Thursday, 22 April 2010

Iron Man's Back - Coming To A Clay Court Near You

By Shane Thomas

With the sequel to the excellent comic-book film, 'Iron Man', about to hit our cinema screens (which I'm looking forward to immensely), it seems quite apt that tennis's very own Iron Man, Rafael Nadal seems to be returning to the form that made him the World Number 1 back in 2008.

2008 proved (so far) to be Nadal's annus mirabilis. After demolishing Roger Federer to win the French Open for the fourth consecutive year, he then went on to Wimbledon (without any break in between) and beat Federer again in what I believe to be the greatest tennis match ever played. While Federer managed to take the US Open at the end of the year, he surrendered the World Number 1 spot to the Spaniard. To put that into context, Federer had been top of the rankings for 237 consecutive weeks and is regarded by wiser people than myself as the greatest player ever to swing a racket.

Nadal's dominance continued in early 2009, as he also took Federer's Australian Open title in another marathon five set epic. Federer was a broken man at the end, openly weeping, and many pundits came to the conclusion that a new age in tennis had begun.

However, tennis's man of steel then hit a roadblock. He suffered a shock defeat in the French Open last year to Robin Soderling. It was revealed after the match that Nadal had competed while injured. This caused him to miss Wimbledon and after rushing back from injury at the US Open (the one Grand Slam he's yet to win), he looked a shadow of himself as he took a beating in the semi-final from the eventual winner, Juan Martin Del Potro.

The problem seemed to lie in Nadal's physique and his style of play. Part of the reason I give him so many monikers is that his build is akin to that of an NBA basketball star rather than a tennis player. Marching onto court with his cut-off sleeves, fist-pumping when he wins crucial points gave him an aura of physical dominance that intimidated his opponents from the very first point. Like champion boxers, he would sometimes have the match won before it even began. Nadal plays with an intensity and pace never before seen in the game. His all-action court coverage and the outrageous level of spin he imparts on the ball put a debilitating strain on his body, particularly in his knees and abdominal region.

This was demonstrated in the Australian Open back in January. Nadal was defeated by Andy Murray in the quarter-finals. It wasn't so much the defeat - Murray has beaten Nadal before - but the manner of it. After a very close first two sets, Murray then out Nadal-led Nadal. The Majorcan was forced to retire in the third as the relentless pace of the match overwhelmed him. As Nadal sat on his stool, exhausted and injured yet again, I wondered if he was to ever reach the heights of two years ago. While he is very mild-mannered off the court he is a snorting Spanish bull on it. To see him go out on his stool was akin to watching a bull refuse to come out of the paddock to face a matador in a bullfight.

But after taking a much needed rest from the game, the bull seems to have regained his fire. Nadal has had to shed some of the muscle from his upper body as it was a major cause of the constant knee trouble he suffered from in the past year, but the stamina, speed & groundstrokes (that make the guy over the net hare around the court like a dog chasing its tail) remains.

Towards the end of the first section of 2010's hard-court season, Nadal's recovery began, reaching the semi-final & final of the Masters Series tournaments in Miami & Indian Wells. He suffered surprising defeats in both to Ivan Ljubicic and Andy Roddick but it was clear from his level of his performance that he was fast becoming a danger to tennis's major players again.

And now we're in the clay court season. Nadal is called 'the king of clay', and it's not just some marketing term. When you step on a clay court, you step onto Nadal's back yard. This is his domain, his kingdom. To even dare to beat Nadal on this surface is tennis heresy. At the age of 23, he is already the greatest clay court player ever seen.

He proved that he is well and truly back last Sunday, crushing his compatriot Fernando Verdasco 6-0, 6-1 to win his sixth Monte Carlo Masters title. Nadal only dropped 14 games in the entire tournament. He may keep the biceps covered up these days but Rafa is back, and he's hungry for success. I'll go out on a limb now and say he's a dead cert to win his fifth French Open title in June. And while Roger Federer has regained his place at the top of tennis's mountain, he now has the biggest bullseye on his his chest. Because Rafa's coming Roger. He's coming for your World Number 1 ranking. And he's coming for your Wimbledon crown. We could have a special year of tennis ahead of us.


- Robbie Keane has been voted Celtic's player of the year by the club's supporters. This is a player who has only been at the club since January, and despite his best efforts, has been unable to raise the fortunes of the underperforming Scottish giants. Keane's award doesn't demonstrate how well he's played in the SPL, it only shows up the paucity of talent at Parkhead.

- Brian Davis has received deserved praise for calling a two shot penalty on himself in the Verizon Heritage PGA event over the weekend. A price cannot be put upon honesty & integrity in sport, especially one with a high level of competition and media scrutiny. However, it seems that certain members of the press have used Davis's honesty as a stick to beat other sports with. And by other sports I mean football. Personally I grow weary of this constant stream of invective against football when one of its players does something morally questionable. And now it seems football doesn't need to have done anything at all to receive criticism. Can those members of the British media please grow up and not use a laudable act in one sport as an excuse to further their agenda of casting footballers on the same moral level as bankers.

- The International Luge Federation (FIL) have decreed that Nodar Kumaritashvili's tragic death that preceeded this year's Winter Olympics could not be blamed on one particular thing. So case closed. Well... let me re-open it. It's true that it wasn't down to one thing, that's for damn sure. The steel pillar that Kumaritashvili crashed into was alongside a corner that had already been identified as dangerous. It was also unpadded. Olympic athletes had previously asked for the course to be changed as they were worried about it's safety, and they were ignored. After all, they only have to use the track, what do they know? And then there was Canada's preposterous and arrogant 'Own the Podium' campaign. By giving its own athletes practice time at the expense of all the other competing nations not only goes against everything the Olympics stand for, but showed such negligence towards the safety of human beings, that in my view, brought sport into disrepute. So no, it wasn't one thing at all. It was quite a few things. Pick your favourite from the list above.

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