straight down the T. And he can do both from the same toss! That had Berdych’s mind in all kinds of pieces because if he went wide to cover that possibility, he opened one whole load of space for Rafa to smash it down the middle. And vice versa.
Berdych got his strategy wrong, in my opinion. He should have come in more, a whole lot more. Sure, he risks being passed to death but what chance did he have anyway from the baseline? Somewhere between slim and none; and slim left town on the opening point of the day.
After watching such a brilliant display from Rafa again, perhaps I should rethink the way we teach tennis. Forget about strokes! It’s movement, movement, movement – the foundation for everything else. Except I’m not sure you can teach movement like that.
So that was yesterday, but it was also a treat to follow an exhibition of sheer superiority in the women’s singles final on Saturday, when Serena Williams was just too much for Vera Zvonareva to handle in all departments: power, movement, shot-making, between the ears.
Serena herself is already among the all-time greats of the women’s game, and again I would have to say that the extent of her achievements, even in her late 20s, will be defined by her own motivation more than any other factor. She now has 13 Slam singles titles, four at Wimbledon. That moves her to sixth on the all-time list.
Her serving was massive, and she blended it with that supreme court coverage, balletic at times. She hit 89 aces at this Wimbledon to obliterate her own record of 72, and she won 94 per cent of her first-serve points, which beggars belief.
Wimbledon inspires, she says. It sure does.
Murray must remain positive: time is still on his side and there will be plenty more Slam opportunities
So another Wimbledon is done and it’s time for all the players to look forward, Andy Murray especially, because he has a lot to look forward to. His future at the highest level is bright; that’s what he has to remember amid the disappointment of being knocked out by Rafa Nadal. Opportunities will open up for him, and he needs to maintain his game at the high level it is, and tweak it to make it better, so he can take those chances.
Too darn good. Sometimes you just have to raise your hands and say you were beaten by a better man and t hat’s what Murray had to do on Friday. The Briton gave almost the best of himself – while letting a few key chances get away – but in all honesty I think that Nadal’s form was just so hot, even a top-level Murray performance would probably not have been good enough.
Before we consider all the positives for Murray, let’s consider just how awesome Nadal was in the semi-final. In the whole first set he made one unforced error. One.
That is close to perfection, something rarely ever seen in our sport. In the third set he made two unforced errors. This is laughably brilliant. And in the middle set, Rafa made 11 unforced errors for a total in the match of 14. Murray made 19 in all, spread evenly.
We can talk for hours about Nadal’s strengths and they were there for all to see: power, movement, even bending the ball to his will at times.
Nadal arrived at this year’s Wimbledon with seven Slam titles, and hadn’t lost to anyone but the GOAT (Roger Federer) at Wimbledon since 2005.
That is the context to understand Murray’s performance. There were just a few key points that made the difference, certainly in the first two sets. In fact, Murray won more points in the second set, 42-41.
The crucial break in the first set came from a rare double fault (a case of nerves?) and a moment of hesitancy, which meant hitting wide and handing Nadal the break. The second set swung on key points in the breaker.
By the third set, Murray broke but Rafa still had gears to click through, and when he did, he brought it home. Murray, by now a little deflated (understandably) could hold out no longer.
So what next for Murray? Good things, surely. He’s still in the ascendancy, something that can’t be said for Federer. Murray’s still young, 23, and there are years of Slam opportunities opening up in front of him. He’s been a real contender at this Wimbledon, and I see no reason physical, technical or mental, why he cannot continue to be a contender for years.
Winning a Slam is never easy. Think about this: a man as talented as Andy Roddick has just one to his name. Murray will improve for his experiences in the four Slam semi-finals and the two finals. There’s much more to come.
1. The Federer era is over
Roger Federer turns 29 next month. There’s no reason why he can’t play at a high level for five more years, or longer. Quite possibly he still has Slam singles wins in him. But the emphasis is now on “possibly” rather than “probably” because it’s only getting harder for him. He’s past his peak.
Of course he was brilliant in winning in Australia this year, and that doesn’t disappear in a few months. And yes, Roger says he had problems with his back and leg at Wimbledon. But this is his territory – owned since 2003 aside from the blip of losing the greatest match in history in 2008. His wobbles and eventual fall mark the end of the Swiss genius’s dominance.
