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.

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!

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Holiday!

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Celebrate!

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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…

Round of 16

Rafa made the round of 16! In honor of this occasion, I made a graphic.

ro16

I know, I know–it’s amazing. Rest assured it took me years to develop the skills necessary to construct masterpie such as this. Years.

As far as Rafa’s 3rd round match, the winning of which advanced him to the round of 16 (see above for amazing graphic)–clearly it didn’t go exactly as planned, which is to say Rafa didn’t win in three routine sets, instead winning in three routine sets after somewhat unexpectedly dropping the first set. Not too shabby all in all, although that first set obviously could have gone better. The main issue there was that Rafa had some chances throughout the set–30-30s and Deuces, etc.–to get a break point and wrest control of the match from the beginning, but he was a bit casual and/or tight and/or error-strewn (particularly with the backhand and the second serve returns) in those moments, and so the next thing one knows, the slight-framed Kukushkin has suddenly transformed into a firebreathing winnerhitting dragon. (This was one thing I overlooked about Kukushkin in my pre-match assessment–while I wouldn’t classify him as a “ball basher” necessarily, he can be a bit of a shot maker, à la a Youzhny or a Fognini for example, and so that can make life difficult for the opponent, as Rafa found in that first set.) In the tiebreak, Rafa, who had been serving so well in the lead-up games, all of a sudden couldn’t find a first serve, and it cost him, specifically the first set. On the one hand, this wasn’t quite a worrying as it was against Rosol or even Klizan, who have bigger games; I, as well as Rafa, I suspect, kind of knew he could turn it up at will and swat the dragon away as needed. (As much respect as Rafa has for every opponent he faces, I do remember him making a comment along these lines re: el gran Teymuraz in Monte Carlo, i.e. “I think I still have little bit of room to win that match, even with the 4‑1,” i.e. he knows there are still a few gears he can go up and a few tactics he can use to expose certain opponents’ weaknesses if he’s in trouble; against certain other opponents, a good start is more crucial. Granted, that comment also was made in relation to a clay match, which gives more options in general (and especially for Rafa) because the surface is conducive to more balls in play for longer.) On the other hand, it maybe isn’t the best habit to get into, losing the first set, as it puts a lot of pressure on the second set, no matter the opponent. Continued difficulty breaking and/or one poorly timed bad service game in the second, and all of a sudden things are pretty dire. Rafa also seemed to be slightly and inexplicably flat throughout the first set yesterday. I first suspected he might be off when the camera showed him about to take the court, lips sucked in, eyes narrowed, and face discernibly cloudy. It reminded me of how he looked before his match against Dolgopolov in IW–i.e. just not happy to be there. He’s always tense in these moments, but sometimes he looks eager, and determined. Not so much yesterday. It also brings to mind something he mentioned in his book–how he, like anyone, has good and bad days, for no particular reasons, and that this can affect how he plays in matches. I think most people can probably relate to this. Sometimes you wake up and feel like you can conquer the world and everything goes just how you want it to all day; sometimes you don’t make it past 8 am without spilling an entire bottle of water on yourself in the car and have to go into work with wet pants. So perhaps that’s the culprit behind the occasional cloudiness (not wet pants specifically, obviously, more the condition of general off-ness that causes the wet pants…the metaphorical wet pants…possibly actual wet pants in my case.). In any case, the clouds parted in the second set, with Rafa taking over the shot making duties for the afternoon and cruising to the victory with renewed panache and vigor.

Next up for Rafa is Nick Kyrgios, a 19-year-old #144-ranked Australian wildcard who won 8 matches (including qualifying) to win the Nottingham Challenger on grass the week prior to Wimbledon. He’s 6’4 and has a big serve, with 76 aces through three matches. But, he’s also faced 29 BPs across those three matches and been broken 6 times, although he notably saved 9 MPs vs Gasquet in the third round, after being down two sets to love. In Australia this past year, he beat Benjamin Becker in four before falling to Paire in the second round, after being up two sets and a break in the third. I believe he’s also known as a bit of a showman, not lacking in confidence, who relishes the big stage.

