To the uneducated observer, tennis is a simple sport — just whack the ball and keep it within the painted white lines.
The sport is easily pigeonholed as a genteel pursuit in which fans seated on the sides of a stadium turn their heads — left, right, left, right — as the ball is hit back and forth. Polite clapping follows the winner. The chair umpire speaks in soft tones similarly found in golf announcers on television:
“Let, first service.”
“Mr Nadal to serve. Ready? Play.”
Especially at Wimbledon, with its lush lawns and all-white uniforms — not to mention the Royal Box and a slew of longstanding traditions — the gentle nature of tennis can feel so real.
Culturally, there is some truth to these characterizations and assertions. Tennis is a sport which costs a lot of money to play. It’s not an endeavor easily entered into by lower-middle class folks. One can argue on the margins of the discussion, making more granular points about changes (or lack thereof) in tennis’s values, codes and characteristics over the years. However, the larger and broader truth remains: This is not generally the province of the little guy or gal.
This prelude leads us into our story for the middle of the first week at Wimbledon.
Tennis — for all the ways in which it is a cultural home for the rich and comfortable — is a brutal, punishing beast of a sport when played within the confines of the chalked rectangle. If you didn’t grow up with tennis during the 1980s and “Breakfast at Wimbledon,” or if you’re a teenager who sees the flow of movement on a court as anything but visually arresting, it is understandable that you might not derive from tennis an appreciation of the drama or the difficulty involved in winning professional matches. To be even more precise, you might not realize what goes into the process of becoming a consistent winner at the highest levels of tennis competition.
To start with, tennis has definitely become a far more physical sport than it used to be. Sure, 100 years ago, tennis was in fact more of the genteel sport that it used to be on the court. The sport became more physical over time, but the pace of change accelerated when wood racquets gave way to a measure of experimentation in the 1970s and then to graphite sticks in the 1980s.
Equipment has enabled today’s player to hit the ball in such a way that topspin-oriented shots are able to dive into the court instead of flying long. Players can defend more and hit more winners from defensive positions or angles. A sport called “power attrition baseline tennis,” coined by this person, has emerged in place of the bang-bang serve-and-volley style that used to pervade tennis on chewed-up grass, a surface which did not encourage a baseline-hugging approach.
Tennis has always been a test of the mind — can you hit that serve when you need to and calmly keep your shots measured enough to clear the net and stay within the lines while having enough pace or spin to bother your opponent? It’s a delicate, precise task, especially since just one or two errant service points in a game can lead to the loss of a set. Moreover, tennis is a sport in which coaching has rarely been allowed on the court during matches. The women’s tour allows it at some tournaments, but it’s not allowed at the majors. Tennis remains a sport in which the athlete has to figure things out for himself or herself.
Yet, what was always a challenge between the ears has now become an obstacle for the body as well, due to the punishment tennis players now absorb on a hardcourt-heavy tour that wears down knees and joints. Being great at tennis requires more from today’s players than it used to, just because the grind of regular life on tour is more demanding.
None of this is meant to take away from what the legends of past decades accomplished in or donated to the sport. Their legacies are secure and undimmed; moreover, great players would be great in any era, due to racquet skills and an overall feel for the game. The point of mentioning this background material is to underscore the complete nature of the job today’s tennis player must perform.
Physically, mentally, and without in-match, on-court coaching — tennis might be wrapped in an old-money cultural box, but when that packaging is removed, this sport becomes, as it is called by its most devoted lovers and chroniclers, “boxing without the blood.” It is a supreme revealer of everything a solo athlete does — or doesn’t — hold inside the bones and marrow of being.
The 2014 Wimbledon tournament, just four days old, has already shown why major-tournament tennis remains such a difficult creature to master. On Thursday afternoon, no one stood at the center of this reality more than Rafael Nadal and Lukas Rosol.
The central drama of Nadal v. Rosol, when viewed in terms of this Wimbledon tournament as a whole, revolved around a 14-time major champion’s ability to get to the third round of the event for the first time since 2011. Nadal’s first-week-on-grass blues were extensively chronicled and well founded. Rosol, despite doing virtually nothing of note since his 2012 win over Nadal at Wimbledon, had the potential to bring a big-hitting game to the Spaniard and create some authentic intrigue. Nadal’s centrality at Wimbledon — unbroken from 2006 through 2011 whenever he entered the event — had ceased to be a given in the tennis community. Nadal had to get it back on Thursday if he wanted to remain in the mix and challenge the likes of Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer for the title. In the bigger scheme of things — who’s going to win the championship on July 6 — Nadal acquired the spotlight.
However, within the much more immediate confines of one match on one day between two men, the key to Nadal v. Rosol was the challenger, as had been the case two years ago in the very same second round of Wimbledon.
Nadal didn’t play his best in 2012, but Rosol — when given openings — pounced on them with complete trust in his game. The Czech had never made the third round of a major heading into that match, but he carried himself like a major-title contender. If tennis is “boxing without the blood,” Rosol stood in the ring for 15 rounds, absorbed a few roundhouses punches to the face, and punched back with even more ferocity, winning a unanimous decision in a full-length show of savagery. In one evening, Rosol displayed all the characteristics of a great player, all the characteristics he has failed to bring to the ATP Tour on a regular basis.
