Querido Rafa

News, notes, commentary, the occasional treatise, a few rants, perhaps an open letter or two, generally pithy and incisive observations, and substantial doses of whimsy, all about tennis and/or Rafa.

Kat on the Loose

First, thanks to everyone for the Blogiversary well wishes, as well as for sharing thoughts about the current Rafa situation. I realize some will agree with me, some will not agree with me, some will partially agree with me, some will think I’m crazy –and I think that’s totally fine, particularly as I myself fall into all four categories, depending on the hour and/or minute (and/or second…). I also realize the limits of my knowledge and by no means think that I’m “right” or even that there is a “right.” My feelings are meandering and rambling and conflicting, but I’ll be honest–it doesn’t all quite add up for me at this point. I do wonder if there is something else going on–if there is another injury Rafa’s not disclosing, if the wrist is way more severe than initially thought or reported, if there’s a mental/burnout aspect to the absence, or if there’s an additional reason Rafa wants/needs to be home right now. Or, maybe it really is just what Rafa says–a slightly wonky right wrist that he is not comfortable playing with. If the former, maybe it will become clear in the coming weeks or months. If the latter, I do still have my “showing up” issues, but obviously it’s Rafa’s career and he’s in charge and he’s the one who knows himself best and who is obviously most directly affected by his decisions. And obviously I’ll never not be a fan of Rafa, even if I don’t agree with or understand everything he does. Even his biggest rivals admit that tournaments are not the same without him and the excitement he brings to them. He is a revelation on the tennis court, and as an athlete. He also has, to quote the great Jesse McCartney, a beautiful soul. None of that is ever up for debate.

Admittedly, one of the reasons my devastatedness vis-à-vis Rafa’s absence most likely climbed from mild to medium on the salsa/devastated meter was because I had plans to attend the U.S. Open this year and as part of those plans, I had obviously hoped to see Rafa play a competitive match. But, obviously I also know as a tennis fan that anything can happen and nothing is guaranteed–your guy can withdraw just before a tournament, your guy can withdraw during a tournament, your guy can retire one game into his first match, your guy can lose his first match. And yet, as I’ve detailed previously, this withdrawal was particularly shocking/punch in the gut-ish, since there was absolutely no indication Rafa was having any physical issues going into the summer. And yet, as a Rafa fan, one kind of always knows/fears that if Rafa has gone a few months without withdrawing from something, a withdrawal is likely imminent, because that’s his pattern, and life is largely (granted, with some exceptions) pattern-driven–i.e. the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. (this obviously also works in Rafa’s favor in many cases. See: clay; comebacks). (this is, also, one of the reasons situations like this are increasingly striking such fear in me–Rafa has a tendency to make pretty dramatic announcements somewhat out of nowhere…). So, not gonna lie–I was disappointed in general, for Rafa, and, also for myself. But, I knew I could/would still have a good time, and I was still very excited to experience my first ever Major, and my first live tournament in many years. Here’s a very long, not particularly well-ordered or organized list of what I learned/observed/enjoyed:

