The Western & Southern Open ATP Final, 2013
Rafael Nadal  def. John Isner 7-6 (8), 7-6(3)
Three tournaments, three crowns: With his 7-6, 7-6 win over John Isner in the final of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, Rafael Nadal remains unbeaten on North American hard tennis courts in 2013. The Spaniard also reclaims the No. 2 world-ranking; earns his 26th career Masters title, the second in as many weeks; and gets to take home a floral-themed vessel adorned with an earthier-than-ever-before glaze palette of burgundy and green. (I am not making that last bit up.) Indeed, there is talk of crowning him King of Concrete, or, at the very least, considering him as a favorite to win the US Open.
Last week, in the Montreal final, Nadal demolished his 6’ 5” Canadian opponent, Milos Raonic, 6-2, 6-2. Raonic’s performance was decidedly muted, and Nadal calibrated his victory celebration accordingly. (It involved little more than warm, heartfelt smiles and a a few thankyouverymucheverybodys.) Today, at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Mason, Ohio, Rafael Nadal again faced a native son. But unlike Raonic in Canada, the 6’ 10” American played a fantastic final.
Although, from my perspective, today’s two tiebreak-sets still weren’t as thrilling as the first two sets of Nadal’s quarterfinal victory over Roger Federer on Friday evening. (Read about it here.) Gargantuan serves like Isner’s are more fun for me to see in person than on TV. (In fact, they are almost impossible to see on TV, because although they are beastly in size, they are also avoidant creatures, and tend to scurry off the television frame before you can get a good look at them.) Nadal earned exactly zero break points in twelve Isner service games. John managed to get three break points of his own, but converted none. Isner’s forehand was tremendous, which was both enjoyable and visible, but his return let him down at crucial moments, most notably at 3-5 in the second set tiebreaker.
It’s possible Nadal was every bit as good in the Cincinnati final as he was against Federer in the quarters, but with Isner on the other side of the net, the conversation wasn’t half as eloquent. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t deep and meaningful—Isner’s presence in the final means Americans who have heard of tennis can tell foreigners that we once again have a top twenty player in the ATP computer rankings. It will be good for our collective sense of numerical self-worth. It should also be good for John Isner’s sense of his tennis self as he prepares to enter the US Open with the weight of American expectations on his broad shoulders.
Speaking of American pride, the U.S. crowd was with Isner from first point to last. Yet Nadal had a fair measure of support from the stands, and no small amount of their admiration. After all, he has put together a highly entertaining two weeks of tennis. And, like any great big-stage performer, when it came time—on his first of three available match points— for Rafa to bury his final forehand winner of the tournament down the line, he sensed the moment had arrived to let loose his inner celebratory animal.
After collapsing flat onto his back (with impressive alacrity), the Spaniard screamed, tensing all his muscles, thereby paradoxically releasing all the tension accumulated during two taut hours of competition. Then, beaming like a ray of tennis-ball-colored sunshine, Nadal jogged to the net, shook the American’s proffered hand (resting his head briefly on Isner’s vast midsection) before going on delightedly screaming and jumping around the court. Oh, and he also wagged his No. 1 finger at the sky—just as he did after defeating Novak Djokovic in the Montreal semifinals.
Given that finger-wagging was officially trademarked by RF, Inc. during the spring of 2011, Nadal’s infringement on copyright has not gone unnoticed—or unanalyzed. For my part, it was the finger-wag more than the third straight hardcourt title that reminded me of Mark Antony’s famous lines in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “I thrice presented him a kingly crown, Which he did thrice refuse. Was this ambition?”
Antony goes on to say that Brutus, an honorable man, did indeed think Caesar was a hair ambitious and ought therefore to be stabbed to death by a group of his buddies, making a mess of at least a dozen nice togas in the process. (I believe similar suggestions for summary execution have been put forth many-a-time on twitter in regards to Nadal, Federer, and also Gilles Simon.) But the reason Caesar had to be got rid of wasn’t because of his ambition; it was to do with how he applied it. Caesar sought to raise himself above the rules of the game, and to do so secretly— indirectly. Romans did not want to be ruled by a king (not when they could be gently guided by the classic democratic principles of bribery and corruption!). But tennis? Tennis craves kings. Every year—every week, even— tennis chooses the guy with the No. 1 finger.
So, the thing I enjoyed most about this tournament—besides watching James Blake catch fire in his second round match against Jerzy Janowicz, of course—was seeing Rafael Nadal execute his tennis game with such clarity. He almost looked, well, entitled, out there. If I had a quarter for every time I saw Nadal move inside the baseline to hit groundstrokes, and go for winners, I could park my car at a meter in Oakland for long enough to do my grocery shopping and get a coffee. (For instance, during his semifinal match against Berdych, Nadal hit 19 forehand winners, 38 overall. That’s $9.50 for me, which roughly comes out to 11 minutes and 28 seconds of metered parking. See? Perfect.)
One of the points from the final that sticks with me now was, I believe, the very first point of the second set tiebreaker. Nadal not only hit a winning forehand down the line, he managed to bend it so the ball struck the line as if it were an inside-out forehand hit from his backhand corner. Jim Courier, who was in the CBS booth, exclaimed, “Explain to me, how do you create an angle when you hit down-the-line?!” Then he told Mary Carillo how to do it. But even if Mary knows how to do it, that doesn’t mean she could. Which is why it is such a pleasure to watch a player capable of so much play so near that capacity.
Without losing contact with his defensive skills, Nadal has spent the last two weeks executing the aggressive aspects of his game with remarkable openness. It’s refreshing; and it’s time.
Not to play favorites for the Open, but if this is ambition—I like it.