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1:23PM

Nadal takes the time, and plan, best for him

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — So you say, let’s go straight to the men’s final, Roger vs. Rafa, and do away with the prelims and more importantly the questions?

What, and miss out on all those great forehands and pointed comments?

Roger Federer, of course, breezed through his first-round Wimbledon match Monday, then Rafael Nadal did the same on Tuesday, defeating Dudi Sela of Israel, 6-3, 6-3, 6-2.

“I did a lot of games good with my serve,” said Nadal, who as a Spaniard can be excused for an occasional double fault with the King’s English. As, presumably, he will excuse the journalists for asking him everything from the irrelevant to the irreverent.

The scribes didn’t necessarily do a lot of bad things, more a few stupid things, or unneeded things, tossing at him questions that would have sent a diplomatic guy like Bill Belichick away in anger but simply left the 32-year-old Nadal bewildered.

Three weeks ago, Nadal won the French Open, Roland Garros, for an 11th time. But that’s played on clay, and Wimbledon is on grass. There are several run-up events on grass, in Britain, Germany and the Netherlands. Nadal didn’t enter one.

And why not, he was asked.

“Because if I play too much,” said the perceptive Nadal, “then I come here, all the questions are: Why you not play less? Now I play less and the question is: Why you are not playing?’“

It turned out he was playing with us.

“I am just joking,” he added.

As earlier in this first week of the Championships did a former three-time champ from the mid-1980s, Boris Becker. Now 50, Becker returns to Wimbledon each summer to work as a color commentator for the BBC.

According to The Guardian, Becker both swore at the BBC’s Sue Barker and stole a joke from nine-time champion Martina Navratilova, who also gets behind the microphones at Grand Slam events.

Becker, who is German, has declared bankruptcy and also been involved in a dispute with the Central African Republic over the validity of a diplomatic passport the country gave him. “He just wanted diplomatic immunity,” said Navratilova, “so he wouldn’t have to wait at customs.”

We’ll have to wait for that possible match between Nadal, the No. 2 seed, and Federer, the defending champ and No. 1 seed.

Tennis, as baseball used to be, is a sport without a clock — and in truth, baseball still can go for hours, depending on the action or lack of it. Now Wimbledon may rule that a player must not take longer than 25 seconds to serve after the previous point.

“Personally,” said Nadal, “I don’t feel that’s going to bother me in terms of the sport. It you want to see a quick game without thinking, well done. If you want to keep playing in a sport you need to think, you need to play with more tactics, you want to have long and good rallies. Then you are going the wrong way.

“But seems like sometimes is only about the business. So I cannot support this, because I don’t feel the matches that stay for the history of our sport went that quick. All the matches that have been important in the history of our sport have been four hours, five hours.”

One of those was 10 years ago, 2008, when Nadal, in a 4-hour, 48-minute match that was decided 9-7 in the fifth set, outlasted Federer in what was the longest — and arguably, the greatest — Wimbledon final in history.

Think anyone that day was saying tennis needs a clock? It they wanted anything, it was a rematch. It isn’t speed that matters, it’s quality.

“To play these matches, you need time between points,” said Nadal, “because you cannot play points in a row with long rallies, with emotional points, having only 25 seconds between points.”

Great sport, whether it lasts minutes or hours, is timeless.

10:11PM

Rafa flexing his muscles

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The bicep is the clue, the left one, so much bigger than the right, stretching the sleeve of Rafael Nadal’s post-match T-shirt. Tennis players, like blacksmiths, pound with one arm, hour after hour, day after day, season after season.

The serve, the forehand, all done with Nadal’s left. The two-handed backhand doesn’t make much difference. There’s an imbalance between the two arms, as there is for anyone who’s spent a lifetime in the sport.

Nadal is 30 now, old — veteran of more than 1,000 pro matches over 14 years, and winner of 14 Grand Slams — and yet in today’s world of improved diet and exercise techniques, he is young.

Roger Federer, beating Nadal in the final, won the Australian Open a month and a half ago at 35. And Nadal, apparently free of one injury after another, said, “I am playing at a very high level.” That includes his 6-3, 6-2, win Sunday in the BNP Paribas Open over an Argentinean named Guido Pella.

The great ones just keep playing: Nadal, Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray — yes, great, even though Murray, the No. 1 seed, No. 1 in the world rankings, was upset Saturday night by Vasek Pospisil. 

Playing against the other stars. Playing against themselves.

Tennis is their life, as well as their job. Tennis is what they do, what Rafa Nadal does, until someday he won’t be able to do it any longer.

They are competitors. They are globetrotters. Starting in December, Nadal has been in Dubai, Australia, Mexico and now the California desert. It beats being trapped in an office cubicle, especially when you’re able to beat most of your opponents.

Is it unusual that in tennis, as in golf, fans cheer for the favorite, not the underdog? They want Federer to win, Nadal to win. When that happens the paying customers are satisfied they got what they expected, what they wanted. “Hey, saw Djokovic break serve.”

