Saturday, January 24, 2009

I Love This Man

from New York Magazine

Okay, so a non-tennis fan would probably read the title of this post and then look at the above picture, and think, well obviously. He must be some kind of model for exercise equipment, or a Chippendale or some other beefcake stud muffin (I have no idea why beefcake and stud muffin are still in my vernacular, sorry!). But for those of you who have any knowledge of tennis, you'll know that this is Rafa Nadal, the current number one player in the world, and my current and possibly forever love.

And no, it's not because his abs look like that (but good GOD) or because his hair falls just so or any for any other physical reason. Once and for all I do not watch tennis because I think the players are cute. I cannot tell you how many times I've gotten this, and for future notice, anyone who wants to suggest that to me again, it's insulting and more than a little bit sexist. Girls can like sports for reasons other than the dreamy athletes. We're not a bunch of giggling, boy crazy teenagers (okay well not all of us anyways). Yes it is a most definite perk that a lot of male tennis players are downright Adonis like (have you seen those pictures of Tommy Robredo?!), but it is a perk. It is not the reason for my love of the game (you'll know that if you've read my blog explaining my love for tennis).

My love for Rafa Nadal goes far beyond looks. It is a big decision to give your love to a tennis player. Being a casual fan is one thing. I can casual fan myself to dozens of players without feeling like a hussy, because it's the nature of the game. Players burn bright and they fade and you can't get too attached to just anyone. But to be a true fan is a commitment, something that you take on for life, or at least for the usual decade plus long careers of these players (God willing they avoid injury, mental freakouts, overlarge egos, etc. and etc.) I have given my true fandom to very few players. Agassi was one and that was really only for the last 7 or 8 years of his career (I only casually watched tennis before high school). Andy Roddick is another, and no he may not be the most talented player out there but before you start picking on him, let me just remind everyone that he has been a top 10 player for SEVEN years, the only other player besides Roger Federer to maintain such consistency. He finished number one in the world not too long ago, and his serve will probably go down as one of the greatest weapons in the game. Plus he's the number one American and it's my patriotic duty to support him. So if you're still tittering about how I only like him because he's "cute" then just go poo on yourself.

Whew, sorry, I get a little overexcited about my tennis. I apologize for telling you to go poo on yourself. Doesn't mean the sentiment doesn't still hold though. But anywho, I have several other long term affairs with players. I almost always watch a Marat Safin match, because there's always that possibility that he'll get his head together and live up to his incredible talent. I root for Tommy Haas because he's had such bad luck in his career and has never really gotten the chance to live up to his potential (plus when he gets pissed in a match he curses in German, who doesn't love that?). I love Marcos Bahgdatis for his joyous personality and for his huge heart. James Blake of course gets my support because he's the number two American and tennis at its heart is a very nationalistic game. Djokovic has caught my fancy on a number of occasions, but my admiration for him was punctured when he acted like a bratty teenager at the US Open. I could go on, but my point is, I have a number of players who I will tune in for, but who I haven't fully committed myself to, because like I said, it's a big decision. To become a true fan of a tennis player means that you're in it for the long haul. There will be matches lasting to the wee hours of the night, agonizing losses, infuriating upsets, tension filled tiebreaks and five setters that leave you a ragged pile of nerves. Of course there will also be joyous wins and epic comebacks and moments of brilliance, but you get the good with the bad.

So why have I chosen to attach myself to Nadal? If you think it's because he's number one now, then think again. I am not a bandwagon kind of girl, and I have faithfully watched Rafa's matches for years now, long before he overtook Federer. And again, it's not because he looks good in those weird capri pants. No, I love Nadal for his incredible talent, his dedication and passion and because he brings something to the game that no other player right now does, something elusive and rare. He's a character, a vivid, memorable soul that leaves an indelible impression. Years from now a handful of players from this generation will be remembered. Federer will of course be remembered for his greatness. Maybe Djokovic or Murray if they continue to do well. But Nadal will be remembered not only for his brilliant game but for his whole aura and self. I mean just think of how many Nadalisms there are that no other player could pull of without looking like a complete idiot. First of all, after the coin toss in every single match, no matter if it's first round in Cincinatti or the finals of Wimbledon, he does that boxer sprint to the service line. He crouches for a moment and then explodes, one giant ball of energy and strength, ducking and weaving and carrying on like Rocky running up the steps. But there's not a hint of arrogance or showiness to it. He's just so insanely fired up, for every single match, again whether it's some stupid, inconsequential tournament stop where's he's playing number 203 in the world or the finals of a slam where he's facing someone like Fed.