As this 2014 reunion arrived, Nadal might have been the one under pressure to win as he chases a 15th major, but the match hinged on Rosol’s ability to believe in himself the same way he did two years ago. Was lightning going to strike in the same tennis place twice?
Rosol was going to answer that question.
For much of the day he did… until a two-point sequence that changed the course of this tournament.
Having won the first set, 6-4, and leading Nadal 5-3 in the second-set tiebreaker, Rosol could taste a two-set lead and firm control of Thursday’s match. Everything that had come to the forefront two years ago returned in full force for Rosol. The 28-year-old bludgeoned the ball, served huge, and exhibited the kind of body language which blocked out both match pressure and the presence of a tennis immortal on the other side of the net. Rosol used 2012 as a tonic for his typical tennis ailments — he didn’t do anything of consequence in the two years following that one great triumph, but in one place (Centre Court) against one player (Nadal), he had begun to craft another masterclass on grass.
Rafa rested on the ropes, getting battered by his opponent’s flurries. For Rosol, it was just a matter of maintaining a little more tunnel vision and not allowing eagerness at the prospect of a two-set lead to hijack his focus.
Then came the moments that broke the spell, the moments that just might liberate Nadal to return to the top at SW19.
At 5-3, Rosol received serve. He knew that he’d have the chance to serve out the tiebreaker and the set. In such a scoreboard situation, there’s nothing wrong with going for a big shot from a neutral position. However, Rosol rolled back a routine forehand and buried it into the net. The shot suggested a desire to force Nadal to play an extra ball, but that’s not what put Rosol in position to take a two-set lead. Taking the initiative was the only way for the Czech to go about his business. That tame forehand moved the score to 5-4, but just as importantly, it pointed to a snippet of doubt in the challenger’s mind as he tried to repeat a little bit of history at Wimbledon.
Then, at 5-4, Rosol hit a shot which recalled the 2009 Wimbledon final between Andy Roddick and Roger Federer. Roddick, up 6-5 and serving in the second-set tiebreaker, hit a backhand volley from a slightly abnormal position, but it was one he still should have converted. Roddick missed, though. In the process, he missed a golden chance to take a two-set lead.
For Rosol, the tale was all too similar.
At 5-4, he hit a solid crosscourt forehand which lightly clipped the tape and bounced shorter in the court than it otherwise would have. Nadal leaned toward the ball and hit his most reasonable and high-percentage shot under the circumstances, a solid low slice down the line to the Rosol backhand. The Czech, inside the service line, was given a volley that was not a sitter, but certainly one that should have been put in play. Trying to hit a perfect drop volley, Rosol didn’t catch the spin cleanly and netted the shot.
Rosol won the next point for 6-5, but he had lost the chance to serve for the set at 6-4. Nadal blistered a gorgeous, clutch forehand to save set point on his own serve. One point later, with Nadal leading 7-6, a shaken Rosol double-faulted, and as soon as Nadal broke in the third set, it became apparent that a repeat upset was not in the cards. Nadal did get nervous when trying to serve out the match at the end of the fourth set, but he typically steadied himself when he needed to. The King of Clay knew that a major test had been passed on grass. In just a few brief moments — that’s grass-court tennis, especially in the early stages of a tournament — the world of Wimbledon had changed profoundly.
If there’s a lesson to emerge from Nadal’s tension-filled win and the second-set tiebreaker escape which made it possible, it is that tennis — for all the reasons mentioned at the beginning of this essay — is a sport of “onces” for most professionals and a sport of “once agains” for only its elite champions.
Robin Soderling beat Rafael Nadal at the French Open… once.
Rosol beat Nadal at Wimbledon… once.
David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga — they have made major finals… once.
Earlier on Thursday, two men made Wimbledon’s third round for the first time in their careers: Milos Raonic and John Isner.
Tennis offers a theater of competition in which alpha dogs — and only alpha dogs — rule. Strength of body and mind, competence as both an artist and a fighter, it takes a special and enduring kind of attitude to climb all the way to the top… and stay there. The Lukas Rosols of the world might have one heaven-kissed day, or even one great week once in a great while. The Nadals of the world win not just once. They win once again… and again… and again. On Thursday, Rosol didn’t beat Nadal once again. He came closer than a lot of people (this one included) initially thought he would, but anyone who has lost an 8-6 tiebreaker knows that “close” means little in tennis.
A postscript to Nadal-Rosol is that within tournaments over the course of the year’s full tennis calendar — not just in the combat of an individual match — it is hard to do things “once again” in this sport.
Through four days of play at Wimbledon, several players who reached the quarterfinals or better at the French Open have already been dismissed from the All-England Club:
From the WTA Tour, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Sara Errani, Carla Suarez Navarro, and Garbine Muguruza have all lost.
From the ATP Tour, Gael Monfils, David Ferrer, and Ernests Gulbis all suffered quick defeats in England after reaching the final eight or better on Parisian clay.
There are a million different “two kinds of people in the world” references one can make. In tennis, the “two kinds of people in the world” are fundamentally those who do things once, and those who do things once again.
We all know where Lukas Rosol and Rafael Nadal stand in relation to that dynamic.