Amy: So, Rafa’s officially back on the ATP Tour. It’s been over seven months since he’s played, and the whole tennis world is watching to see what kind of form he’ll be in. What did you guys miss most about Rafa during his absence?
Juan José: I just missed watching him play. Since Nadal is such a unique tennis player, he almost always creates a nice contrast with whoever he’s playing, which makes for fun viewing.
Lindsay: I really missed watching him compete, especially on hard courts. I almost enjoy him more on hard courts, because he’s not as dominant, but he’s always a factor, so it just adds a lot of spice and intrigue to the draws. Of course he’s wonderful on clay, but he’s so unbeatable that I do confess to occasionally getting bored.
Juan José: That’s interesting, Lindsay. I actually miss watching Nadal play on clay. It’s just something special: every single thing he does on a tennis court suddenly becomes enhanced — it’s just amazing to watch the best ever on that particular surface. You see every single facet of his game come alive on the dirt.
Amy: I really missed the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry. It’s probably my favorite match-up among all of the members of the Big Four. At times, they produce the most incredible tennis. Since I’m not crazy about the Murray-Djokovic match-up, I’ve really missed Rafa to be Djokovic’s foil, or vice versa.
Juan José: I agree – Nadal-Djokovic is my favorite combination among the Big Four. That’s been the case since they got their rivalry started in earnest, in the Miami quarters in 2007. That was such an awesome match.
Amy: When they’re both playing well against each other, it’s mesmerizing tennis.
Juan José: As a Djokovic fan, I wanted Djokovic to get another crack at Nadal outside the clay last year, since Nadal managed to stop the seven match losing streak that started in Indian Wells in 2011 and started a streak of his own, beating Djokovic in Monte Carlo, Rome and the French Open.
Lindsay: Yeah, it would have been great to see Nadal and Djokovic on hard courts last year, since Djokovic wasn’t quite as flawless and Nadal was over his mental block. it would have been fun, and I hope they can pick back up where they left off later this year.
Amy: That was something I really admired about Rafa. When a win against Djokovic seemed out of reach, he finally got past that mental block in 2012.
Juan José: I think what I love the most about that rivalry is how tactically and physically intense it is. To me, it pushes the boundaries of what is possible within the confines of a tennis court and what is possible for a tennis player’s body to endure.
Lindsay: Agreed. They really bring out the best in one another.
Amy: Rafa has decent match-ups with the other members of the Big Four, actually. He’s had some great matches against Murray and obviously some classics against Federer.
Lindsay: It’s funny, I never thought I would miss Fedal matches, but I actually have the last few years. I want them to get to play each other on a few more big stages. After Australia last year, it seemed like that rivalry was a bit reignited after their duds in 2011.
Amy: The 2011 French Open final was pretty good, but a lot of those other matches were duds, I agree.
Juan José: I actually don’t miss that rivalry at all. I really dislike how the media makes it seem like it’s the only rivalry that’s worth writing about in tennis, and the only worthwhile outcome of a tennis tournament that features both Federer and Nadal. About the rivalry itself, I’ve always found it pretty basic in terms of tactics. Hence the lopsided head-to-head.
Lindsay: I mean, I think that was the narrative in 2008, but it’s changed a lot since then.
Amy: I actually think the Fedal match-up is very overrated, but it’s an extremely unpopular opinion.
Juan José: I agree – it’s a SUPER UNPOPULAR OPINION. I’ve had it for a while.
Lindsay: I was as sick of them as anyone a few years ago, but things are different now. Perhaps I’m just a little nostalgic.
Amy: Federer’s tactics never change, he wants to win it on Nadal’s terms. It would be more interesting if Federer tried to change things up, but he never does.
Juan José: Beyond tactics, his backhand just can’t deal with Nadal’s forehand. That’s why it’s so tactically simple: Nadal knows he can get all sorts of benefits from exploiting that match-up. That’s why I like watching Nadal play Murray and Djokovic: that advantage is nullified, and the whole court opens up.
Amy: Yeah. I don’t really want to watch that exchange for hours. It’s pretty simple and the outcome seems predetermined except in certain match conditions.
Juan José: That’s part of why I miss Nadal play, too: he’s such a smart player. Rarely does he come up with a silly tactical scheme that he doesn’t adjust and correct during a match.
Lindsay: You can always see the wheels turning in Nadal’s head, often even in the middle of his strokes. It’s really incredible to watch. Of course, it helps that he does not have a poker face.
Juan José: Nope – that’s what makes it fascinating.
Apart from the tennis, I do miss his goofy press conferences.
Lindsay: Yes, Jerzy may have made controversial comments, but he was right about one thing: Nadal is always raw (except when his PR team is speaking for him).
Juan José: I think the best thing about Benito Pérez Barbadillo’s PR work with Nadal is that he truly understands his client’s “voice.” Then again, they’ve been together for ages, so it’s not THAT surprising.
Amy: I miss Rafa’s candid thoughts. I remember how open he was about his mental block against Djokovic in those pressers back in 2011. It was great, because players always try to deny stuff like that.
Juan José: You’re very right, Amy, it was amazing to see how open Nadal was throughout that tough stretch. For someone as maniacally competitive as he is, losing seven times to a guy he thought he had under control had to be maddening. Yet Nadal was extremely clear-minded and articulate when discussing the problems he was having on the tennis court.
Amy: It’s kind of the whole, “the first step is admitting you have a problem,” thing. After you admit it, you can get past it. I felt like it worked that way for Nadal.
Lindsay: Agreed, I enjoyed seeing him work through that. So, what are some of your favorite Nadal memories? There are the obvious matches, Wimbledon ‘08, the Australian Open semi vs. Verdasco, the ‘11 US Open final, but what about some that aren’t remembered as often?
