Rafael Nadal def.  Kei Nishikori 2-6, 6-4, 3-0
There are many reasons I enjoy watching tennis, not least among them is that tennis is a form of theater. The drama is frequently compelling, the staging appealingly straightforward, and tennis has, of course, its varied cast of players. As such, yesterday’s production of the Men’s Madrid Final had the makings of a thoroughly engaging show: It was performed on traditional red clay, featured one of the world’s most renowned clay-courters, co-starred one of the sport’s rising stars, had a supporting cast of beautiful, belted extras (all with the word “Pull” emblazoned over the right breast and “Bear” over the left as if declaring some bold, yet alluringly vague, nymphet creed), and it took place inside a box-shaped theater of Magic.
And it did turn out to be an interesting production, but not an altogether satisfying one. Both players experimented—with more and less success—by moving outside their typical range. Kei Nishikori executed the Djokovic Method with tremendous flair, going hard and fast at Nadal’s forehand and taking his own backhand audaciously early, changing the direction of the ball with seeming ease. Rafael Nadal, on the other hand—who was recently dubbed “Sir Rafa, Bloodless Warrior Prince” by the friendly-faced Queen of Spain—forwent dictating with his forehand out of his backhand corner in favor of scrambling, committing errors (some tentative and forced, others entirely out of his control), and reciting brief, but intensely self-critical soliloquies between points. (In my opinion, for such a fine performer, the groundstroke errors were a mistake—many mistakes, actually—but the monologues were excellent. Nadal projected his troubled emotional state exceptionally well. I didn’t even need to understand the words to comprehend the force of his meaning: the warrior prince was distinctly displeased.)
ESPN coverage of the final ended traditionally enough, with Rafa chomping yet another trophy. This Madrid victory is Nadal’s 27th Masters Title, one for every year he’s been alive, and five more than anyone else has got. The trophy itself looks like it might have once done a stint as Iago’s favorite cudgel. [I can’t help but think that the runner-up plate should actually be a set of brass knuckles adorned with diamond-studded tennis balls.] Nonetheless, seeing the sadistic-looking scepter held aloft in the bandaged hands of the defending champion, reigning World No. 1, knighted bloodless warrior, and anointed King of Clay made everything feel back to normal, if not quite all right.
One obvious source of emotional dissonance was the fact that the curtain dropped on this particular Madrid production midway through the third act. This left me with a feeling of –surprise, surprise—incompleteness. The other wrong note sounded from the fact that I wasn’t really surprised by the way things played out, or failed to play out, as the case might be. I expected Nadal to win, I expected him not to be at his best, and I expected Nishikori to be somehow injured. What I had not expected was Nishikori to play so incredibly well before succumbing so suddenly to injury. It was disappointing to watch, and it must have been nightmarish to experience firsthand.
Kei Nishikori has a very entertaining game, solid all-around, and starring a forehand that’s big and flashy without being the least reckless. The Japanese No. 1—today the first Japanese man ever to enter the Top 10—also has a nuanced grasp of strategy that seems only to be improving. For instance, yes, Nishikori required ten match points to see off David Ferrer in the semifinals (the match of the tournament), but it’s worth noting that Ferrer outplayed Nishikori for most of the first and a good portion of the second set. Ferrer returned exceptionally well in Madrid, most notably while launching himself into the air after John Isner’s exploding kick-serves (the tall American only won 30 out of 50 points behind his massive first serve in his third round loss to the Spaniard). But Nishikori found his way around Ferrer’s uncanny return, choosing his spots carefully and hitting them well (especially his serve down the T on the ad side, which broke away from a lunging Ferrer over and over again).
It wasn’t his strategy but his courage that wavered at the close, as Nishikori started to miss his first serves and send smothered forehands into the net cord (that, and Ferrer played his guts out). But, although Nishikori’s heart missed a few beats, it didn’t fail him. After three sets, ten match points—the first coming nearly an hour before the next nine—and almost three hours of tennis, Nishikori had earned his first role as a Masters-level finalist. This new battle-hardened Nishikori pleased me (he won the Barcelona title in April, his first on clay), as I assume he pleased many other tennis fans wondering who besides Wawrinka might come into his own on the ATP tour this year. Kei Nishikori is 24-years-old, his tennis is textured and exciting, and he seems like a nice fellow. We could do much worse.
