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Tennis needs Nadal to step up his game

March 14, 2007|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

He is the antidote to perfection, and tennis needs him now.

"Vamos, Rafa, vamos," he shouted at himself the other night. Let's go, Rafa, let's go. And Rafael Nadal, the world's second-best tennis player, took another mad-dash point.

Vamos, Rafa, indeed.

The time to get going is now.

It's time, after a long and bewildering string of upsets, to make the finals again. And time to win again. It can happen this week, with Roger Federer out of the way, thanks to a stunning early exit from the Pacific Life Open, winding up this weekend at Indian Wells, one of the biggest tennis tournaments of the year that doesn't call itself a Grand Slam.

It's time for Rafa to get the swagger back, like he did Tuesday, on the way to another pounding win. Time to start playing -- well, frankly, time to start playing like Rafael Nadal again.

Someone needs to keep Federer from smothering the game. Someone needs to give it air. And you, Rafael Nadal, 20 years old and still headstrong, despite your post-Wimbledon depression, are the only man on Earth who seems to be able to do it.

Tennis needs rivalry. Without a blood-and-guts clash between titans, it might as well be horse jumping with corporate sponsors. Without rivalry, what good is tennis, other than a fancy way to get some exercise?

Imagine where the game would be if there were McEnroe, but no Borg. Navratilova, but no Evert. If Sampras had gone to Long Beach State and become an engineer, and Agassi had stayed in Las Vegas and become a chef.

Tennis might have ended up at the coroner's.

And that's where it might go if King Roger, perfection with a forehand, never finds a foil, never finds someone who can slow his march.

There would still be Wimbledon and the other Slams. You'd still be able to find live pro matches, if you'd be willing to pay big money to watch someone you've never heard of beat up someone else you've never heard of, the winner getting lopped off by a guy named Roger. You'd still be able to watch tennis on TV, somewhere around Channel 299.

What can we make of Federer's brilliance without a rival? It's already a little hard to judge his 10 Grand Slams, taken against a weak field of top players. With no clear challenger, he has the allure of a crystal bowl from Waterford. Beautiful to look at. Perfect, in almost every way. But the average Joe doesn't notice him much.

Add Roger Federer to the people who need Nadal to be Nadal again.

"We need someone to make a fight out of it," said Jeff Aldridge, a plastic surgeon from Minnesota who traveled to the tournament to see the action.

Aldridge stood in a sea of people as Nadal strode across a practice court and swatted balls. Clearly, the people were besotted with this young Spaniard, ranked No. 2 in the world. Why?

"That's easy," Aldridge said. "Watching Nadal, you can relate to his game. It's sort of like the rest of us."

Rafael Nadal is, indeed, a much, much better version of the plumber who hits twice a week down at Griffith Park. Someone so many of us can aspire to.

Watch a classic Rafael Nadal point. You won't find this in textbooks. He holds his racket like a club. He swings it like a scythe. His backswings are part hiccup and half cough. When he follows through you worry he's going to lop off his own noggin.

Few of us can aspire to be anything remotely like Roger Federer.

Emulating King Roger requires waltzing through whole sets in the hot sun and hardly breaking a sweat. It requires clothes that resemble fine linen. It requires speed that doesn't look like speed and effort that doesn't look like effort.

Ten months ago, it didn't seem as if tennis would be in this pickle. Nadal stunned Federer in three straight finals and finally, bested him again in Paris, where Nadal won his second straight French Open, depriving Federer of the one great crown missing from his collection.

Then Federer turned the tables at Wimbledon.

What happened? Federer was going to be Joe Montana, leading the 49ers. Nadal was going to be Jim McMahon leading the '85 Bears.

What happened is that Federer, until this week, kept winning but the Spanish heir to the throne began losing his mojo. Nadal got smacked back on his heels in losses that stretched from New York to Dubai.

Nadal put it simply during a quick chat. He wore the look of a man searching for himself.

"It's been tough," he said, in broken English. "I play good, but no finals. People say, 'What is wrong?' "

Nadal said all the right things. Maybe it was spin. Maybe he was spinning himself. Finally, he vowed to make the finals of tournaments sometime soon, and to be back in the winner's circle -- "maybe this week."

Here's hoping he's right. A good Rafael Nadal match, like the one he played Monday night, feels like Dodger Stadium on an electric night. He dashed and slid across the pavement, and you could hear the fans. "Go, go, go, go.... " they chanted. "You can get it, you can get it, you can.

"That's it, that's it, you the man!"

His groundstrokes streaked low, rotating like gyroscopes before slapping violently to the ground.

"It's awesome," said a lady behind me, at center court with three of her friends. They all chimed in. "He's awesome!"

The crowd roared.

Nadal roared.

Vamos. Rafa!

Exactly. For the sake of the sport, even for the sake of King Roger. It's time, Rafa. Let's go.


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