Part of me says, “this kid is 19, he’s played 13 tour-level matches in his entire career so far, he’s 6-7 in those matches, he’s played 9 GS matches, he’s 5-4 in those matches, I don’t care how big his serve is, he’s going to be way out of his league against Rafa and Rafa will demolish him accordingly, just like he did with Thiem in Roland Garros.” But then the other part of me says, “A big serve can make up for a lot of leagues.” And it can; Isner and Raonic are both top-10ish players, but give them the serve of David Ferrer or even Tomas Berdych, and I doubt that they would be in the top-50 (and that may be generous). Their ground games and net games and movement and court sense are just not there on any consistent basis, and moreover, the success they do have in those aspects of their games suddenly becomes a lot less likely without the benefit of blasting their opponents off the court in every service game and thus creating a lot of stress and uncertainty and pressure for their opponents and a lot of freedom for themselves on return games. Rafa has a great record against big servers–he is in fact the only member of the “big 4″ who has not lost to Karlovic, Isner, or Raonic–although his matches against players like this tend to be angstful. But, Kyrgios is not Karlovic, Isner, or Raonic. I would think (I don’t know for sure, since I’ve never seen him play) that his serve is not quite as powerful or well-directed (he’s not as tall as the many of the big servers, for starters), and that it will be less effective against a strong returner like Rafa than it was against Robert, Gasquet, and Vesely. I would also guess that even if Kyrgios’ ground game is holding up relatively well against other opponents, it will struggle against Rafa’s, who plays at a different level and serves/hits the ball with more spin than any of those guys. So the goal/hope is that Rafa can figure out and dismantle Kyrgios’ game relatively quickly and win in straight sets with as little energy expended as possible on Tuesday, because, per the scheduling blow dealt yesterday, he’s going to have to play his quarterfinal match (against Nishikori, Bolelli, or Raonic) on Wednesday, should he advance.

Re: the scheduling blow–as a result of four and half hours of rain (a bit ridiculous that such a seemingly non-catastrophic rain delay–i.e., it’s not like it’s been raining for three straight days or something–can lead to what it is leading to), the Isner-Lopez and Istomin-Wawrinka matches in Rafa’s half were cancelled (even though they could have been started and potentially finished on outer courts, or played today, on middle Sunday), and Nishikori-Bolelli in Rafa’s quarter didn’t finish, and so even though Rafa finished his match and his next opponent finished his match, Wimbledon is holding back the bottom half of the draw until Tuesday for their round-of-16 matches, meaning that on Monday, the top half players will be playing for or potentially be in the quarterfinals, while some bottom half guys will still be playing their third round matches, and the winner of those matches will then have to play their round of 16 and quarterfinals on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. This is, obviously, completely unfair and unacceptable, as the top half (weather-permitting) will continue on their merry way of one day off between matches, whereas really unlucky bottom half guys will have to play three best of five matches in three days, and slightly less but still unlucky guys will have to play two best of five matches in two days. It’s truly infuriating, and disappointing. I generally have a heart of stone in relation to any of Rafa’s potential opponents in a given tournament, but even I am feeling affronted and defensive on behalf of the likes of Stan and Isner and Feli, who are getting completely screwed over and have absolutely no avenue for recourse. Rafa isn’t in the perfect position either, but it’s still a salvageable one, and he’s dealt with similar and actually far worse situations in the past (most notably in ’07 at Wimbledon, when his 3rd round match against Soderling started on Saturday and finished on Wednesday, meaning Rafa played part of his third round and all of his fourth round, quarter, semi, and final matches consecutively with no rest days.), so this is nothing new for him. And, obviously, the focus at this point is only on the Kyrgios match as it is…and maybe a little soccer, to boot. #punfullyandproudlyintended

Ghost Stories

Just another casual relaxed day on Centre Court for Rafa…






(I think this may be my new favorite guttural scream. Before it was the “SÍ” Rafa bellowed after breaking John Isner in the fourth set of his first-round match at Roland Garros in 2011, on four truly mind-bending return winners/de facto winners in row, but this one may top it. Or maybe not. I mean, four return winners, man. Cuatro. Against Isner. And Rafa had to leap up and take one of them like three feet above his shoulder–it was literally like a backhand overhead return winner, maybe the first one ever struck in history. The Monte Carlo ’12 roar was a good one, too, although lacking in audio, at least in my broadcast, therefore it doesn’t tend to get as much attention.

This concludes the guttural scream discussion.

(for now.))

