Politics

Rafael Nadal Faces His Mini-Me, Alex de Minaur, at the Australian Open

The difference between men’s and women’s tennis is not power. Women pulverize the ball. Madison Keys hits her forehand harder, on average, than lots of men. Serena Williams, playing mixed doubles at the Hopman Cup, in Perth, earlier this month, had little trouble absorbing the pace of Roger Federer’s serve and returning it. Women today hit with more oomph than men did back in the era of McEnroe and Borg, and it is not just about new racquet and string technology. Women today are bigger and stronger than they were, and are trained in technical ways and through fitness regimens to strike the ball viciously. They crush it.

The difference between men’s and women’s tennis, now, is lateral speed—the quickness to run down, and to get back with zip, balls that are angled far off the court. Not every male player can run, but those who can really can. No player currently on the women’s tour can match that speed. Scientists offer various theories for why men’s bodies lend themselves to faster running: narrower hips that more closely align to the quads and make running more efficient; more lung capacity; larger fast-twitch muscle fibres. But here’s the thing: no male player thirty years ago got to balls that were way out wide and then went on offense with his returns of them, the way that Rafael Nadal did when he first showed his potential to be an all-time great, in 2005. He was big and fast, sure, with an explosive first step, like a sprinter, toward an incoming ball. And there was a way he had, something I’d never seen before, of seeming to be sliding back to the center of the court—to reëstablish position, in order to give chase again—even before he had fully completed his follow-through. But there was something else, too, something just this side of ineffable: a relentlessness in pursuit of every last ball, driven by—you could glimpse it in his strained facial muscles—a sort of anxious fear of not getting there.

Nadal still gets to balls that he shouldn’t, even if, at the age of thirty-two, he has lost half a step. And, on Friday night, at the Australian Open, in a third-round evening match, he faced a next-generation version of his dashing, scrambling, lunging-at-full-stretch self. Alex de Minaur is a nineteen-year-old Australian who has played well enough in recent months to be within shouting distance of the Top 20. He won his first tournament on the tour, in Sydney, a week before the Australian Open began. He has been mentored by his fellow-Australian Lleyton Hewitt, a forerunner of sorts to Nadal. Hewitt, too, left no ball unpursued. He didn’t have Nadal’s size and neither, as yet, does de Minaur—although he has time to add the twenty or so pounds to his hundred-and-fifty-five-pound frame that could provide him with the bigger serve and forehand he’ll likely need to climb into the Top 10.

The line score of his match against Nadal would appear to suggest that it was not worth watching: Nadal won 6–1, 6–2, 6–4. But it was riveting, if your focus was less on the outcome and more on the possibility of astounding points. Nadal dominated with his serve. He has tinkered with his serving motion to improve his accuracy and the ball’s speed; there’s less twisting now and more forward momentum. Spun to de Minaur’s backhand, the ball often did not come back, or came back meekly. But, when de Minaur was serving, long, electrifying rallies developed every three or four points. Crosscourt sprint followed crosscourt sprint. Tennis shoes squeaked and racquet heads dragged on the court. Balls five and six feet outside the doubles alley were kept in play. Fans oohed, gasped, cheered prematurely, thinking the point was over, but . . . wait, he got that?!

At one point, de Minaur, racing around back by the ball boys and ball girls, returned three Nadal shots—the last two of them overhead smashes—with desperate but still better-than-decent lobs. (Nadal made sure that his third smash bounced into the seats.) There was a twelve- or thirteen- or fifteen-shot rally—I couldn’t keep track fast enough—that ended with de Minaur rushing the net and Nadal, on a dead run to his left past the corner of the baseline, hitting a forehand with such perfect sidespin that it passed de Minaur in the air not only out of reach but outside of fair territory, only to curve back in before it landed deep in the court: winner. The match ended in a blur-fest, four extended rallies on which de Minaur saved match point, before Nadal got the job done.

The crowd was standing and roaring for those last few minutes, because de Minaur, a teen-age Aussie, was refusing to lose. But also, I’d like to think, it was because who wins a match is not the only thing that matters, or maybe even the principal concern, when you are watching tennis. The points are the thing.


Source link
Tags
Back to top button
close
Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share this post with your friends!