1. Angelique Kerber’s style of play and attitude are immediately discernible, even to a person completely uninitiated to tennis; my companion on Day 1 fell into said category, and after approximately 72 seconds of watching Kerber play: “She gets all her power from her legs!” After 97 seconds: “Geez, she’s kind of a brat.”
2. Pico tries really hard but does not have weapons, meaning even when he was even at a set a piece and had 3 points to go up 2 sets to 1 on Tsonga, it did not seem like he was going to win.
3. Tucked-in Jo is inexplicably way more likable than non-tucked-in Jo. I’ve never been a particular fan of Jo–I’ve always found him vaguely arrogant, whiny, and wasteful of his talent–but ever since he debuted the tucked-in shirt in Toronto, I’ve been seeing him anew. (Granted, the wastefulness was on full display as he largely slept-walked through the first three sets vs. Pico before dramatically eschewing his hat in the third set TB and getting down to business.)
4. The heat is hot: Speaking of business, I have absolutely no business complaining about the weather during my time at the Open, because bottom line, it was gorgeous. Sunny, warm, blue skies, and deliciously cool at night, to boot. Also, it’s obviously somewhat comical for a spectator who does nothing but sit to take issue with the heat when the players are running around for hours in it. And, one of my big concerns coming in was dealing with rain delays and disappointment/discomfort therein and potentially figuring out if I could stay an extra day if there were significant delays or cancellations, and in a (rare and deeply appreciated) stroke of good luck, those worries turned out to be unfounded. Howevers. I typically enjoy the outdoors in 1-4 hour spurts, and often in partial shade; I rarely position myself in direct sunlight for 8+ hours (there are shaded seats on some courts, but they were rarely untaken by the time I showed up.) Moreover, the courts conduct heat, so even if it’s 88 degrees outside–warm but not stifling–it’s a blazing 500 degrees or so on the court (give or take a degree or so). So, it was a bit of an adjustment, particularly on Tuesday, which was a touch and/or slap hotter than Monday (although I know Wednesday, the day I left, was worse.) Having spent the morning running around Central Park and presumably having gotten all of my sweat out already (key word there being presumably; speaking of presumably, I was passed while there by what I presume to have been a junior tennis player and his coach; they were speaking a language I did not immediately recognize and the player was wearing a “Good to Great Academy” t-shirt), I didn’t arrive at the tournament until around 12:30. I had thoughts of trying to see Nishikori, but was slightly turned off by the fact he was playing Odesnik and instead ended up wandering aimlessly toward court 7, where I took a seat on the bleachers behind Lepchenko-Van Uytvanck and watched Lepechenko close it out. It was during this time that I noticed I had begun to melt slightly, i.e. my face had started to drip (white, sunblock-laden) sweat. Hmmm, this is…different, I thought. I watched Rogers-Zanevska take the court, noticing that Zanevska’s dress looked like a regular dress and not a tennis dress. That match wasn’t particularly appealing to me so I continued to wander, noticing a slightly sizeable crowd outside court 8. Who’s playing here, I wondered as I squeezed into a crevice attempting to see the scoreboard. Just then Marcel Granollers’ head appeared in front of me–he was toweling off in the corner, just by the opening of the court. Marcy! I thought (but restrained myself from saying aloud). His heavily-lashed deep-set eyes, which don’t photograph particularly well, are quite stunning in person. Then I remembered he was playing Melzer and I understood why this was a popular match–two relatively well-known players on an outer court. I got a seat one row behind Marcel’s chair and settled in for the end of the match (Marcel was up 2 sets to love, and a break in the third, although Melzer had at least a couple of BPs in the subsequent games). And…I kept dripping. Like, uncontrollably dripping sweat. I had my obnoxiously giant sun hat on; I had my giant sunglasses on; I was wearing light, cool, breathable clothing; I had eaten before I came; I had been drinking water like it was my job (which it basically was at this point, given the rapid fluid loss that was occurring). And yet…the sweat. Rafa in South America-like. Yeah. I rifled around in my purse and found a partially shredded brown paper napkin from the taco joint I had eaten at on Sunday night and began attempting to daintily dab away the perspiration. Obviously this was not sufficient, so I reluctantly sacrificed the sleeve of my white shirt. Marcel walked toward me (also possibly his chair.) He did not seem to notice my sweat attack. He may have had other things on his mind. I considered leaving, but, I felt somewhat paralyzed by the sweat, and I also wanted to see the end of the match. So I kept watching, and sweating. To distract myself from the non-stop rivulets, I looked for Marc in Marcel’s coaching box; sadly, I did not see him. Finally the match was over and after watching Marcel sign a few autographs (I kept my distance due to the sweating problem), I exited the court. I decided I needed to eat something. I found a melted Kind bar in my purse and a partially shaded bench and attempted to eat it without making a mess, which was a big ask. I then found a bag of tissues I had thrown in my purse that morning and forgotten about and realized I had not in fact had to use the brown taco napkin. And at last, the sweat subsided.
5. Jack Sock’s forehand is very cool: Following the subsiding of the sweat, I made my way to the Grandstand to watch Sock-Andujar. It was still hot, but, my magical Kind bar had somehow stopped the waterfall. I remember Jim Courier once comparing Sock’s forehand to Rafa’s, saying it had as much or more or only slightly less RPMs on it, and thinking he was crazy. Well, he’s not crazy. Sock’s forehand is struck much differently–he generates all the pace and spin with a wrist/forearm snap/rollover rather than a bolo finish–but it is, like Rafa’s, and as stated above, very, very cool. (Not as cool as Rafa’s, clearly. But cool.)
6. Tommy Robredo has abandoned his sunnies: On Day 1, I decided to stop in at Robredo-Roger-Vasselin, Robredo being a player I’ve been aware of/followed to some degree for 10+ years at this point, and told my companion repeatedly that Robredo would be wearing sunglasses. “He always wears sunglasses!” I said excitedly (why I found this exciting, I do not know #blameitontheheat). He was not wearing sunglasses. #awkward
7. A $12 kale salad (yes, I am that person who buys $12 kale salads…) and a $5 cold Snapple are basically heaven after 9 hours in the sun with little food and lukewarm fountain water.
8. Contrarian observation #1: Practices are boring. Everyone always raves about watching practices, how cool it is, how interesting it is, etc. etc. Personally, I was bored, and not impressed, and left quickly, because it’s definitely not what I paid money to see. (granted, obviously I would have been more interested had it been Rafa practicing; as it was, I glimpsed only Mahut and Llodra (Mahut, and more specifically, his distinctive combination of hair and abs, is, by the way, recognizable from approximately a half-mile away), and Giraldo.
9. Contrarian observation #2: Arthur Ashe stadium is nice: Everything I’ve ever read about Ashe is negative–it’s too big, too impersonal, the upper deck views are terrible, you might as well watch on TV, etc. So I was prepared, and expecting, to dislike it, and in fact, given that I wasn’t going to be able to see Rafa, I was half-hoping the view would be so bad it wouldn’t matter anyway. Well, that’s not what happened. I liked it! The seats were comfortable, there was plenty of leg-room (as opposed to Armstrong, in which it is literally impossible to sit completely frontward if you are over 5’9 or so) and I found the view completely acceptable–I would have been quite content watching Rafa from that distance. The atmosphere is very casual and baseball-stadium-like, which I also enjoy, granted people did tend to take it to extremes a bit on Tuesday night, with constant flows of traffic in and out during points.
10. Contrarian observation #3: Fans know their stuff: Tournament attendees, and in particular American tournament attendees, get a lot of flack from hardcore tennis fans/fellow attendees for being uninformed and naive and hopelessly mixed up, etc. My experience was the exact opposite. Everyone I overheard knew their tennis. The guys walking down the stairs talking about John Peers the doubles specialist. The guy next to me shouting “Vamos Pico!” after every other point. The woman a few seats down informing her friend in detail about Genie Bouchard’s background. The muppet-voiced kid sitting behind me in Ashe meticulously recounting the events of the past few months to his father (“Nadal lost to a 19-year-old at Wimbledon! 19!”) The sweet woman desperate to see Nishkori on Court 7 and who thanked me like I had just given her a million dollars when I informed her that I believed he was on court 17.
11. Gilles Simon amuses himself by bouncing balls between his chest and the back wall when his opponent argues with the umpire.
12. Madison Keys casually walks through the food court, alone, carrying two racquets; no one stops her.
13. I am slightly taller than Ekaterina Makarova. A lot taller than Estrella Burgos. Not as tall as the tall blonde guy carrying the red Prince bag who I unabashedly stared at trying to place him and who unabashedly stared back challenging me to place him, all to no avail–I thought for a moment Pospisil, but in the end, definitely not. Also not as tall as the guy with full sleeves on both arms who looked like PHM from the side but couldn’t have been PHM because I don’t think PHM has that many, if any, tattoos.
14. I didn’t tell Mirjana Lucic-Baroni that when I was 16, I was slightly entranced by/obsessed with her hair and her first name, but I thought it as she walked past me.
15. David Ferrer is as advertised: an absolute workhorse. You can feel the effort. Except after he went down a second break in the third set vs. Damir Dzumhur. On set point, Dzumhur hit a drop shot, and David Ferrer did not run for it. Let me repeat: David Ferrer did not run for it. It was weird. Luckily we’re all still here. And David got his act together (read: stopped missing every single backhand). (His opponent fought well, though, and had a nice “rouse the crowd” moment after a great point.)
16. Speaking of work–tennis is work! There’s a lot of talk from players about “having fun out there” and “enjoying myself on court” etc., which I’ve always felt was a questionable approach to begin with, and watching these opening round matches confirmed it. It’s work. Work can be fun–but it’s often not. Players who accept this seem to have higher chances of success than those chasing “the fun.”
17. Sometimes people tap you on the shoulder and say, “excuse me” and you think they’re just being polite as they brush past you and instead they casually cut in front of you in the line for court 17 and you’re like, what the actual fk?
18. Sometimes you feel a hand running down your back while sitting in the Grandstand and are basically ready to whip out any and all latent karate moves before realizing it is just a kindly, if slightly overly familiar, lady behind you warning you that you’re burning in the gap between your dress and bra strap, which is a bit embarrassing on multiple levels…
19. Sometimes yet another kindly if overly familiar lady grabs your hip for support and keeps it there for quite some time as she exits your row of seats. You may also get bashed in the head by a couple of purses from the row above at the same time and start to wonder if you accidentally wore a sign encouraging strangers to touch you.
20. I can’t make seats!: Speaking of court 17, it’s not ideal when a long line forms outside court 17 to see Gasquet-Istomin and the gatekeeper stares ahead blankly as they gather and there’s a long Deuce game meaning everyone is waiting for 15-20 minutes and then when a changeover finally comes she opens the gate and lets about 10 people through before closing it and saying, “There’s no more seats.” and then people are like, “There’s no more seats??” and she’s like, “Well, there are plenty of seats, but there on the other side. You have to walk over there.” and people are like, “We’ve been waiting here for 20 minutes!” and then a French photographer comes up and she’s like, “Oh, YOU can go in.” and then people are like, “What??!!” and she’s like, “I don’t know what you want me to say. I can’t MAKE seats.” (Fortunately, the gentleman manning the gate on the other side was kind enough to let everyone climb the stairs even after the changeover was over and watch from the top of the stadium before letting us in on the next changeover.)
21. Sitting at the top of court 17 watching Istomin-Gasquet on a Tuesday afternoon with a nice breeze wafting by is a decidedly pleasant experience . (granted, the sound of trucks driving around and offloading and loading stuff just behind the court hurts the ambiance just a bit).
22. Sitting in shade in Armstrong in the late afternoon watching Ferrer battle back after randomly dropping a set to the world #119–also very pleasant.
23. Denis Istomin seems to have dropped some weight. He also seems to have dropped some common sense–he lost the match on a point penalty on his second code violation for obscenity and/or racquet throwing.
24. Gasquet’s forehand was comfortingly Rafa-like (e.g. follow-through over his dominant shoulder).
25. Roger is not going to win the tournament unless he improves a lot in the next couple of weeks. In the first round, any time Matosevic got himself together enough to hit four or five decent shots in a row, Roger lost the point, usually with a shank. (Sidenote: Belated apologies to the Roger fans sitting around me for my gleeful shouts of “Shankerer!” during these times.)
26. Fer was still pounding his chest five minutes after finally beating Rola in five sets. (He also leaned over the railing and gave a guy in the crowd a bear hug just after the match. I think he knew him, but I’m not sure.) I was a little worried he might end up withdrawing before his next match with chest bruising. (he didn’t. He did lose, though.)
27. Just as he did a few years ago against Berlocq in the second round, Djokovic started getting a bit casual/jokey while playing, and dominating, Schwartzman in the first round. And then, soon enough–he got broken. And then he got angry. Similarly, Federer gave up a break lead in the third against Matosevic and came dangerously close to dropping the set after letting down his guard (granted, Matosevic’s behavior was very distracting).  Both made me appreciate, once again, Rafa’s supreme, laser-like focus at all times, against all opponents, in all rounds.
28. Roger’s very funny and charming in post-match interviews. (Of course, this only made me consider how Rafa would have been MORE funny and charming…)
29. One of the pluses of going to the Open on the first few days is that there are plenty of matches, and great seats, available. One of the negatives is that all the choices can be overwhelming, and by seeing one player/match, you inevitably miss another. For example, I didn’t see Murray, Nishikori, or Azarenka, even though I kind of had planned to. Overall, though, I was happy with the number of matches I managed to see, granted, I was disappointed that Berdych-Hewitt, Dimitrov-Harrison, and Thiem-Lacko were all scheduled for Wednesday, when I wasn’t there.
30. The atmosphere is very congenial and friendly on the grounds (if very crowded) and full of people who love tennis. Everything is relatively close to everything else, so it feels quite intimate even though it’s obviously a big tournament. It’s fun to be there.
31. The herding of massive groups of people like cattle in front of the fountain before the night session on Ashe is not great, although I know it’s a tough problem to solve given the constraints of space/time. They have at least solved whatever issues existed in the past with entry (as I was reminded by a chatty gentleman on the ride over, last year there were 2+ hour lines to get in on the first day; this year, I waited either not at all or less than 5 minutes.)
32.  There were lots and lots of Rafa-gear-clad fans on hand at all matches (there also was a somewhat fascinating female-Rafa-fan/male-Roger-fan couple). He was missed. I really hope he’s back next year.