There was a lot of ghost talk around this match. When Rafa was losing: the ghosts of 2012 are haunting Rafa; Rafa’s not just playing Rosol, he’s fighting the ghosts of the past; the ghosts are in Rafa’s head; the ghosts of Wimbledon loom large; and then when he won: Rafa’s laid the ghosts to rest; Rafa’s banished the ghosts; ghosts begone for Rafa; Casper and friends have left the building.

Were there ghosts floating around in the catacombs of Centre Court and/or Rafa’s head today? Did he confront them and slay them, with a resounding Vamos to boot? Can one really slay a ghost, given that they are, you know, ghosts, and if one can, and if Rafa did, is he a modern day Ghost Buster, and if so, who you gonna call, Ghost Busters Rafa?! Or is all the white fabric on display at Wimbledon playing tricks on the mind(s), making people see things that aren’t really there, invent tales that rouse the senses and tingle the spine, in the most deliciously enthralling of ways? I’m leaning toward the Ghost Buster theory myself…

Rafa’s stats were really impressive in this match–11 aces, 79% of first serves in, 75% of first serves won, 62% of second serves won, 3/7 BPs won, 3/5 BPs saved, 33% of return points won, 48 winners, and 11 UFEs. He improved drastically on the two weaknesses in his first round match–BPs faced and second serve points won–from 13 to 5 and from 41% to 62%–and yet he was, in this match, in even bigger trouble than he was in the last match–down a set and a break, and then 3-5 and 5-6 in the second set TB, i.e. a point away from being down 2 sets to love. It’s kind of amazing (and slightly maddening) just how well Rafa had to play today to win. Even in the first set that he lost, Rafa was pretty sharp–82% of first serves in, 70% of first serve points won, and 60% of second serve points won. Those numbers generally would get Rafa at least to a tiebreak. The problem was that Rosol won 88% and 67% of his first and second serve points in that set (I would argue mostly due to great serving rather than poor returning on Rafa’s part), and so there was no cushion and no opportunity for Rafa to get back in the set after he had one shaky service game and was broken. Such is grass court tennis, as Rafa often points out. Fortunately and extraordinarily, Rafa was able to elevate his game even more as the match went on, and when it was needed most, in order to secure the victory.

Next up is (hopefully) a slightly less ball-bashy opponent for Rafa, Mikhail Kukushkin. Kukushkin beat Dancevic 3, 3, and 2, hitting 8 aces and 37 winners and saving all 5 BPs faced (and converting 5/14 himself). In the first round he beat Dudi Sela in straights. Rafa is 2-0 against Kukushkin, having beaten him in routine straight sets in Bangkok in ’10 and Monte Carlo in ’12. Thus, one would presume that if there are any ghosts hanging out in Rafa’s third round match (Rafa’s in the third round, weeeeeeeeeee), they’re going to be in Kukushkin’s head, and then he’s going to call the Ghost Busters, and then Rafa’s going to pick up the phone and be like, hello?, and then Kukushkin’s going to be like, $%&*!, and then Rafa will win because the Ghost Buster can’t bust the ghost when he’s the ghost. Those are just basic ghost busting rules right there.

CHAMPION

OF HIS FIRST ROUND MATCH AT WIMBLEDON I’M NOT REALLY EVEN BEING IRONIC HERE I AM LEGITIMATELY EXCITED ABOUT THIS AS CONVEYED BY MY ARTFUL USE OF ALL CAPS AND NO PUNCTUATION WHICH I ONLY USE IN VERY SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES SUCH AS THIS LETS NOT TALK ABOUT THE FIRST SET AND THE BEGINNING OF THE SECOND SET OR ALMOST GIVING UP THE BREAK SERVING OUT THE THIRD SET OR GIVING UP THE BREAK IN THE FOURTH SET WHEN THE DARK THOUGHTS CAME LETS ONLY TALK ABOUT NOW WHEN EVERYTHING WAS BRIGHT AND FLUFFY.

SO BRIGHT

 

SO FLUFFY

 

SO HE DIDN’T LOSE HIS FIRST ROUND MATCH

 

 



Now that I’m done completely appropriately treating this first round victory like a tournament victory–a quick gander at the stats reveals that Rafa’s numbers overall were solid–he was at 72% for both first serve percentage and first serve points won, he won 41%  of receiving points, had 36 winners to 25 errors, won 17/23 net points, converted 6/15 BPs, and saved 10/13 BPs–with the exception of second serve points won, which was a touch low at 41%, and the fact that he faced 13 BPs in the first place, which is a touch high. For a first round match against a big hitting lefty, though, a few lapses here and there are normal.

