Sunday, June 21

Back In My Day, When Professional Sports Writers Talked About "The Big O" They Meant Oscar Robertson

[T]he whole arm whipping around so fast and the wrist snap so fluid that it’s like watching a thick rope flicked and hissing,

He took off his shirt, which made spectators start wolf-whistling, and put on a fresh one. Nalbandian changed his shirt, too, but nobody wolf-whistled at him.

he tucked his sweaty hair behind his ears with one hand, left ear first, then right ear. He reached around to his backside to pull loose his shorts.

there’s flash-popping and Spanish flag-unfurling and a rising swell of noise and applause, and at some point Nadal lifts one arm and smiles at spectators, which sets off momentary pandemonium among the women.

I’ve heard people describe him as an evolutionary leap

Each was desperate, operatic, repeatedly to-the-brink-and-back; each ended with Nadal collapsing to the court in triumph and the spectators exhausted and perspiring, and if you are not a tennis person, I suspect this may be somewhat hard to fathom — the idea that watching two men spend that many hours hitting a ball could actually make your heart pound so hard that you have to keep jumping up and yelling and grabbing your own head. But let me just suggest that if there were ever a time to understand why people invoke Shakespearean tragedy and ancient gladiators and so on when they carry on about competitive tennis, now is that time.
In last year’s final, in fact, Nadal obliterated him so completely that people either stared in fascination or averted their eyes, as though witnessing a dreadful car wreck.

and I would not really have understood why that was had I not also been at Indian Wells in the middle of the night in March and watched Nadal’s face during that second set against Nalbandian, especially when Nadal began moving faster and faster, coiling, springing, powering the ball into back corners, missing, driving again. After a time, I realized a new sound was coming from Nadal in between the hitting grunts, an even more guttural sound that was low, feral and drawn out between intakes of breath. He was growling.

he walks in loose-limbed and with his hair disheveled and he sits down and says politely into the microphone, “Hello.”

I’ve seen him do this with a half-eaten chocolate-chip cookie in his hand, grinning and wiping crumbs from his mouth; but after he finished beating Nalbandian, he looked dark and irritated.

He needed a shave, though in truth he usually looks as if he needs a shave; it’s part of the allure. When he’s pleased, he has a way of smiling with half his mouth, too, as though he’s shyly just starting to realize how good he feels; the effect is of a young Harrison Ford, but with unbelievable biceps, and the combination of on-court savagery and off-court humility has disarmed people who have followed tennis closely for decades.

“You must remember,” Bouin said gently, in his lovely accented English, “that in tennis you have to kill the other.” Not just play better. Sometimes the one who plays better can lose. It’s a sport of splendid cruelty,

If he does play Wimbledon these next two weeks and wins, or if he holds off and recuperates and perhaps goes on to win the U.S. Open in September, he will have earned legitimate entry into the ranks of the all-time greats — not just the world No. 1’s, in other words, but the players whose names make up those best-ever lists that are constantly being debated and rearranged by fans.

Federer thrills people, too, but the Nadal thrill is so different from the Federer thrill that studying the two of them is like a gorgeous immersion course in the varieties of athletic possibility.

Nadal is muscled-up and explosive and relentless, so that his best tennis looks not like a gift from heaven but instead like the product of ferocious will.

His victories and his taped-up knees and his years as a very good No. 2 in the world all resonate together, as though the rewards and the wages of individual effort had been animated in a single human being: if you hurl yourself at a particular goal furiously enough and long enough you may tear your body up in the process, but maybe you can get there after all.

That Nadal now has the capacity to outplay Federer on multiple surfaces — that the signature game of the world’s highest-ranked tennis player is not a beautiful ballet unto victory but an imperfect, bruising, savage refusal to yield — this is why Nadal thrills people. This and the biceps.

Perez-Barbadillo tossed his cellphone. Nadal’s right arm jerked up and grabbed the phone out of the air, and he smiled and shrugged. “Whatever involves feeling, I do with the right.”

Hitting a tennis ball in elite competition is like a cross between boxing and pitching a baseball, situationally complicated like either but executed at much faster speed and requiring split-second calculations about many more variables

Massive posters of Nadal were plastered all over the tennis complex, like Times Square billboards, so that from on high he was smiling or making killer faces over the carnival array of standard tennis tournament commerce: frozen-lemonade stands, food courts, oversize yellow balls for collecting autographs.

Nadal’s arms, both of them, have inspired over the years a fervent subgroup of admirers, especially once he began appearing at international matches in what became his trademark outfit: sleeveless shirt, wide headband knotted around the unruly hair and his celebrated piratas, rakish knee-length shorts that made him look like a surfer who lifted weights in his spare time.

The Vamos Brigade, an international Nadal-watching Web site frequented mostly by enamored and effusive women, set up a special discussion devoted to Nadal’s new short-sleeved shirts and more conventional shorts; the title was Official Mourning Thread. “I found that if I just stared at his face long enough, I could make the sleeves disappear and see him sleeveless in my brain,” one correspondent wrote. Lamented another: “I miss the arms!!! The big, muscled, tanned arms.” Perhaps the young man was ready for a change, someone suggested. The response was quick and curt: “Please leave us alone to grieve.”

The arms have also been considered with more seriousness of purpose, as have the legs, by observers trying to dissect the mechanics of Nadal’s power and to guess at the cumulative toll his style of play may be taking on his body.

The “reverse” part comes at the finish, which is sometimes not the traditional across-the-chest follow-through, but rather a defiant full-arm snap upward, as though Nadal were whipping a lariat over his head or delivering an Italian obscene gesture

The man just works so hard, and all the time, and at such tremendous velocity.

The image of Nadal in poetic self-immolation, the glorious athlete pushing himself resolutely toward his own undoing, is so mesmerizing and distressing that I’ve heard it raised by spectators and coaches and by former competitors who now run the tournaments Rafa enters.

When I told Nadal about all the people who worried aloud to me about the level at which he is using up his body — this was back in March, it must be remembered, while he was winning everything in sight — he laughed and threw up his hands and looked for an instant less like an international tennis champion than a righteously ripped 22-year-old being told he was going to hurt himself if he kept snowboarding so fast.

Philippe Bouin told me when I found him at the French Open press center. “We’ve seen this movie many times. John Wayne never dies at the end of the movie. But this time, the cavalry was not there.”

Cynthia Gorney is a contributing writer to the magazine. She teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.



StringonaStick said...

With the soundtrack provided by KPoRN.

ckc (not kc) said...

The arms have also been considered with more seriousness of purpose, as have the legs, by observers trying to dissect the mechanics of Nadal’s power and to guess at the cumulative toll his style of play may be taking on his body.

but was the ball in or out?

ckc (not kc) said...

(PS - on the evidence, I would say that English makes a very good cudgel.)

TM said...

there’s flash-popping and Spanish flag-unfurling and a rising swell of noise and applause, and at some point Nadal lifts one arm and smiles at spectators, which sets off momentary pandemonium among the women.

Flash popping? Seriously? Did those doing the flash popping also wear fedoras with "Scoop" printed on cards in the headbands?

Grace Nearing said...

Being righteously ripped is overrated.

heydave said...

I try to inject such fawning shit like that in my technical reports and everyone gets so twisted on me.

R. Porrofatto said...

This is so over the top for mere tennis. Golf would be more suitable for such breathy moisture, with all its squatting and bending over of holes, and the incessant grasping and stroking of balls.

heydave said...

No to mention the drama afforded by eradicating gophers, the ubiquitous Cinderella story, etc.

Joyful Alternative said...

What's with Berkeley these days? First Yoo and now this?

Anonymous said...

sounds just like hemingway to me