The Rafael Nadal gamesmanship issue

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Dusty Payne

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  • The Rafael Nadal gamesmanship issue

The Rafael Nadal gamesmanship issue

Make no mistake, Rafael Nadal is one of the most amiable guys on the tour. Diplomacy personified, you hardly hear him talk anything untoward about his opponents. In fact, at the cost of sounding ridiculously humble and predictable, Nadal could go at lengths stating and eulogizing even his first round opponents at the French Open. No player for him is ‘easy to beat’ and almost everyone out there is a ‘wonderful player, tough player, no?’

Nadal's attitude while talking about the game in general is a complete antithesis to that of his great rival, Roger Federer, who’s never shied away from speaking his mind, whether on his fellow players or anything else. On the court however, they couldn’t be more different; despite Federer’s lack of diplomacy and no-nonsense views on the game, it’s the Swiss who’s repeatedly won the ‘Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award’ on multiple occasions and not ‘Rafa’. Not for no reasons though.

Rafa’s tryst with gamesmanship

On more than a few occasions now, Nadal’s injury problems have surfaced at the worst possible time for his opponents. At a Wimbledon match against Germany’s Philipp Petzschner, Nadal was trailing by two sets to one. Petzschner, as anyone who was watching the game would agree, was in the zone and was serving bombs that Nadal was simply not able to get a racquet on.

Unlike in his second round match, when Robin Hasse folded meekly in the final two sets, Petzschner looked to be a different man. But that was until the Spaniard called for an ‘injury timeout’, enough moments of unnecessary wait for the German to lose his rhythm and eventually the match to the world's best player.

Rewind to Hamburg 2008, Federer the victim then…

Thoughts immediately went back to the Hamburg 2008 final when something similar happened. Federer was cruising 5-0 in the opening set and Rafa was clearly not able to cope with the variety of his opponent’s game. Yes, it was clay but it was also Hamburg, a place where Federer was virtually unbeaten. But then, as luck would have it, Rafa called for a trainer, almost five minutes were lost and Federer was clearly a ragged man since then. Within no time, Rafa had pulled things back to five games apiece and to write on the final result is probably not required.

Federer, who shares a very cordial relationship with his great Spanish rival hasn’t spoken very openly about Rafa’s tendencies to frequently call on the trainer during critical moments when he’s down in a match. After all, in his defense, Nadal’s had a history of problems with his knee and those could have been genuine moments of despair when a trainer was required. But clearly, people are bound to look at the timing of it all and surely, sooner or later, they’ll speak out.

Cut to the present and Petzschner speaks

Like in the case of Petzschner who wasn’t ready to accept things in ‘black and white’. On being asked whether the timeout had any effect on his game, the German said, “Yeah, it was pretty clever, I think”. On being then asked whether there was any difference in Nadal’s movements before and after the timeout, Petzschner replied, “I didn't feel any difference afterwards or before. 
No, but I don't know. Maybe he had something. Maybe it was just a clever part to take a timeout there.”

It’s not just about trainers with Rafa

All this can be very bothersome for Nadal’s opponents who have often expressed their displeasure at some of his other mannerisms as well. Even Federer has voiced his irritation at the time that he takes between points, which again is enough to upset an opponent’s rhythm.

Robin Soderling, who was once made to wait like this during a Wimbledon third round match, got so visibly irritated that he too started to slow the game down and later impersonated Nadal's notorious crease adjustment after each point. After the match, Soderling in a candid mood said, “It was more of a fun thing. I had to wait for him, I mean, more than 200 times. Every point, I had to wait for him. He had to wait for me one time, and then he started shaking his head and saying things. I think most of the players, I think all players, play faster than him."

The umpire is upset too

At Wimbledon, the 7-Grand Slam winner even received a warning by the umpire, for allegedly receiving coaching tips on-court from his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal. Again, the umpire could have been wrong in his judgment but at this rate, surely Rafa will lose a lot of friends and doubts over his sportsmanship will only raise, his off-court pleasant mannerisms notwithstanding. Whether or not Nadal cares about the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award and the likes is another issue altogether.


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