Rafa’s next match is against Rosol, who is currently ranked #52 (interestingly, Klizan is ranked #51 (he was 57 on Sunday when I previewed the match but then moved up on Monday), so Rafa is playing world #51 and #52 consecutively). As I mentioned the other day, obviously this match has some fraughtness attached to it, but as I also mentioned, it’s not the first time Rafa has encountered such fraughtness, this fraughtness isn’t as fraught as past fraughtness to begin with, and I don’t anticipate this fraughtness factoring much into Rafa’s mind or game, particularly as he played and beat Rosol earlier this year. Rosol’s actual tennis, and how that will factor into the match, is more unpredictable. He had only 7 aces in his 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-4 victory over Paire (who, incidentally, had 19 aces), but he also had 50 winners to 26 errors (granted, Wimbledon is notoriously generous to players with these numbers), and won 60% of his second serve points and 30% of his return points. The chances of him red-lining the way he did in 2012 against Rafa are slim, and one shouldn’t forget that even given Rosol’s red-liningness back then, Rafa was still quite close to beating him. Had Rafa not hit that put-away forehand directly back to Rosol by accident on BP in the first game of the fifth set, and/or had there not been an unnecessary (it was neither raining, nor dark) 45-minute roof closing break that squashed Rafa’s 4th set momentum and forced him to serve cold to open the fifth set, Rafa probably would have beaten him. But, bygones. Rafa will have another chance to get the win (and more importantly, to advance to the third round at Wimbledon) on Thursday.

QR’s Sassigrass Wimbledon Draw Analysis

This year’s Wimbledon draw analysis theme is sassigrass (as opposed to sassafras, which sounds nice, but doesn’t have “grass” in it. Or sarsaparilla, the drink I attempted to order at a Howard Johnson in Dayton, Ohio in 1993 after hearing it referenced on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Also does not have grass in it, though. Or, technically, sass.) So it will be sassy (pronounced sassé). And it will be grassy (grassé).

First up is Martin Klizan. I’m not a big fan of Martin Klizan. #poem He’s been known to shoot his mouth off in hurtful and inappropriate ways, he took a set off of Rafa at RG last year, he made Luki mad, and he has what appears to be an overall sour constitution. From an objective perspective, he is, at world ranking #57, and with some powerful strokes (how he won that set against Rafa at RG was essentially to, as most players do these days, it seems, with the exception of a few who have more in their toolbox and therefore don’t feel the need to do so, which I actually am growing to appreciate in a weird way, even if these players do theoretically have higher chances of beating Rafa, because watching Rafa attempt to withstand a pummeling of 90 mph rally shots, and/or watching players spray attempted 90 mph rally shots all over the stadium, is not my favorite thing in tennis, hit most if not all balls as absolutely hard as he could, which worked for about an hour) not an ideal first round. But, it could have been worse. It could have been Muller, who actually beat Rafa in their first meeting at Wimbledon in ’05, and gave him a heck of a time for two sets in their second meeting at Wimbledon a few years ago, or Karlovic (granted, he’s potentially looming the third round, but potentially is potentially, and a 3R against a player like that is demonstrably better than 1R, because Rafa will be more accustomed to the surface, the surface may be ever so slightly less lush and therefore the bounces ever so slightly higher, and by the third round, big servers’ shoulders often have thrown a lot of pitches, and fast balls in particular, so to speak, therefore there is a higher chance for their shoulders to be a little tired and their first serves less effective; and actually, it couldn’t have been Karlovic, because Karlovic is seeded. So maybe Brown or Struff or De Schepper or Groth or Sijsling or Stakhovsky), or a number of other big serving and/or unconventional players (see previous list), many of whom Rafa has never faced before. It also could have been better (read: Lorenzi). This is in fact only Klizan’s third time playing the main draw at Wimbledon, and he has never made it past the second round. He is 2-5  lifetime on grass. He’s a tall skinny guy, so bending likely does not come all that naturally. He’s a former RG Junior champ and recent Munich champ, so one would presume clay is in fact his favored surface. And, while he’s ranked #57, he’s ranked #57, i.e. not #5 or 15 or 25 or 35 or 45, etc. There are reasons he’s ranked #57. There are reasons Rafa is ranked #1. Rafa needs to find both of those sets of reasons.