Then there's the much imitated pre-service routine, the wedgie pick, the hair tuck, the great scowl on his face as he reaches up the ball to serve. Again this isn't him being an asshole, trying to throw off his opponent (cough Novak "ball bounce" Djokovic), it's just him being this completely neurotic, superstitous athlete who knows what works for him and doesn't want to change it. His game is so unique and specific, the power he brings to it, the spin on his forehands, how he chases down every ball whether or not he's two sets and a break up or two sets and a break down. Then you've got the clothes, the (up until the Australian Open) sleeveless shirts, again that very few other players can even kind of pull off (although many try) and which only he really pulled off, the sheer intimidation factor of those giant biceps, the capri pants, the bandana, this singular style that you just know will remembered decades from now. Toss in how he acts on the changeovers, the lining up of the water bottles, the meticulous OCD stuff, and how can you not love a guy with this much on court personality. There's nothing bland about Rafa Nadal, nothing homogeneous. It's why he's such a target for impersonations.

But the very best part is the stark difference between all this on court bravado and "Vamosing" and fist pumping and the modest, unassuming kid he is in interviews. He's humble to a fault, still refusing to say that he's a better player than Federer. If I hadn't been won over before hand, his remarks after the 2008 Wimbledon final would have done it, how he did what everyone in that crowd and at home wanted to do for Roger Federer, give him a big verbal hug and reassure him that the loss didn't change anything, that he was still great, possibly the greatest. He never throws rackets, never yells at umpires. It's rare to even see him slightly disgruntled at a line call. He lives with his family in his hometown whereas so many other top players relocate to the tax haven of Monaco. He blogs for the ATP tennis website about pasta and The Godfather and playing videogames with the other Spanish players. And I know I sound like I'm gushing but I can't help it. I have an enormous sports crush on this man. He's this incredible presence in the sport, and he's amazing to watch, for his game primarily but also for the color and spark he brings with it.

And he wants to improve, the number one player in the world of tennis, four time French Open champ, Wimbledon champion, greatest clay courter of all time probably, wants to and is improving. He's changing his forehand, flattening it out for the hardcourt tournaments. He's worked on his serve, on his net skills. His love of and curiosity for the game of tennis is obvious. And that would seem like a given but it's not. A frustrating thing about the individual nature of tennis is that you're sometimes forced to watch athletes squander their talent, men who don't want it enough or who are lazy or distracted or who simply don't have enough heart. It's immensely disapointing, and so when a player does show how much he loves the game, how much it matters to them, how much they want to work and try to improve, even when they're at the top, well it's incredibly endearing for a fan. It shows an appreciation for their gift, a lack of ego, a hunger to keep moving forward. And this is really extraneous but he's also working to improve his very cutely broken English, and if you watch interviews with him now compared to just a couple of years ago, it's pretty damn impressive.

And so yeah, I think this is it, a tennis love that will last a tennis lifetime. And I hope I've convinced you that it's not just because he's a gorgeous hunk of man. I have no problem admitting that Rafa Nadal shirtless is a sight I very much enjoy, but my love for him goes far beyond such carnal pleasures. He's the most vibrant, memorable player in the game right now and he's made even more appealing by his off court demeanor and maturity (he's almost a year younger than I am! if I were that rich and famous and succesful I would probably develop several drug habits and start hurling cellphones at assistants). So there it is, my proclamation of undying tennis love. I don't give my heart lightly to tennis players, so this is a big deal. Now those knees of his better not break my heart.

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