Leather

I’ll keep this short and devastated.
(Mildly devastated. Maybe a little medium. But not hot. No, no, not hot. I have to keep this in perspective, after all. (Little known fact: devastateds are classified like salsas))

(Also this is obviously somewhat unpalatably untimely, which is in part owing to the somewhat amusing fact that I wrote this a couple of days ago and thought I had posted it, only to find it still socializing in the “Drafts” section today, because apparently navigating the difference between the not even alliterative as it is in email making it more understandable in that context (i.e. Save and Send) Save and Publish was a little beyond my faculties on Wednesday. Of course now I have some distance and am reading this back today and am cringing and laughing because despite my proclamation below that I’m not trying to be doomy and gloomy, it’s a little doomy and gloomy. But, I’m going to post it anyway because I already wrote it and this was indeed how I felt and do indeed still feel to some degree.)

So Rafa withdrew from the U.S. Open. It’s not shocking in the context of what’s unfolded over the past three weeks–withdrawals from Toronto and Cincinnati–but it remains shocking in the context of the situation in general–month-long vacation after winning the French and finishing Wimbledon not playing particularly well but at least in reasonably good health ends in a serious injury to one of the few body parts that Rafa’s never had trouble with before. It’s still all just kind of hard to fathom/comprehend/understand. It came out of nowhere. It came at a time when Rafa’s body was not under any particular stress. And now, completely unexpectedly, all of Rafa’s summer hard court titles are gone and the remainder of his season and who knows what else is in jeopardy. It’s like a nightmarish combination of knee injury ’12 and back injury ’14.

This is a hard one. I don’t want to be unnecessarily or dramatically doomy and gloomy. I also can’t ignore the facts. He can’t make it through a season without minimum one, and this year, two, serious injuries. He can’t make it through a full season, period. (And yes, the season is long and grueling (granted, not so much for Rafa in these injury-abbreviated ones, ironically). But…a lot of guys make it through. And Rafa is directly competing with those guys, so him not being able to make it through is a problem. A big problem.) Not being able to make it through seasons, being constantly hampered by injury after injury, getting better from one injury only to be felled by a new one a few weeks or months later…it’s not good. It’s not promising. As much as it almost literally pains me and at the very least causes me to close my eyes and scrunch up my face bracingly when even thinking about it–it’s the kind of thing that happens to guys at the tail-end of their careers. The body rebels; they just can’t stay healthy for any extended period of time. And then it’s over.

Obviously at this point the true severity and ramifications of the wrist injury are unknown. A small detachment of an interior something or other has suddenly become three withdrawals including a lost Major. Is this season-ending? I won’t be surprised if so, and honestly it might be better that way. The fall is a vast wasteland in general in tennis, and even moreso for Rafa, who is partially solar-powered. He doesn’t like indoor tennis, and it shows, in his attitude and play (yes, he generally has a decent showing, but he also consistently eventually gets meekly blown out by often overall lesser players in the later rounds, which is not particularly fun to watch). Moreover, indoor is his worst surface; worst surfaces tend to get worser as a player ages. Rafa’s not going to suddenly become the indoor king at age 28 after struggling with it for 10 years prior. So I don’t see Rafa ever having tremendous success in that part of the season moving forward, and in a way, I almost think he would be better off skipping it (which is going to directly contradict what I’m going to say below, but oh well), because it burns him out and leads, in part, to him showing up in Australia unfit almost every year (One injury? Bad luck. Two injury? Maybe…bad luck? Three injury? There’s something wrong w/ his offseason/preseason training, or lack thereof. There’s no getting around that at his point, and his stubbornness in sticking to his patterns in that regard is yet another problem.)

The way Rafa is talking about the wrist now is startlingly similar, perhaps even identical, to how he talked about his knee in 2012–he’s in pain; he’ll come back when he’s no longer in pain. And so, once again, as I did in ’12, I have to wonder–what if he’s never not in some degree of pain? Is Rafa backing himself into a corner out of which there is no escape? Not wanting to be in pain is understandable. But, is it realistic, for him or any tennis player? Are his expectations too high? Is his pain tolerance too low, or, perhaps more accurately, has he reached his limit of having a high pain tolerance?, which is, once again, completely understandable, but–not necessarily conducive to being a professional tennis player.

Of course, another thing that pricks at the mind when reading these most recent quotes is that as it turned out, Rafa did still have knee pain when he returned in 2013. His goal of not returning until the pain was gone was not realistic, and it was later revealed that his team basically forced him back on the tour and he in fact was quite distraught over the state of his still painful knee during his early days in South America. But, he played. And he won. And eventually, while he was playing, and winning, his knee improved. So obviously one wonders now–is he being too conservative with the wrist? Might it improve while he’s playing? And even if not, what does he have to lose by giving it a try? This is an injury he can control to some degree–he doesn’t have to hit two-handed BHs. He can slice, he can run around, and when that’s not possible–he can let balls go by. Nobody would blame him. Everyone would respect the effort.