(Wait, Klizan’s 16-5 on the year? Geez. Well, Rafa’s 41-7 on the year.)

(Wait, Klizan’s a lefty?? I forgot about that. Well, Rafa’s also a lefty.)

Then, in the second round, there’s potentially Rosol or Paire. This one is hard to call. Both players are capable of playing well, and capable of playing horribly. Paire has been struggling with injury most of the year, and perhaps related, perhaps not (considering he played a match last year wearing a hoodie, I’m leaning toward not), his motivation levels have been questionable. I’m not going to play it all cool and pretend like a 2R rematch with Rosol wouldn’t be a bit fraught, because it would be. It would be kind of like the ’10 French Open final, when of course Rafa was favored to win, but at the same time, one/me wondered/worried if it might be a Borg-Panatta situation, i.e. there was one guy who could beat Borg at RG, and it was, somewhat randomly, Adriano Panatta. Was Soderling the new Panatta? Was he that guy? He was not that guy. It’s not quite a “that guy” situation at Wimbledon with Rosol since Rafa has lost to a number of different players there over the years, but, the fact is (granted, according to me–I don’t have any actual research to back this up), it’s easier to beat a player when one has beaten him before, and especially at the same particular tournament. Fortunately, Rafa has played and beaten Rosol since the ’12 match (in ’14 Doha), so that diminishes the “ooooooooooh” factor a little bit should they meet again this year at Wimbledon, but this would be their first meeting since then on grass, and at Wimbledon no less, and in the 2R no less.

Now that I’ve spilled so much ink on this, Paire is guaranteed to advance to the second round.

After that, there is potentially Karlovic (who actually has only ever made it as far as the quarters once, five years ago; he’s fallen in the first round four times and the second round twice), Monfils/Gasquet, Raonic/Nishikori/Kohli (De Schepper and Kubot as dark horses), Federer (barring an early upset by Muller or a miracle run by the likes of Hewitt, Janowicz, or Isner, I can’t see how Federer doesn’t make it out of that quarter), and then, of course, Ryan Harrison, who is both sassé and grassé and who beat Daniel Brands–THEE Daniel Brands–in straight sets in qualifying, under the tutelage of 1995 Wimbledon quarterfinalist Jan-Michael Gambill. Thus, there’s no way, no how Harrison’s not making the final, where Rafa will defeat him 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6(7).

Supermarket Sweep

Rafa has arrived at Wimbledon! The Wimbles. The ‘don. The Wimbles of ‘don. The ‘don of Wimbles? The ble between Wim and ‘don. The nodelbmiW backwards. The nods. The miWs. The nods of miWs. The miWs of nod. The del between no

This could go on for a while.

More important than Rafa’s arrival at Wimbledon is, obviously, the arrival of the grocery shopping picture at Wimbledon! And a mere one year late. Somebody’s been working on his punctuality…

The inaugural Wimbledon practice pic also has arrived (last year’s was more artistic, yes, but this year’s is more functional–Rafa’s hitting a forehand, Toni means business with his signature shades and crossed arm look, there’s no superimposed bunny rabbit…)

as has the inaugural giving an autograph at Wimbledon picture (I’d like to think Rafa drew the standing-cat-bear racquet-wielding creature beneath which he signed.)

And, of course, the seeds arrived. Or were released. Released and arrived. I have to admit that last year, I got pretty caught up in the whole seedgate situation. It started out innocently enough–a little seedgate muse here, a little seedgate chat there. Soon enough though, I was reading three, four, five seedgate-related articles every day. Waking up thinking about seeds. Going to bed thinking about gates. Making elaborate hypothetical seed and gate flowcharts at all hours in my mind. Yeah, I was in deep. Real deep. Got mixed up with some bad seeds, some bad gates. But I’ve reformed. I’ve changed my ways. I refuse to be controlled by the seeds or the gates any longer! I say, let the seeds fall where they may, let the gates open where they will. I’ll be over here, drinking my green smoothie and feeling very, very righteous.

The del between no and bmiW. The odel between n and bmiW. The iW following nodelbm. The delb backwards between Wim and on…  

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