Hard to know what the players want other than good facilities (the Tennis Garden at Indian Wells is one of the finest), good health and an effective game. They are nomads, facing the same people across the net or in the media rooms, trying to get a little more topspin, trying to do a little less explaining. Not that they don’t understand what comes with the territory.

Most of the better players, no matter if they’re from Switzerland, Serbia or Shanghai, speak English impressively. Nadal, however, used translators for his first several years. He has picked up the language, although with a strong accent, and sometimes his thoughts as well as his words are confusing to the listener.

To his credit, what Nadal, along with others of his skill level, has learned is he must deal with all sorts of questions from the press, some professional, some personal, some stupid.

On Sunday, after Nadal said he thought he played a solid match against the 166th-ranked Pella — “For a few moments I played well; for a few moments I played less well” — he was asked where the sport would be in the future. Would the men all be 6-foot-5? Would there be limits on racquets?

Nadal doesn’t want a serve and volley game, but one in which shots go back and forth, long rallies. “People can think it’s because it helps me, but I am talking about the sport overall, no? ... I think good points, if we want to maintain a good show for the people.”

With his frantic movements and his wicked forehands, Nadal presents an exceptional show. He’s a scrambler, a battler, not as graceful as Federer but arguably more exciting to watch.

“In Melbourne,” he said, meaning the Australian Open, “I played some great matches. In Acapulco (where he lost in the final to Sam Querrey) I played well. In Brisbane (before the Australian) I played well. In Abu Dhabi (Dubai, the end of December) I played great.

“Four events I played at a very high level. Very happy the way I started the season. Now there is another opportunity.”

An opportunity to continue flexing his muscles.

9:04PM

The new kid hits Broadway and beats Nadal

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — It was classic Broadway, if a few miles east at Flushing Meadows. The new kid shows up and, right there before our eyes, shows up the older guy, the champion. You can hear the words from the decades: “We’re going to make you a star.”

Except they don’t have to, because Lucas Pouille is now a star. He went from virtual anonymity to instant fame in the time of a single tennis match Sunday afternoon and evening, if a lengthy, dramatic match, stunning the great Rafael Nadal, 6-1, 2-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (6) in the U.S. Open.

Yes, a tiebreak in a fifth set that by itself lasted one hour and 10 minutes. Yes, a tiebreak in which Nadal, trailing 6-3 to draw even in a competition few in the bellowing, howling crowd in 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium thought Nadal ever would lose.

Yes, a tiebreak when Nadal had a wide-open forehand at 6-6 in that tiebreak — and hit it into the net.

“It was a very tense moment,” said Pouille (pronounced Puh-yeeh, or thereabouts). He is a 22-year-old Frenchman from the suburbs of Dunkirque on the English Channel, a relative unknown facing one the game’s finest, the 30-year-old Nadal who has won 14 Slams, with at least one victory in each of the four.

“After this,” said Pouille of the Nadal miss, “I was very comfortable. I wanted to take my chances.”

After this, meaning the fourth-round triumph, Pouille becomes one of three Frenchmen in the quarter-finals, one of whom, Gael Monfils, is his next opponent.

Nadal, a lefty, had been bothered by a bad left wrist. He pulled out of the French Open, a tournament he has won nine times, in late May. Then he skipped Wimbledon. But in August, he teamed with fellow Spaniard Marc Lopez to win the doubles title at the Rio Olympics and in singles there reached the semifinals.

Here, in the Open, he hadn’t lost a set. And the only time they had met previously, Nadal defeated Pouille, 6-1, 6-2, in straight sets. “When I was younger,” said Pouille, “I used to watch all his matches at the Open, the one against (Novak) Djokovic. I knew I had to be aggressive.”

So he was, jumping off to that 6-1 win in the first set by moving to the corners. No one then suspected we were in for a match that would last over four hours and finish with Pouille, after a winning forehand, flopping on his back in glee and sticking out his tongue.

That was his method of celebrating, not of mocking anyone. The fans, who as always in tennis support the best-known, Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, had shifted, not so much dropping Nadal as embracing Pouille.

What they were witnessing hour after hour was courageous, enthralling play, and they wanted to be part of it.

“The crowd,” said Pouille appreciably, “was just unbelievable. You just have to enjoy.”

There was no enjoyment for Nadal. He was the No. 4 seed, favored over No. 25 Pouille. At times Rafa produced some of the heroic, athletic shots we know and expect. But too often, there were mistakes.

“I think he played a good match,” said Nadal of Pouille. “He started so strong. I fight until the end with. There were things I could do better. Had the right attitude. I fighted right up to the last ball.

“But I need something else; I need something more that was not there today. I going to keep working to try to find. But, yes, was a very, very close match that anything could happen. Just congratulate the opponent that probably he played with better decision than me the last couple of points.”

These battles between a familiar and successful player and an outsider perhaps about to reach the next level inevitably leave us with mixed emotions, delighted that someone new takes the big step but also distressed at the failure of a player so long at the top. When Nadal walked out of the tunnel after the pre-match introduction, the approval was thunderous.