But he’s not playing because he doesn’t think he can win, which is probably true. (although–one never knows. He could have gotten a dream draw. He could have gotten walkovers. He could have found himself not playing a top 30 player ’til the second week, when the wrist all of a sudden felt pretty darn good. And it’s not as if injured players have never won big tournaments, after all.) I understand his reasoning; in this particular instance, I don’t agree with it. I think there is some intrinsic value in showing up. I think he’s hurting is reputation and legacy by missing so many important tournaments. I think “I won’t play if I can’t win” is a slightly juvenile attitude, and a dangerous one for Rafa to have as he gets older. I think pulling out of tournaments has become too routine, too casual, too much of a habit for him. I think if he can practice, he can play. (And he’s practicing. And I know in theory this should make me happy, but it’s not, because all I can think is: why in the hell is he hitting some of the best forehands in the world on a court in Mallorca and not in NYC?) I think he hasn’t played a match since July 1 and it’s August 22 and it’s time for him to get out of Mallorca and join his colleagues, many of whom also are nursing injuries, many of whom also are not perfect physically and not not in pain, on the tour. But, I respect his right to make his own decisions. But, I think it’s the wrong one. And, as mentioned above, I do wonder if Rafa is sometimes too conservative, too unwilling to make a go of it, and too willing to say, “I’m not perfect, so I’m not playing.” I just don’t know if he can afford to have that attitude, especially now, at age 28, with opportunities already dwindling as it is. Would Djokovic or Murray or Federer withdraw from the U.S. Open if they had a comparable injury? Would Berdych, Ferrer, or Gasquet? Would Rafa play if it were the French Open? Why was he willing to play Rio and IW with a bad back that affected him on every serve but not willing to play a Major with a bad wrist that he can at least limit the use of? I don’t completely understand the decision making process, although granted I’m not privy to the details of the injury. If he’s out until October, or next year, or ends up getting surgery, okay, then it was obviously unavoidable. If he shows up in three weeks time in Sao Paulo, though, it’s going to be little hard to swallow. I don’t want him to be severely injured, obviously, and I don’t want this to spiral into a ’12 situation, where every other week there’s speculation or even confirmation he might return–for Cincy or Winston Salem or the USO or Asia or the WTFs or Davis Cup or Abu Dhabi or Doha or the AO or maybe he’ll play doubles or maybe he’ll play the Manacor Tennis Club Intramural Championship–only for a barrage of Ws that are not Wins to come down the pike, along with ever-present and increasingly unattainable caveat that he’ll play when he’s not in pain–but I also don’t want this withdrawal to be unnecessary in retrospect, and if he plays Davis Cup on Sept 12, that’s how it’s going to seem.

So, so much for short. I think I nailed the devastated part though.

P.S. Yesterday was the blog’s third Blogiversary! (I know everyone is still recovering from the ragers of ’12 and ’13, so I decided to skip the party this year.) The Internet informs me that third anniversaries are leather anniversaries, or as I typically call it, leatha (“I like your skirt!” “Thanks! It’s leatha.”) Leatha is classic, strong, quality stuff; it can get a little beat up over time, a little scuffed, a little weathered and worn and decrepit, but, it still holds up, the fibers don’t break, and with a little cleaning and/or professional refurbishing, it’s good as new. Here’s hoping for another leatha-like revival by Rafa in the coming year.

Optimism

Rafa continues to practice as much as he can as he waits for his wrist to heal, expressing optimism that he’ll be ready for the U.S. Open.

If Rafa’s optimistic, then I’m optimistic!

(Also scared that he/I is/are getting his/my hopes up only to be crushed in a few weeks’ time.)

Very optimistic!
(Cautiously. Fearfully.)

Definitely optimistic!
(It reminds me of Chapter 32 of Judy Blume’s sometimes forgotten, often underappreciated in light of bigger hits such as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Tiger Eyes 1987 coming-of-age novel Just As Long As We’re Together, in which the protagonist, Stephanie Hirsch, nickname Hershey Bar, must write an essay for English class in which she completes the sentence: I used to be _____, but I’m not anymore, and she writes, I used to be an optimist, but I’m not anymore, because her parents are getting divorced and her best friend Rachel Robinson is being mean to her, which has effectively squelched her optimism in life. So clearly this situation with Rafa is extremely similar to this. Clearly.

Okay, so it’s not, but the reason it comes to mind is because I used to be more optimistic about Rafa’s injuries. Just a tweak, just a pinch, just a twinge, totally precautionary, he’s okay, he’ll work through it, he’ll play through it, it’s not match-ending, it’s not tournament-ending, it’s not season-ending. Then the knee problem of ’12 occurred. Then the back of ’14 occurred. And so my optimism has started to wane in this regard, primarily for self-protective reasons. (Granted, technically the tournament-ending injuries started all the way back in ’10 at the AO and continued in ’11 at the AO, but I simply chose to ignore those.) I still had/have the optimism re: Rafa’s ability to return from injury; for example, I never doubted he would win the ’13 French Open. Even in July, August, September of ’12, October, November, December, I thought, it’s okay, he’s going to come back and win the French Open next year, because that’s just what he does and who he is. (Okay, so maybe during The Alund Match I doubted slightly.) (Also maybe when he got broken by Diego Sebastian that one time.) (Also I panicked a little when he pulled out of the AO.)

So I’m optimistic on a macrolevel, but hesitant to be too optimistic on the microlevel, although it is very, very tempting considering the the truly ferocious forehands Rafa has been hitting of late (although I don’t agree with the jump forehand at the end on principle, much like I don’t agree with the jump backhand that some players hit on principle (other than for Marcelo Rios who seemed to actually need that extra spring, but otherwise it’s generally an extraneous/showy movement for no real purpose) but for Rafa, I’LL ALLOW IT).

These postings suggest that Rafa wants people to know that he is not planning on a long-term absence, and that he is planning on playing an important tournament in the near future, which I appreciate. But it scares me. But I appreciate it. But it scares me. But I appreciate it. But it scar

I also liked how Toni mentioned the other day that Rafa’s not a novice; he doesn’t need a ton (or any…) matches before the U.S. Open to perform well there. The party line, granted in large part because Rafa has declared this or something similar himself many times over the years, is that Rafa needs practice, Rafa needs reps, Rafa needs matches. Rafa needs rhythm. And yes, ideally, he’ll have those things prior to a big tournament. But, ideally is ideally. Athletes can’t afford to only play or perform well under ideal circumstances, because ideal circumstances are rare. And, Rafa has shown that he can play quite well without a lot of prep, like he did in Montreal and Monte Carlo last year. And, as Toni points out, GS tournaments are long. There’s time for players to work their ways in, provided the draw is reasonable. So he won’t have match play. So he won’t have backhand practice. So what. He’s Rafa. He’s played 839 matches. And his backhand isn’t that reliable/good anyway, so it won’t even be that different if it’s rusty. See? Optimism.

Setback

Some colossally bad news came down the Rafa pike yesterday, with Rafa announcing his withdrawal from the Toronto and Cincinnati Masters with a right wrist injury. I’m stunned, sad, frustrated, and kind of at a loss for words. (granted I’ll probably still muster about 700 or so.) I really wasn’t prepared for Rafa’s four week break from competitive tennis to end in a cast, or for there to be another serious injury to contend with this season, or for him to be ruled out from even attempting to defend two of his three summer hard court season titles, or for there to be a very real possibility of him not playing the U.S. Open for the second time in three years.