The question is whether Nishikori can stay healthy. Unfortunately, he has a pattern following up a big win or a promising run with an injury retreat (hence my expectation that he’d pull up lame in yesterday’s final). There might be nothing at all that can be done for what ails Nishikori’s body. The repetitive nature of tennis doesn’t allow much space for the healing of certain wounds, and carrying an injury makes a player more susceptible to injury. Still, there was something about the storyline of yesterday’s match, in the way the balance of power shifted from Nishikori to Nadal that felt, for lack of a better word, familiar. And where there is familiarity, it’s a good bet there’s also psychology.
Nishikori won the first set in stunningly dominant fashion, making the Warrior Price look unsettlingly ordinary. Then, to the dismay of the Spanish crowd, Nishikori kept it up in the second set, breaking immediately for 1-0. That’s when the structure began to crumble for Nishikori, at the very moment he found himself up a set and a break on the greatest clay-courter of our time. Was it simply his injury beginning to bother him? Or was this the moment when he started to think about the possibility of actually winning? Did he somehow prompt the other shoe to drop? And did that shoe, perhaps, land directly on his wounded back? Did Nishikori start to worry his body wouldn’t hold out for long enough to secure the win? Or did he worry that he’d backed one of the game’s most deadly competitors into a corner and that this competitor was now going to box him about the ears with his forehand cudgel?
Or maybe—most likely—it was a mix of all of the above and more. Because Nishikori immediately went down 0-40 on his serve, and although he managed to fend off the break, he didn’t look even close to as settled as he had in the first nine games. Then, while still leading 3-1 in the second set, Nishikori asked the umpire to quiet the partisan crowd, thereby insuring stoney silence in La Caja Mágica whenever he won a point, and, more crucially, letting Nadal know he was a bundle of anxiety underneath all that tremendous ball-striking.
At the 4-3 changeover Nishikori received a massage from the trainer. Another note of encouragement to his opponent, who is—we all know—not the type of player to shy away from attacking an injured foe. Sure enough, Rafa broke the very next game, looking, for the first time in the match, like the bloodless Warrior Prince version of his self. The word “roar” is overused as it applies to Rafael Nadal, but it’s the still the best one to describe his reaction when Nishikori’s let-cord sailed long, leveling the set at 4-4. Rafa roared. The commentators took the opportunity to observe that not only is Nadal “a mental fortress,” he was also aiming to get in Nishikori’s grill and “rattle his cage.” Nishikori, for his part, took the opportunity to call for the trainer. His grill was rattled.
Nadal has been without his full-on game for months now. The walls of his mental fortress are in need of a good spackling. But he is still Rafael Nadal, and therefore nobody knows just when and where he’ll get his game back. He waits only for the tournament, or the match, or even the lone point, on which to turn his fate, and rekindle his desire to devour every available tennis trophy. This potential energy, ever on the verge of becoming searingly kinetic, frightens people standing opposite him. Indeed, it was Nadal’s big cudgel forehand that earned him the crucial break point in the second set, but it was also the point that seemed to break Nishikori’s body and spirit—he turned an ankle trying to cope with Nadal’s attack, and nothing turned out well for him after that.
By the time the first game of the third set had elapsed, it was obvious Nadal would win the match. Nishikori’s capitulation was complete, which meant, interestingly, that Nadal’s victory was not, or at least not quite yet. As faithful as both players were to their assigned roles—the underdog put up a good fight, but went out meekly in the end, and the leading man got the trophy (and all the girls)—the script failed to convince. Both Nishikori and Nadal have more to offer, and—one hopes— more to prove. Fortunately, in the tennis version of theater, the script is rewritten each week anew, and the play has already begun at the Foro Italico. In Rome, as a famous playwright once noted, ambition should be made of sterner stuff.