Amy: One of the funniest Rafa moments, or Fedal moments, was the 2009 Madrid trophy ceremony. He and Federer were picking confetti out of each other’s hair. It always makes me laugh.
Lindsay: That was great. Dinara was there too!
Lindsay: I think that Rafa’s record in clay masters series is even more impressive than his French Open routs.
Juan José: I agree Lindsay, it’s insane. And I do think that not enough is made about the fact that he’s won Monte Carlo, a Masters 1000, eight straight times. EIGHT STRAIGHT TIMES. I mean, it’s difficult to win Delray Beach eight straight times, but a Masters 1000? It defies belief.
Lindsay: And it’s not like he’s never been tested in those tournaments. Was it in that Madrid 2009 semifinal when he and Djokovic played that four-hour epic? One of the best matches I’ve ever seen (If you have 245 minutes to spare).
Lindsay: It was insane. You could see them breaking, but still holding on and playing incredible tennis.
Juan José: Like I mentioned before, the Djokovic-Nadal 2007 Miami quarterfinal was incredible. The scoreline (4 and 4) is incredibly deceptive. That was the real start to their rivalry – the first time Djokovic beat Nadal. The Olympic semifinal in 2008 against Djokovic was astounding, too – it somehow never gets mentioned. Djokovic fans will not be fond of me for mentioning it, but let me assure them: that match almost broke me as well.
Lindsay: I also love when Nadal gets cranky. He’s usually so polite off-court, that when he explodes it cracks me up.
Amy: Well, there’s the infamous Rosol bump on the changeover.
Lindsay: Yes. and his (justified) tantrums at the 2011 US Open.
Juan José: What has been fun during this whole Nadal-less stretch is that through social media, Nadal has been able to make people feel that he was around. Like AmyLu wrote in her piece on Monday, Nadal was hilarious during the Olympics. He was the biggest cheerleader ever for his country.
Lindsay: Yes, I love his interactions with other players. The Playstation parties and all of the bromance. It’s all so genuine, and reminds me how young he still is.
Amy: As we’ve talked about before, his presence was badly missed on the Spanish Davis Cup team, just in terms of being a team leader and cheering on everyone else.
Juan José: Spain would have another Davis Cup to their name had Nadal been there for last year’s final.
Lindsay: Absolutely. And I consider Corretja already getting the boot the Nadal-less effect.
Juan José: What I will always find bizarre is why Nadal hasn’t won Miami yet. Even though he’s made the final three times.
Amy: It’s his version of Djokovic’s Cincinnati block.
Lindsay: Roddick really took the Miami title Nadal was supposed to have in 2010. He would have faced Berdych in the final. Nadal was up a set and maybe even a break, then Roddick just switched into his rarely-seen GOAT-mode. (It was awesome.)
Juan José: AmyLu is still mad at me for predicting that Nadal would sweep Indian Wells and Miami that year. I always claim that it’s not my fault that Nadal choked against Ljubicic in Indian Wells and then Roddick in Miami. I think Nadal’s biggest chance was 2008, when Davydenko beat him in the final. Nadal played one of his worst matches tactically: the plan (admitted later in the press conference) was to let Davydenko take the initiative. In related news, Davydenko won in straight sets.
Lindsay: Kolya’s game matches up so well against Rafa.
Juan José: The other weird Nadal result for me is that match he lost to García López in Bangkok. García López saved 24 of 26 break points. And broke Nadal in the only break chance he had.
Lindsay: That was insane. I’m sure his fans will hate me for this, but as an impartial observer, I kind of love when Rafa randomly gets sucked into playing the worst tennis matches ever. LIke against Verdasco in Cincy, or Tsonga in Miami, or that GGL match.
Amy: As a living witness to the 2011 Nadal-Verdasco Cincinnati match, I can attest that it was in fact the worst match ever played. Also, it was hot as hell on that court. I didn’t know what I was getting into.
Lindsay: But his bad matches have a way of bringing us all together because they’re so bad. And they’re never short and bad, the bad just goes on and on and on. Or sometimes it sneaks up on you right at the end. Was it a 5-1 lead he blew on the blue clay to Fer last year?
Juan José: Yes. It’s not the first time he’s blown a two break lead in a third set. He lost a match against DelPo in Miami in 2009 after going up two breaks to start the third – the first time DelPo beat him. Nadal dubbed it an “amazing disaster”.
Lindsay: Amazing. I had forgotten that, Juan José. Completely.
Juan José: Anyway, coming back to the present – I think Tuesday was interesting in terms of gauging the interest of fans about his return. Twitter was going nuts for a first round doubles match in Viña del Mar. I liked Tom Perrotta’s tweet about how he underestimated just how much the tennis world had missed Nadal.
Thought the tennis world had missed Rafael Nadal a really, really lot. I was wrong–he has been missed much more than that. #Twitteroverload
— Tom Perrotta (@TomPerrotta) February 5, 2013
Lindsay: Well, I always knew it would be huge. I mean, Rafa fans are pretty rabid, and he’s been gone for so long.
Juan José: But it wasn’t just the Nadal fans – pretty much everybody was paying attention.
Lindsay: It’s true. We all missed him.
Amy: Final thoughts?
Lindsay: I’m glad Nadal’s back. I’m excited to see what happens next.
Amy: I couldn’t be more excited to see Rafa back. I hope his knee problems are under control, and he’ll be able to play to his full ability this year. I know he’s stated recently he hopes to play until the Rio Olympics in 2016. I hope he can make it there with few injury problems.
Juan José: Agreed – I wish him all the luck in the world in terms of staying healthy. He’s missed enough tennis already. I think we all benefit from having three or four more years of Rafael Nadal around the top of men’s tennis.