The U.S. Open, depressingly, now seems like a no-win proposition for Rafa. If he misses it, it’s yet another missed Major, his third in three years, his eighth overall. So two years, potentially, of missed Majors, out of 10 or so on the tour. That’s pretty staggering (and, that’s not even counting the Majors that he defaulted or de facto defaulted due to injury: AO ’10, AO ’11, AO ’14 fully; USO ’09 and Wimbledon ’12 to some degree). I know Rafa has bristled in the past at being characterized as chronically injured, but unfortunately I don’t think there’s a great argument against that assessment at this point in time, and more unfortunately, the injury issues increasingly dominate “the conversation’ about him, to the point where they overshadow his tennis and his accomplishments, which is annoying and yet, not un-understandable. He’s been injured a lot, in a lot of different places, and missed or been affected at a lot of important tournaments, and it’s an omnipresent concern for him in a way it isn’t for his top rivals, who have stayed mostly remarkably healthy. I do wonder sometimes if Rafa isn’t maybe missing something, or not doing something, that some of his less-felled rivals have or are, not because I’m looking to assign blame, but more because I’m looking for some logic to it all and some reasons beyond “bad luck” or “fragile body” or “grinding playing style” and some hope for eventual solutions–i.e. new methods, new routines, new schedules, new somethings to break this pattern of breakage. This seems especially essential as Rafa gets older, since the tolerance for/ability to bounce back from injuries and all the associated pain and rehab and time out etc. generally diminishes as players age.

If Rafa heals enough to the point where he can play the U.S. Open, he’ll likely be under-practiced and out of match-playing shape and still injured and/or weak and/or tentative and/or compromised on his backhand and service toss, which inevitably will lead to compensation with/overuse of other muscle groups, which inevitably will lead to additional injury, in addition to the original injury getting worse because it wasn’t fully healed to begin with.

So I don’t want Rafa to miss the U.S. Open, even if he can’t win. He’s missed too many Majors and too many important tournaments already. They seem empty without him, and he doesn’t have that many chances left in his career to play them and so he needs to play them even if he’s not in perfect shape because he’s rarely in perfect shape. He can run around the backhands and hit forehands and hit BH slices when he has to and be more aggressive overall to shorten points and hit the service toss with his foot.

I also don’t want Rafa to play while injured. It’s ultimately a waste of time and he’s just going to make it worse and he’s going to be all lost and anxious on the court because he can’t do what he wants to do and he’s going to be thinking about the wrist and then if it hurts too much he might even have to retire during a match and then his season could be over and he’ll be out for seven months again.

Unfortunately these two relatively reasonable desires seem diametrically opposed at the moment. Maybe something will change; maybe the wrist will heal faster than expected; maybe he can play well even without a lot of practice; maybe it won’t turn out to be as big of a deal as it seems like it is right now. Rafa is, notably, continuing to hit forehands, and even ventured a small joke. A (albeit tiny) positive sign.

July

July persists. It’s not the worst month to persist, of all the months that could be persisting, but still, it seems more…persistent than usual this year. Perhaps the Earth is, as I’ve long suspected, secretly slowing down and NASA isn’t telling us and it’s a big conspiracy. Or, maybe Rafa and most of the other best players in the world have been out of commission for a few weeks and so the month is dragging, tennis-wise (of course, considering I’m always complaining about the impossible to keep up with deluginess of tennis news around the Majors, I should actually enjoy the dragginess. And yet.). Then again, the same scenario unfolded last July, and I don’t remember it feeling quite so draggy. So the Earth thing it is.

The Rise of the Planet of Players 23 and Under
Over the past few weeks, teenagers including Nick Kyrgios, Alexander Zverev, and Borna Coric have achieved success on the tour, defeating accomplished veterans such as Roger-Vasselin, Zeballos, Haase, Youzhny, Giraldo, Kamke, Robert, and Gasquet. Yup. That’s all the veterans who have fallen to teenagers. Didn’t forget and/or strategically omit any of them. Nope.

Moreover, 21-year-old Bernard Tomic won a title in Bogota, and 23-year-olds Dimitrov and Raonic advanced to the semifinals at Wimbledon. 20-year-old Dominic Thiem and 21-year-old Jiri Vesely also have proven themselves to be promising young talents. Both Dimitrov and his fellow 23-year-old Raonic are in the top 10. Youngsters like Garin and Kozlov and Tiafoe and Kokkinakis are waiting in the wings.

Even my admittedly cursory paying attention to this youthcentric trend has led me to one undeniable conclusion: I am not ready. I am not ready to develop irrational loves and antiloves and simmering resentments and soaring exaltations for these 5+-year-younger-than-Rafa & co strangers who hit balls over nets with impressive speed and accuracy. I am not ready to debate if Coric is more talented than Kyrgios, or if Thiem’s one-handed backhand is a blessing or a curse, or if Zverev should move up on second serve returns, or if Raonic is more or less boring than Vesely, or if Vesely is actually more boring but less annoying, because Raonic is more annoying. I know the guys on the tour, and these aren’t those guys, and I don’t have time to learn new guys.

Of course, as I type this, I notice that Tommy R. defeated 23-year-old Pablo Carreno Busta 1 and 4. And Ferrer demolished Zverev last week, 0 and 1. So maybe it’s not so dire. Maybe it’s just a bit of a dull spot in the calendar and the teenagers are taking advantage. Maybe the Earth is still slow.

Rafa Practices
Speaking of young players, Rafa has been practicing with Christian Garin.

Rafa’s also practiced with Tiafoe, Kozlov, Coric, and Kokkinakis over the past year or so. He’s said that he enjoys practicing with young players because it gives them an opportunity to gain some top-level experience, and it gives him the opportunity to tailor practices exactly how he wants them. That’s all well and good, but given “the rise” described above, maybe it’s safer for Rafa to go back to practicing with 38-year-old doubles specialists...

Looking Ahead
Toni recently said that he would sign for Rafa losing in the first (actually second, given the bye) rounds of Toronto and Cincy but winning the U.S. Open. Now, technically, I would sign as well, because a Grand Slam is worth more than two Masters, even though technically it’s worth the same. But, I really don’t see the need to be talkin’ about Rafa losing in the first rounds, Tones. I’m not saying Rafa has to win both Masters leading up to the U.S Open in order to have any chance at the U.S. Open, but, particularly given what happened at Wimbledon, I do think these two Masters are important, more important than they were in say, 2010, when Rafa had won Wimbledon and had his eye on the USO and was clearly using Toronto and Cincy to work on some things in preparation for that (not that I’m saying he intentionally lost by any means, because that’s just not how Rafa operates, but more that losing in those tournaments was simply an inevitable result of playing seven best-of-five matches at Wimbledon/having less July rest to begin with, and trying to tweak his game for optimal success on the hard courts leading up to the USO. Also not challenging that second serve that was actually a double fault and which would have given him the break vs. Murray in Toronto hurt him. NOT THAT I’M STILL HUNG UP ON THAT EVEN THOUGH THIS IS AT LEAST THE SECOND TIME I’VE MENTIONED IT HERE. Don’t even get me started on the Marcos match…). Just as it was last year, it’s crucial this year for Rafa to re-establish the positive momentum he built in Roland Garros as soon as possible in order to ensure the Wimbledon loss remains a minor blip and not the beginning of a pattern.

Of course, last year, vis-à-vis regaining his momentum, I boldly recommended/predicted that Rafa would sweep the summer hard court season by winning Montreal, Cincy, and the U.S. Open. Everyone thought I was crazy. “She’s crazy!” they said. (They being the army of detractors, most of whom are stuffed animals, who live in my head.) “I am not crazy!” I replied pointedly to the stuffed animals. “Yes, yes you are,” said the pink rabbit with scented jellybeans on his stomach. “Yes, she is,” said Pepper the spotted pound puppy with stuffing come out of his eye where the cat got to him. “Definitely is,” piped Huggles the gray bear with attached green Christmas hat and scarf adorned with snowflakes. “We’ll see who’s crazy after the summer hard court season!” I retorted, tossing my hair defiantly before riding off on my motorcycle. And I think we all know how that turned out–Rafa won it all, the animals got their long-due comeuppance, and I was confirmed as being completely and totally 100% sane, and really, more than sane. Supersane. Hypersane. Amazasane. May I be equally amazasane this year.

