Friday, April 02, 2010

Sports: Rafa vs. Andy

It took some doing, but I managed to make it to the men's semifinals of the Sony Ericsson Open, where Rafael Nadal was playing Andy Roddick. The sold-out stadium was nearly full, the sky was clear, and the mood was jolly as the players warmed up. Rafa has beaten Andy three straight times, so most commentators (and fans) didn't give Andy much of a chance today. Here are my impressions of the match:

Rafa's often stereotyped as a sort of hyperkinetic warrior, his competitiveness manifested in fist pumps and grunts that can be seen and heard even from the cheap seats. Rafa's pre-serve rituals belie that image, however: he grabs at his shorts like he has a wedgie, gently tucks his hair behind each ear, pauses with a scowl, and then launches into his motion after everything has been put in place just so.

It's Andy Roddick who looks fidgety when he serves. The constant tugging of his Lacoste shirt at the shoulders is the main tic people see on TV, but in person the whole ritual looks more violent. It's not nervousness, though; the serve is Andy's bread-and-butter, so he steps up to the plate before each point with confidence, the kind that can only be obtained from having done thousands and thousands of repetitions of something. So many that Andy could almost do it blindfolded.

Though both men are elite athletes, they definitely contrast visually. Andy's shirt hangs from his shoulders like Superman's cape, reinforcing his All-American, boy-next-door persona. Rafa's is more form-fitting, like a modern day superhero's tights. It's hard to see at this distance, but they're surely sweating bullets in the hot Miami sun.

Their games are visually different, too. Rafa's lasso-whip lefty forehand is even more impressive in person, putting so much topspin on the ball that it explodes off the mid-speed Laycold court surface. From this height, it's almost humorous, like a gimmick in a 3D movie. That topspin gives Rafa the ability to change directions and impart power, and it's clear that Rafa has the upper hand in almost every baseline rally. After taking advantage of a sloppy service game from Roddick, Nadal takes the first set 6-4.

But Andy's signature weapon is working today, too, and he's bombing 130+ mph serves up the T and 110 mph sliders out wide. Even Roddick's second serves are putting pressure on Rafa, who is one of the best returners in tennis. A few spectacular rallies in one of Rafa's service games leads to Andy taking the second set, 6-3.

Andy Roddick's made some fundamental changes in his game. He's slimmed down, strengthened his backhand, and turbocharged his defense from the baseline. Despite these improvements, he's never going to outrally Nadal, and he seems to realize it in the latter stages of the match. It is Roddick's willingness to come in behind his serve (despite the occasional suicidal net rush) that becomes the decisive factor. Rafa's rhythm gets disrupted, errors start creeping in to his game, and no amount of "Vamos!"-ing or fist pumps can hide the truth - Andy is the better player today. Roddick breaks Rafa twice in the third, and the final score is 4-6, 6-3, 6-3.


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