When he left the court, he smiled, if painfully, and waved.

“Was a big mistake,” he had said earlier about his forehand. “But you are six-all in the tiebreak. I played the right point. I put me in a position to have the winner, and I had the mistake. That's it.

“You cannot go crazy thinking about these kind of things, no? You have a mistake. The opponent played a good point in the match point, and that's it. The problem is arrive to six-all on the tiebreak of the fifth. I should be winning before.”

That is the lament of all losers, no matter how much they’ve won.

4:54PM

Palm Springs Life: What's in Brand? Plenty in Tennis

By Art Spander
Palm Springs Life

Hollywood figured it out almost as soon as there were movies: Fame sells.

You didn’t need actors who knew Shakespeare — not that it wasn’t acceptable — but actors and actresses who were known. The two worst words for box office weren’t “No talent,” but “Who’s he?” The same thing for golf and tennis.

Read the full story here.

Copyright 2016 Desert Publications. All rights reserved.

8:27AM

Nadal and Federer, the Difference Between Night and Day

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — The difference was that between night and day, between a man who mysteriously has lost his touch and one who somehow again has found his, between a player who should be better than he’s been of late and another who by all rights shouldn’t be as good as he is this late in a career.

The difference was that between Rafael Nadal, who in the wee small hours Saturday was beaten after winning the first two sets from Fabio Fognini, and Roger Federer, who in the bright glare of an early afternoon Saturday was victorious over Philipp Kohlschreiber.

It seems never to stop at the U.S. Open tennis championship, so very much a part of the booming city that never sleeps. They start early, late morning. And they finish late, early morning. But this early morning, with the clock closing in on 1:30, the Open stopped for Nadal. And the questions started anew.

Fognini, holding the last men’s seed, No. 32, was as bewildered as he was delighted with the 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 win over Nadal. “It’s something incredible I did,” said Fognini after the 3-hour, 46-minute match.

Or, considering the decline of Nadal, from No. 3 at the beginning of the year to No. 8 now, maybe something unexceptional.

“It was not so much a match that I lost,” said Nadal of the defeat, “even if I had opportunities. It’s a match he wins. Not happy, but I accept that he was better than me today.”

All four Grand Slams in 2015, the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and now the U.S. Open, some opponent has been better than Rafa. For the first time in 11 years he didn’t win a Slam. And even though Nadal only is 29, because of his aggressive, pounding style, and past injuries, he is an old 29.

In contrast, there’s Federer. Two years ago we thought he had slipped too far from his past glory. That having reached 30 — he will be 34 on Tuesday — it wasn’t so much the game had passed him by but others, Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and even on occasion Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, were hitting passing shots by him. Father Time was hovering.

What do we know? While Nadal tumbled — and the dead of night, or somewhere beyond the bewitching hour, was a properly eerie time — Federer arose. The No. 2 seed in this Open, Federer blitzed Kohlschreiber, the No. 29 seed, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.

Federer may not have extended his all-time record of 17 Slam victories (his last was 2012 Wimbledon), but this year and last he was a Wimbledon finalist, losing to Djokovic, currently the world’s No. 1.

Where Nadal huffs, puffs and slugs, Federer glides and swings. His style has enabled him to avoid major injuries, and in an acknowledgement that maybe he’s lost a step or a couple inches of racquet speed, he has re-invented himself, moving up to the base line at times to take second serves.

Where Nadal is disappointed, although telling us there’s been progress, mentally at last, Federer is content.  “I feel good,” he said after a match that went barely past an hour and a half. “I have had a nice schedule.  Played early the first day. It was a fast match.

“And when I played at night,” he said of his win Thursday over Steve Darcis, “I played the first slot (7 p.m. EDT). I didn’t get to bed too late. I’m still in a normal schedule, which is good to be. Because if you finish a match like Fognini and Rafa, it’s hard to go to sleep anyway. It can be 3 or 4 in the morning.”

It was later than that for Nadal and Fognini. They were doing post-match interviews well past 2 a.m.  “It was an incredible match for sure,” said Fognini. It was a telling match for sure for Nadal.

“We can be talking for an hour trying to create a reason,” said Nadal. A Spaniard, he speaks English well enough, but doesn’t always choose the proper idiom or tense.

“But the sport for me is simple, no?,” said Nadal. “If you are playing with less confidence and you are hitting balls without creating the damage on the opponent that I believe I should do, then they have the possibility to attack.

“I want the defense, a little bit longer, and hit easier winners. Have been a little bit tough for me to hit the winners tonight. But that’s it. Not a big story. Is just improve small things that make a big difference.”

Federer went to bed before the Nadal story was told, and no matter what Rafa says it’s a very big story.

“I heard the news when I woke up,” Federer said about Nadal losing. “I wish I did see the match because I didn’t expect it to be this thrilling, but that would have been bad preparation for my match today.”

A match that was as different from Nadal’s as night is from day.