BBQ

Rafa hosted a poker BBQ (totally a thing) last week, about which this article and this article were written, and during which this video was filmed:

In the interviews, Rafa talks a little bit about his original (negative) perceptions of the world of poker, his hesitancy to sign with PokerStars as a result (he turned them down the first time they asked), his eventual change of heart (against his father/manager’s wishes), and how he enjoys the game for its strategic/analytical/social aspects. He also talks  about his competitive philosophy in general, saying that for him, it’s not so much the winning that’s fun, but rather the competition itself (granted, that end goal of winning is what drives the competition, so clearly loving to compete and loving to win are closely connected; and Rafa says himself in the interview, I live to win, and he points out that winning/giving maximum effort is the only thing that gives sport meaning in the first place. But, he also says that easy victories, while he’s happy to get them out of the way, don’t fulfill him; he’s fulfilled when he’s suffered and endured and in the end, been better than his rival (granted, he names the AO ’12 final as a match he was proud of even though he didn’t win it.)). Obviously, this isn’t new information–Rafa has talked at length over the years about “enjoying the suffering” and his slightly unconventional approach to sport–but the little added tidbits here and there are always interesting. Increasingly, and despite the prevalent counternarrative that Rafa’s self-admitted self-doubts and permareverence for his opponents mean he’s perpetually insecure and constantly afraid on court, it seems to me that much of Rafa’s brilliance owes to the fact that he is, the vast majority of the time, because of his focus on the intellectual and physical challenge of competition in the moment rather than the end result–not afraid to lose, which frees him to take (or not take) the risks he needs to take or not take to win, with his nine Roland Garros titles, most of which were won after the exuberance of youth had worn off and Rafa knew exactly what there was to lose, as the most convincing proof. Clearly there are exceptions and clearly there are still nerves and clearly being unafraid of losing does not mean one never loses and clearly there’s a balance to be maintained between not being afraid to lose and not caring about losing; but, in the battle between fearing losing and not fearing losing, the former ironically all but guaranteeing the fate it’s designed to avoid, Rafa usually wins, and he also enjoys any suffering that must be had while not being afraid to lose, which is part of what makes him a unique, fascinating, incredible sportsman.

But even unique, fascinating, incredible sportsmen need some downtime. And so Rafa went to da club on Friday night where he ran into, of all people, Martina Navratilova.

I clapped with delight at this, because it is delightful. Also vaguely reminiscent of the time I ran into my fifth grade teacher in da club, granted that was more horrifying at the time, hilarious in retrospect, than delightful. I also turned it into a game with a friend who was lucky enough to be sitting next to me when I discovered it. (Omg, you’re not going to believe who Rafa ran into in da club! I don’t really care. Guess! I don’t c…*sigh* Who? Guess! Who? Guess! Shakira. No, but good guess! Guess again. John McEnroe. Also no, but again, good guess! Is it a tennis player? Yes! A woman? Yes! Serena? No. Again though, I am impressed by your guessing. Older or younger? Older. Martina? Which one? Navratilova. YES.)

Finally, because I’m going to have to at some point address this, or maybe not, if it doesn’t actually come to fruition, which will make all of this pointless, but anyway: Sleevegate. Rafa’s projected/expected U.S. Open kit has incited a new iteration of Sleevegate. This is, I believe, the biggest Sleevegate since Sleevegate ’09 (Michelle Obama edition), bigger even than Sleevegate ’13 (Mathieu Flamini edition), and perhaps as equally big as Sleevegate ’04 and/or Sleevegate ’09 (Rafa editions I and II), but maybe not quite as big as Sleevegate ’02 (He’s Tommy Haas edition), which was the original (tennis) Sleevegate. Needless to say, sleeves and/or lack thereof and/or associated exposed arms and/or lack thereof, historically and currently, get people riled. Ril’d. Rild.

Personally, I’m for it, if it does indeed happen, because it’s something a little fun and different, and Rafa obviously has the arms to pull it off, and, I also see the practical advantage (i.e. more freedom of movement/less clingy sweaty fabric, granted most tennis players, including Rafa, seemingly don’t find sleeves all that bothersome given how frequently they elect to wear them). At the same time, I’ve kind of given up on focusing too much on Rafa’s kits because I generally don’t like them, although sometimes I think I don’t like them only to later discover that I do like them (French Open ’10 being an example of that–at first I found the shirt juvenile and dated, owing mostly to the fact that, as I think I’ve shared before, it was eerily similar to the winter coat I wore in kindergarten, and I thought everyone would laugh at Rafa for wearing it, much like everyone laughed at me for wearing that coat (kidding…maybe); in retrospect, though, I think that was probably Rafa’s best/most signature kit ever, and the shirt actually became a best seller, spotted on a fairly constant basis on random fans around the world (and, Marcos Baghdatis’ coach at the time, if I recall correctly), although sometimes I also aggressively hate them for the duration of the tournaments (the U.S. Open night kit last year being an example of that–I tried to convince myself I liked it–He looks like he’s made of iron! He’s strong as steel!–but it never looked anything other than heavy and gloomy and drab to me; don’t even get me started on the members only-esque glow-in-the-dark jacket…), although sometimes I do like them from the beginning–the prism purple he wore in February of ’13, and the kelly green that followed at IW, for example, or the saturated blue at RG ’11, or Wimbledon ’10, with the V-neck and the pink detailing, although it seems less so lately given Nike’s obsession with gray and off-white, and so in the end it doesn’t really matter, and so, as I mentioned at the beginning of this sentence, and as this sentence/paragraph clearly demonstrates with its brevity and straightforward non-focusingness, I don’t focus on it, and instead strive to focus on Rafa’s wise words from ’09: the important thing in the end is not the clothes, but the ball and the racquet and the playing well.

 

Moonball Mauler

It’s Rafa!

Back in action! Back on the court! The blue court, under the blue sky, wearing a blue shirt! Which he’s practiced on/under/in before so unfortunately I’ve already used all my blue puns/allusions/rhymes/references! (Rhapsody in blue true blue blue suede shoes blue like the ocean blue like the sea into the blue out of the blue blue moon blue bayou blue Christmas (Nadal)!) Practicing his serves! With ilusión! And enthusiasm! Don’t even tell me someone has told Rafa ilusión is not a word in English and now he’s going to start using enthusiasm because that would be sad! Also he is possibly foot faulting! But that’s okay! That’s what practice is for! Plus maybe he’s just hitting a baseline overhead! Which he really could have used at 4-2 15-30 in the fourth set of the French Open final! But he missed it! But that’s okay, because he won anyway! But just in general, probably better to have made it! Generally! For the future! And maybe that’s why he’s practicing it! It is legitimately a tough shot so it is understandable to miss a few here and there! Do you go big or do you go conservative?! I usually go conservative! And hit a moonball! They call me the moonball mauler! Because I maul you with the moonballs! And I have no shame about it! No shame at all!

Okay maybe a little bit of shame.

Holiday

Celebrate!

.

Holiday!

.

Celebrate!

.

Call me crazy, but I think I just might have a hit song on my hands here.

So Rafa’s been on holiday, or, as we call it here in the U.S., vacation. All I ever wanted. Vacation. Had to get away. Vacation. Meant to be spent alone. (And/or, in Rafa’s case, with six close friends.)

I am basically a songwriting machine right now.

Of course, often times people go on vacations during holidays, making it a holiday vacation. Vacation holiday? Holiday holiday.

This is going well I think.

So Rafa’s been on holiday, and looking somewhat, really completely, outrageously good, not that I’ve been monitoring the Daily Mail‘s daily updates of paparazzi shots of Rafa on the boat or anything, jajajajajaja. No, no, definitely no monitoring going on over here. Lightly skimming, maybe. Absent-mindedly browsing, perhaps. Accidentally scanning, conceivably.

