Rafael Nadal's game can scarcely be described as normal
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Rafael Nadal was speaking casually to an acquaintance in the players' lounge the other day when he tripped up on a word. "Sorry," he said. "What I speak, is not always English."
Which is funny, because what Nadal plays on the court is not always tennis. It's akin to some kind of tribal dialect. Yes, it bears a resemblance to the court game involving a racket, balls and a 78-by-27-foot grid of boxes. But it is wildly different from any other player's game -- past, present and, we can safely say, future.
Nadal, a natural righty, holds his racket with his left hand when he plays. He pounds his shots, but also imparts unholy amounts of spin, on his forehand in particular. You think the bathwater here swirls down the drain in a strange direction? It has nothing on Nadal's shots, what with their ducking and dipping and swerving. He hits serves that land in the court, often on the lines, and then bounce at an altitude three times higher than the net. Mentally, he is impregnable.
Friday at Melbourne Park, Nadal played Roger Federer in the Australian Open semifinals, the 33rd installment in their storied rivalry. Heartened by Federer's recent uptick -- as well as the much (over?) discussed blister on Nadal's left hand -- this had the makings of a competitive match, even an opportunity for Federer, at age 32, to steal a win over his rival. That thinking rested on an assumption that Nadal would play conventional, mortal tennis. But he does not, and he did not.
For nearly two-and-a-half hours, Nadal played at a dizzyingly high level. Ridiculous, you-have-be-kidding and stupid -- often garnished with a swear word -- were descriptive terms in heavy rotation. Nadal didn't so much beat Federer as he broke his rival, 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3, the 23rd time in 33 matches he's been on the left side of the ledger.
"He deserved to win tonight," Federer said in summary. "I mean, he was better."
Nadal's tactics were the same as ever: imposing his will on the match, working over Federer's backhand (which, for all its beauty, is the weaker wing) and dictating play. Meanwhile, Federer adjusted gamely, hitting out his backhand rather than slicing it, approaching the net, trying to rob Nadal of time. It worked beautifully for Federer against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray in the previous rounds. Tsonga and Murray, though, are not Nadal. Passing shots whistled past Federer, who was successful on only 55 percent of net approaches. (It was 80 percent in his previous rounds.) Federer faced 14 break points while Nadal faced just two. While Federer's accuracy did not rival William Tell's on Friday, his 50 unforced errors were hardly "un-forced." They were very forced. Forced by Nadal's constant pressure.
If that weren't enough, Nadal won the mental war against Federer. He almost always does. Through a dozen games, the players had won an identical number of points. But at 6-6, in the first-set tiebreaker, Nadal was steadier, extracting errors and controlling the court and winning 7-4.
A more telling, if less obvious, moment: At 2-1 second set, Nadal had break points to seize the match. Uncharacteristically, he made a series of errors. When Federer held on for 2-2, the crowd came to life. How did Nadal respond? By winning the subsequent service game at love, then breaking Federer in his next service game.
Whether it was tactical or an expression of genuine dismay, Federer began complaining to the chair umpire that Nadal was grunting too loudly. "Do your job," brayed Federer. Nadal? He pretended not to hear and didn't adjust his decibel level in the slightest.
By the third set, Nadal had entered the Land of Too Good. With the exception of one loose game, he continued to win points almost at will. He unfurled those curving, you-can't-be-for-real winners that had fans whistling and commentators laughing and former players tweeting in amazement.
"I don't know how to explain to you guys," Federer said. "It's totally different playing Rafa over anybody else."
And therein lies much of the problem for Federer. His rival is incomparable, his style not replicable. Federer -- to his great credit -- had done everything from hiring lefty sparring partners, to consulting analytics, to devising strategy specific to Nadal. How do you prepare, though, for an opponent who plays so differently from anyone else on the planet?
As always -- and this adds to the fascination -- Nadal was thoroughly subdued afterward. As soon as he left the court, all that energy and intensity evaporated. The grunting and fist pumps and machismo? Gone. There were some warm embraces with his team, but nothing too exuberant.
Speaking quietly and clasping his hands in the press room, Nadal gave abundant credit to Federer. He expressed no awe in his performance. He wouldn't admit that his 12-0 head-to-head record against Stanislas Wawrinka, his opponent in Sunday's final, would fire him with confidence. ("If I don't play my best tennis," Nadal said, "I am sure that he will win three sets against me." Keep in mind: He has won all 26 sets he's ever played against Wawrinka.) Nadal also shrugged off Federer's complaints about grunting: "I think I did the normal things that I do in every match."
That's true. He played the way he usually plays, competed the way he usually competes. But that can scarcely be described as "normal."