Rafael Nadal, whose game continues to develop and mature on all surfaces, is finally here to give Roger Federer some competition. To which I say: About time! As incredible as it’s been to watch the young Swissman steam roll through grand slams as if the Roddicks and Hewitts of the world were beginner stage computer drones on Virtua Tennis, great sports viewing requires great rivalries, and Nadal has established himself as the man to bring it.
Being a lefthander who was forced to write with my right by my father, I love the fact that Rafael is a natural righthander who plays tennis lefthanded. It’s reverse appreciation, made all the more wonderful by the fact that it comes during a time when there is a serious dearth of prominent lefties in world tennis. And as powerful as his clean, flashing forehands are, it naturally provides his double fisted backhand game with that much more power. During today’s Wimbledon singles final coverage, McEnroe described this phenomenon as raising the game to “a whole ‘nother level.”
The Spanish thing certainly plays a role, for as easy as it is to admire Swiss precision and craft, it’s hard to root for it with total devotion. I recently spent some time visiting a friend in Barcelona and, like many others, was absolutely enchanted by the passion for life and joy that permeates the city. And as cliched as the metaphor of the athlete and his style as representative of his country or culture might be, you can’t help but feel it with Nadal. It’s that tenacious grimace in the throes of a tight game, the refusal to give up on points, the small body with the large voice, he’s almost…a male Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario!
But on top of that, its Rafa’s dress sense that gives him that extra edge. It’s not difficult for his game–taking the ball on the up, hitting bafflingly good winners from defensive positions, blinding passing shots–to evoke memories of a young Andre Agassi. And when one thinks of young Andre, it’s hard to forget the fashion sense of young Andre.
Here was a man who embraced the early 90s, with its technicolor teal greens, it’s unfortunate hair lengths and big logo branding.
It was loud, perhaps a little too loud, and depite many years of tamed down, bald-headed Andre, people won’t be forgetting the memories of his crazy mulleted era any time soon.
Rafael, on the other hand, is a man of relative taste. The pieces are all there: the long hair, the head band, the derision of the Roland Garros establishment, but he does it smarter.
Instead of going for color, Nadal does it with form. At the top, he strips away the sleeves, providing lady-pleasing views of his oft-fist pumping guns. Down low, he adds significant length to his shorts, bringing them to near-three quarter length. These capris, or pantaloons, are a brilliant meshing of Euro-hip sport casual with American hip hop. But where hip hop goes for both length and width–providing that low-rise, baggy look which is now so firmly established amongst America’s male populace–Raffa keeps it form fitted. The overall result: a slimmed down, sleeker aesthetic that has “I am a modern, sexy tennis-playing machine”written all over its Nikes. (Nadal generally has “Vamos Rafa” written on his)
Which all, of course, provides even more juice for marketers and broadcast networks in articulating the beauty of the Federer-Nadal rivalry.
Roger, whose game is as close to mechanical perfection as we’ve perhaps ever seen, keeps his style decidedly conventional. Apart from the neat bun pony-tail he rocked a couple of years ago, the Fed-machine is all business. Unemotional, pressed whites, shorts kept tidily above the knee and polo collar gently curled, the man is to tennis as Tiger is to golf. Clean-cut, unobjectionable and ridonkulously good.
And, just as the epic Sampras-Agassi battles kept us enraptured for many marvellous years through the 90s during one epic five-setter after another, so I hope Nadal and Federer will offer the same entertainment. Long live the Rafa-Roger rivalry!