So there hasn’t been much going on on the Rafa front, with Rafa on holiday and the associated conceivables and such, although there has been a rare July ‘fuffle, owing to the ATP’s breathless announcement last week that Djokovic was the first to qualify for the World Tour Finals, except apparently Rafa already had qualified in June, except the ATP apparently wasn’t aware of this, and/or forgot about this, and it was a ‘fuffle. Now apparently they are aware of this (although why it took them a week to become aware when they were notified of the discrepancy by dozens of people immediately and acknowledged they did indeed receive the notifications but then claimed the notifiers were incorrect but then never provided any reasoning/proof of this and now a week later, with no tennis having been played by Rafa therefore it must have been a mistake because it’s not like he gained points, are reversing themselves) and are ready to admit their mistake although once again it’s not totally clear why this took a week because even if they are slow math-doers, which I can certainly relate to, as I was always that student who took the full class period to complete all the math tests, even the short ones, and who looked around anxiously as everyone else breezily and triumphantly walked to the front of the class to turn in their tests and there I was still toiling away at my desk and I wondered if I was somehow overcomplicating things, which I most definitely was, although my slowness also was in large part because I insisted on double-checking all my work, which is something it seems that the ATP generally does not do, they should have been able to correct the error within, like, a couple of hours, assuming they understand their own formula/system, which I personally don’t, which is why I generally don’t get overly involved/caught up in this business, but then again I don’t work for the ATP, so I have an excuse. So apparently they’re going to make the announcement tomorrow, presumably as a footnote to a footnote in a story about the doubles final in Portoroz.

Also Toni said that he’s not worried about Rafa losing the #1 ranking (something I kind of forgot about until about midway through the Wimbledon final when I realized I really should be rooting for Roger since him winning protected that ranking, at least for a while; of course one could also argue Djokovic winning protected Rafa’s chance of catching Federer’s GS total; Rufus winning would have protected both), the problem is losing to Kyrgios. Agreed. Also he’s not worried about the fact that Rafa has 4000 points to defend in North America over the next two months because he thinks Rafa is in the same conditions as his top rivals (e.g. Djokovic, Federer). Mostly agreed. I can’t say I’m totally not worried about all the points Rafa has to defend, because it is a lot of points and it is in my nature to worry, but, Rafa played great tennis at the French Open and he’s looking great in pink shorts on holiday, so when you add it all up, he’s well-poised for a great great run on the hard courts.

Off to write more songs…

Wimbledon Final Thoughts

1. Delayed postmortem (I’ve been away…luckily, I’ve dutifully preserved all my post-loss melancholy and discontent and will unload it now!): Rafa’s loss to Kyrgios in the fourth round is one that seems both infinitely worse and largely irrelevant in retrospect. Worse, because: Kyrgios is 19; he’s not that good; he should have/almost lost to Gasquet; he lost to/was broken easily by Raonic in the next round (yes, in part because Rafa tired him out, but still–Raonic broke him. Multiple times. And, he even won a higher percentage of Kyrgios’ second serve points than did Rafa, which is where Rafa lost the match. As Isner, Karlovic, et al. have shown over the years with their lack of big tournament wins and in fact frequent early exits at said big tournaments, aces/unreturnable first serves alone are not enough. Second serve points are where it’s at (I got two turn tables and a microphone), and Rafa allowed Kyrgios to win over 50% of those, which can’t happen against a player who is also winning 80%+ of first service points, unless Rafa is winning like 70% of his own second serve points, which he wasn’t.), who is not that good; there is a .1-.9% chance that Murray, Djokovic, or Federer would have even remotely struggled with him and as much as I try to not compare because Rafa is his own special snowflake and he can do lots of things they can’t do and vice versa, etc. as it typically is with snowflakes, it’s impossible to not, occasionally, compare snowflakes, and in this instance, I don’t think the other snowflakes would have melted, even under the Australian heat that is Nick Kyrigos. Irrelevant, because: he lost, just as he’s lost early the last two years, and that’s just how it is/might always be from here on out at Wimbledon and that’s fine and he’s done fine elsewhere despite it and (still somewhat to my chagrin and yet realistically), Rafa can’t win them all, and if he’s going to have a bad surface, it might as well be the one that the tour only spends about a month on. He’s getting older and his success on the grass, as Rafa himself often brings up, was always tenuous, and with age, those tenuous wins often transition into tenuous, or even not-so-tenuous, losses.

2. Hunger Games: Rafa didn’t sound particularly hungry in his post-match presser. This is what I maybe picked up on and what bothered me a little bit about the loss to Brown in Halle a few weeks back–Rafa’s attitude was not, this is what I did wrong, this is what I need to do better, it was, I tried, shrug, I lost, shrug (and by the way, this was a waste of time). It was easy to justify/rationalize then, because Rafa was coming off of an incredibly intense and successful couple of weeks in Roland Garros, and it was small warm-up tournament, and a tough draw. But, it still just seemed uncharacteristic for him to attach such little worth to a tournament result, even if it was negative and didn’t go the way he wanted it to, and I didn’t like it.

Flash forward to Wimbledon, and it seemed like, at least for the first two rounds, the desire, and intensity, was back, even if the tennis itself wasn’t stellar. But then there was the third round against Kukushkin, in which Rafa, inexplicably to my eyes, didn’t really show up for the first set–he was flat, he seemed annoyed and distracted and unhappy, and he didn’t do anything particularly special, or even all that well, on the court. He turned it up thereafter, clearly, but going to four against a player who doesn’t have an unbreakable serve, is not known for his comfort on grass, and who doesn’t typically perform well against top players, wasn’t a good sign. Then he lost to Kyrgios and his post-match presser–while very informative and lucid and balanced and insightful and oh so slightly, heartrendingly wistful (vis-à-vis his reflections on playing young and free)–once again displayed that resigned/satisfied attitude–I tried, I lost, shrug. On the one hand, it’s great, and healthy, that he doesn’t dwell on losses, and I certainly wouldn’t want or expect him to. And I know he tried his best in the moment. On the other hand, I think there is a fine line between accepting a loss and being a little too casual/indifferent about it. On some level, and as much as I hate to quote Chris Evert but I’m inadvertently going to do so now because she said the same thing after Bouchard lost and I don’t want to not acknowledge that I did in fact hear her say that because I did, but I’m not copying because I would have said this anyway and it’s not like it’s the most original thought to begin with anyway–it should hurt. It didn’t seem to hurt for Rafa. This worries me.

Back to my hands, on the one hand, he’s not Bouchard, i.e. he’s not 20, he’s already accomplished essentially all there is to accomplish in tennis and in fact invented new things to accomplish after he accomplished all the things to accomplish, and so he’s not going to have that same kind of raw desire a younger player is going to have to win tournaments. He’s just not. On the other hand, though, there does need to be some desire, some hunger, some special motivation, and really not even some, but a lot. He didn’t have it for Wimbledon this year. Again, as I mentioned in #1, that’s fine, it really is. Roland Garros #9 was a huge triumph for him, and him being exhausted from that effort and not doing that well at Wimbledon is normal; him doing so well all those other years was the crazy part, but as he’s apt to do, he made crazy stuff seem normal because he was doing it all the time. At the same time, look who won Wimbledon–someone who played just as many matches as Rafa did at Roland Garros, felt a great deal of pressure himself, and, who walked away the loser no less. One could argue that made him hungrier for Wimbledon, I suppose, and one might be right. (I don’t know, I’ve got my hands full monitoring Rafa’s hunger, so I can’t really be bothered to monitor Djokovic’s.) The point is: I hope Rafa regains the hunger after this July hiatus and comes back refreshed and renewed and rejuvenated and other facial cream commercial adjectives, as well as sharp and eager and focused and motivated, for the American hard court season, just like he did last year. Wanting it doesn’t equate winning it, but it does help.