Wimbledon was so open this year because of it. Opportunities knock for the rest of the field.
2. A scorcher turned lawns to dust
Holy mackerel! The mercury in SW19 was soaring for two weeks straight and as a fan of the sun who doesn’t know the meaning of too hot, that’s fine by me. We had a tournament entirely free of rain interruptions for the first time since 1995. I’m sure this is part of the reason why the courts changed so markedly.
They always change, from grass to dirt, between the first week and the end. But this year was something else. We had a surface by the end that was playing like clay. Incroyable!
3. A great tennis story still grabs global attention
I know soccer is a huge deal in Britain, and in Europe and South America too, and it’s getting bigger in Asia and is growing fast in the USA. So it was understandable that the World Cup is the big global story of the past month.
But what John Isner and Nicolas Mahut illustrated through their longest match in history – that astonishing battle of stamina and willpower and courage over three days that Isner won 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68 – is that this great sport of ours is also a truly global game too. It made headlines around the planet for days. In 55 years of active involvement in the sport, I’ve witnessed nothing like it. Staggering, literally!
4. Shock and awesome sometimes go together
When we get big upsets at Slams, it’s typical that we look at something wrong with the “big” player’s game and don’t give due credit to the “upsetter”.
The two upsets that stood out for me this fortnight were the losses of Venus Williams (to Tsvetana Pironkova) and Andy Roddick (to Yen-Hsun Lu, self-styled as Randy, the chicken catcher’s son). For me, Pironkova won her match well, announcing herself as a talent with multiple weapons. And while Roddick himself blamed his “crap” returns for the five-set loss, Lu was impressive in his doggedness, shot-making and nerve, for that day at least.
5. Wimbledon is peerless on tradition
Stepping within the grounds of the All England Club during the championships is to be transported to another age – a gentler, classier, wonderfully idiosyncratic age. From the clocks and ivy to the dress code and stewards, it’s an escape, and a thrill. You can queue up to get in, so it’s democratic, and everything is organised so well. What could top Wimbledon? Wimbledon with a Queen, of course!
And for first time since 1977, she showed up. The pageantry left me speechless.
6. It’s never too late to make the step up
Tomas Berdych is pretty much the same age as Rafa Nadal – they are both 24 – and they were both being talked about as great hopes for the future six and seven years ago. Rafa long ago began fulfilling his promise at the sharpest end of the business.
Berdych has just reached his first Slam final. Look too at Vera Zvonareva: what a wonderful example of the triumph of hope. It’s never too late to follow your dreams. Believe that, and you’re a good step into the trip.
7. Looks aren’t everything…
…but they sure pull a crowd! The packed Court 18 late on Saturday evening that saw Anna Kournikova and Martina Hingis exit the ladies invitation doubles was testament to the logic of letting them play under the age of 35. All sports fans love a good show, and their involvement was fun to see.
8. Green shoots and British hopes
The darkest hours are just before dawn, so let’s not get too down on the fact there wasn’t an Englishman in the men’s singles for the first time ever, and fewer Britons in the second round of both singles combined than ever before: one, Andy Murray.
In the juniors Laura Robson has great promise, while Heather Watson (who trains at my academy) is developing. Both are junior Slam champs already.
Oliver Golding did well, and from nowhere you have an all-Brit boys doubles final, featuring George Morgan and Lewis Burton against Liam Broady and Tom Farquharson.
The only way is up, baby!
9. There’s always next time
That goes for everyone. Especially Andy Murray. (And England, the USA and Italy in the soccer!)
10. I’m humbled by your enthusiasm
It’s been my great good fortune to write for The Independent during Wimbledon fortnight for the past eight years, and long may it continue. Thanks for all your emails, questions, good wishes, suggestions, invitations and requests.
Thanks to all the many readers who entered our tipping competition each day to win a week at my academy. All the daily winners went into a draw yesterday, several of you twice each.
Congratulations to the overall winner: Julie Kurtzman. Thanks for reading. Here’s to summer 2011.