Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Rafael Nadal and the Inner Game of Tennis

Cynthia Gorney has a wonderful profile of tennis player Rafael Nadal in the Times Magazine that is one of the great pieces of writing about tennis, on a par with David Foster Wallace's profile of Roger Federer, and argues, I think correctly, that these are the two greatest tennis players of this or any time.

He spent three whole years second in the world only to Federer, who during those years could not only outplay everybody but, in many people’s opinions, could probably have outplayed anybody who ever lived and nonetheless could not get past Nadal in Paris. Nadal was a phenomenal No. 2. His No. 2-ness was heroic and inspirational, and he was known to mention it quite cheerfully in press conferences: “I’m not the best, but I am a very good No. 2 in the world.”
Also of particular interest to our readers is the focus on the psychological aspects of the game: it is all played in the head.

“You must remember,” Bouin said gently, in his lovely accented English, “that in tennis you have to kill the other.” Not just play better. Sometimes the one who plays better can lose. It’s a sport of splendid cruelty, for all its decorum and finicky trappings; every winning point comes when the other guy, in front of a whole stadium of people staring directly at him, is forced by his opponent into inadequacy. He lunges for the ball but whiffs, he whacks it long, he hits it into the net, he screws up. From the stands, you sometimes see players surrender not because they don’t know how to return the shots coming at them but because the specter of this impending inadequacy has suddenly just taken over their brains. It transpires right in front of your eyes: something sags, and they go sort of limp; you can see their faces and their posture start registering get me out of here.

When he’s on — which is most of the time but not always, thereby heightening the suspense — Nadal is better than anybody at making this happen to opponents.
See also John Boyd's advice to get inside the decision loop of one's opponent, to unravel the opponent even without having a battle. Nadal's responses are very fast, he's got a lot of confidence, and he responds to small defeats with greater effort and focus. He's able therefore to manage the pace and conduct of his matches.

Equally interesting is the philosophy of Rafa's uncle and coach, Toni:
Among the numerous Rafa-and-Toni stories I heard in the stands: that Toni declared years ago that if he ever saw Rafa lose his temper on the court (racket-hurling is the standard tantrum, but there’s also cursing the line judges, sulking and yelling at spectators), their coaching relationship would end on the spot. Or that Toni refuses on principle to carry Rafa’s rackets for him. Or that they always fly commercial because Toni scoffs at the idea of a tennis star, even one worth scores of millions, believing that he merits a private jet.

These accounts turn out to be exaggerated, but not by much. “No, no, I’ve never delivered ultimatums to him,” Toni said dismissively in Spanish when I met him in Miami in March. “He knows he can’t throw a racket. He just knows. As far as I’m concerned, it’s shameful when he orders a meal and doesn’t finish it. Understand? Same thing with rackets. These rackets cost money.”


“It’s about respect,” Toni told me. “It’s really easy for these guys to start thinking the world revolves around them. I never could have tolerated it if Rafael had become a good player and a bad example of a human being. I was at a symposium recently and a trainer said to me, ‘Look, if you ask a young player’s father which he’d rather get at the end of this process — a courteous person or the French Open champion — you know what that father is going to say.’ And I said: ‘No, that’s all wrong. Because if that player is brought up courteous, brought up as a respectful person, he’s got a better chance to reach the championship of the French Open — because it’s going to be easier for him to accomplish the hard work.’ ”
This is a really interesting point of view. It lines up with the idea that courtesy is about putting yourself in the other person's place (thus honing one's social perceptiveness) as much as it is about practicing self control. Courtesy is therefore a strategic practice about the skill of behaving correctly under a large number of different circumstances; it requires good attention, detachment, and a light touch, all key skills for good strategic decision-making.

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