3. Bad habits: Still on the hunger theme, another related concern is that the kinds of matches Rafa played and ultimately lost at Wimbledon, and the kind of shrug attitude that followed, can become habits. And in fact, the match thing–i.e. starting flat and losing the first set and being in an uncomfortable deficit from the beginning–kind of has become a habit this year, with Rafa dropping the first set in 19 of his 52 matches so far. Rafa also has seemingly struggled with motivation on and off throughout the season (the (in)famous “lack of spark”), at times in part due to injury, at times in part due to the loss in Australia and its aftermath, and at times in part due to cumulative exhaustion/general humanness and/or other unknown factors.

While I’m on the topic, another really bad habit lately is losing tiebreaks. Rafa is an underwhelming to put it generously 3-8 in tiebreaks since Indian Wells, and only 11-10 on the year. (he won five alone in Australia, which has buoyed the stat.) That’s really got to change.

4. Obviously what I’m talking about in #1-3 above but am kind of talking around because it hurts to talk about directly is, you know, time and age and mutability and youth and beauty and the fleetingness therein and all of those big life themes that somehow get compressed and concentrated and put on display in professional tennis players aged 18-35, where 18 is 18 and 35 is 90. Rafa’s not going to last forever and as he gets older and as the time he has left as a pro becomes smaller and smaller, particularly as compared to the time he’s already spent as a pro, it’s hard not to think about that fact and wonder how many more opportunities he has left and how long he’s going to want to keep going and how successful he can be during the latter stages of his career. When Rafa was 23, 24, 25, 26, I scoffed and rolled my eyes, and rightly so, clearly, at the questions and speculations about how long he would last, have we seen his best stuff, blah blah blah. Now that’s he 28, it’s a little bit different, and random losses are a little bit tougher to take, and the questions about his future a little bit harder to reasonably keep at bay. Then again, Rafa’s career has always been peppered with random losses; it’s part of his snowflakeness. Then again, the inexorable march of time. Then again.

5. Murray–I was extremely surprised with how many people were predicting Murray to make the final and/or win the title again this year at Wimbledon. I wondered if I was missing something and/or there was something I didn’t know–e.g. Murray was secretly practicing at a level of tennis previously unseen on planet Earth–or, if it was just the typical mostly irrational Murray Mania thing that occurs prior to Wimbledon. I was somewhat reassured to have the latter confirmed, not because I wish ill on Murray, but once again, because I found the hype and expectations for him confusing. (I also found them extremely confusing, even moreso really, at the French Open when people were saying he had a good chance to beat Rafa in the semis. Yes, he obviously played Rafa close in Rome, but still, that was a bit of a leap.) Murray has been struggling all year and it seemed vaguely crazy to expect him to come out of nowhere and be able to beat top players in high-pressure situations when he hasn’t even come close to doing that lately, and in fact has been losing to less than top-ranked players in low or at least lower pressure situations all year. There are not a lot of miracles in tennis, and the best predictor of future form is typically recent past form. (Rafa’s Wimbledon results notwithstanding, since that is such a specialty surface, and that’s what I’ve decided.)

6. My prediction for the final was Djokovic in four, which it really should have been, so I was basically right. This wasn’t exactly rocket science, and I’m guessing most people predicted the same, unless they got caught up in the sentimentalism of Federer’s back on top at age 32!, which is quite possible, and not wholly un-understandable, because it obviously would have been quite a story. But alas, much as with the women’s final, the media didn’t get the story they so wanted and instead had to settle for, you know, pesky reality and facts and truths and stuff. Of course, being the nimble narrative weavers they are, they’ve already weaved narratives out of the non-narratives (e.g. re-purposing The Return of the King into The Return of the King (for a Set or Two; Still Totally Counts, Right?); Djokovic’s rocky and ill-tempered road to the title is him putting his GS demons to bed/the beginning of his ascent back into the realm of the unbeatable instead of further evidence that he remains extremely vulnerable to players who play well) because nothing happens if it’s not a narrative (preferably narrated by Tom Rinaldi in his Hush, I’m narrating a narrative voice). Federer is still good enough to win one, maybe even two sets off of Djokovic and Rafa, but there’s no evidence to support the idea that he can, at this point in time, win three, because eventually the match is going to become about rallies, and eventually his forehand and/or backhand is going to break down, because eventually his first serve is going to stop going in, and even if it does go in, Djokovic is going to do a spider splay and get back in play at some seemingly impossible angle/depth, or Rafa is going to anticipate exactly where it’s going and be waiting and bunt it back, and then Federer is going to hit the next shot authoritatively, elegantly…into the net.

Obviously, Djokovic almost choked away the match, but, even given that, he really wasn’t ever losing the match after the second set (and really after the first set, even, considering that he lost it in TB–yes, he lost, but he knew that was basically just because of his own mistakes and he wasn’t being comprehensively outplayed, or anything close to it) despite the fact that he wasn’t playing all that well, and therein was Federer’s problem: Djokovic was often quite average, and despite that, Federer could only manage to, at best, stay just even with him. That can’t happen if one wants to beat Djokovic, as Rafa has demonstrated in his last four GS meetings with Djokovic. When Djokovic’s level drops, one must pounce, immediately, and when it comes back up, one must try to match him, win the important points, etc., and if he’s still too good, wait, and if he’s still too good, well, then too good. Djokovic can play suffocating tennis; he didn’t yesterday. Federer couldn’t take advantage, though, because he’s not as good as he used to be, and, somewhat relatedly, Djokovic is better. As the kids say, end of.

7. My preference for the winner was Rufus the Hawk. I really thought he could stage the upset, what with his wings and all, but the opposable thumb issue struck again. Other than that, in a way, I wanted Federer to win, since he already has a lot of Wimbledon titles and why not just throw another one in there, not like he’d have nine or anything (*smug smile*), but in a way I wanted Djokovic to win because I thought that would prevent the The King Returns narratives (that was a futile wish) plus it did seem like he was kind of “due” given all the finals he’s made and why not fulfill that “dueness” when Rafa is conveniently not across the net, plus Federer Chuckles burned whatever good will I was feeling toward him following his amusingly cut the BS/matter-of-fact declaration to the bumbling press that Rafa was the RG favorite, which was, even at the time, I realized, more motivated by ego than anything else (a guy beats me five times at a tournament, he’s the favorite) with his petty and passive-aggressive needling of Rafa over the time between points issue, delivered with the perpetually unchallenged subtext that whatever he thinks is right and how things should be. So in the end, I was back for Rufus.

And, in a way, Rufus did win, didn’t he? He did.

The Losing Part

is not as fun as the winning part. Not. as. fun.

Clearly Rafa’s round of 16 match really didn’t go as planned, which is to say he lost. It’s tough, hard, frustrating, gut-wrenching, disappointing, and many other adjectives. And while it’s unexpected and shocking to a degree given the opponent, it’s not wholly shocking due to Rafa’s struggles at Wimbledon the past few years against somewhat random opponents and his struggles in his first three rounds this year against similarly generally not particularly dangerous and yet quite suddenly dangerous to Rafa opponents. The good news is, Rafa did improve considerably on grass this year as compared to ’12 and ’13. The bad news is that it does not look like grass is ever going to be what it was for him in the past, and Wimbledon has taken on a kind of sad and gloomy tint (for me at least) as a result.

On to the hard courts…

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 121 other followers