Rafa Nadal Continues To Flex His Muscles

Rafael Nadal (zimbio.com)

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The bicep is the clue, the left one, so much bigger than the right, stretching the sleeve of Rafael Nadal’s post-match T-shirt. Tennis players, like blacksmiths, pound with one arm, hour after hour, day after day, season after season.

The serve, the forehand, all done with Nadal’s left. The two-handed backhand doesn’t make much difference. There’s an imbalance between the two arms, as there is for anyone who’s spent a lifetime in the sport.

Nadal is 30 now, old — veteran of more than 1,000 pro matches over 14 years, and winner of 14 Grand Slams — and yet in today’s world of improved diet and exercise techniques, he is young.

Roger Federer, beating Nadal in the final, won the Australian Open a month and a half ago at 35. And Nadal, apparently free of one injury after another, said, “I am playing at a very high level.” That includes his 6-3, 6-2, win over an Argentina’s Guido Pella at the BNP Paribas Open.

The great ones just keep playing: Nadal, Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray — yes, great, even though Murray, the No. 1 seed, No. 1 in the world rankings, was recently upset by Vasek Pospisil.

Playing against the other stars. Playing against themselves.

Tennis is their life, as well as their job. Tennis is what they do, what Rafa Nadal does, until someday he won’t be able to do it any longer.

They are competitors. They are globetrotters. Starting in December, Nadal has been in Dubai, Australia, Mexico and now the California desert. It beats being trapped in an office cubicle, especially when you’re able to beat most of your opponents.

Is it unusual that in tennis, as in golf, fans cheer for the favorite, not the underdog? They want Federer to win, Nadal to win. When that happens the paying customers are satisfied they got what they expected, what they wanted. “Hey, saw Djokovic break serve.”

Hard to know what the players want other than good facilities (the Tennis Garden at Indian Wells is one of the finest), good health and an effective game. They are nomads, facing the same people across the net or in the media rooms, trying to get a little more topspin, trying to do a little less explaining. Not that they don’t understand what comes with the territory.

Most of the better players, no matter if they’re from Switzerland, Serbia or Shanghai, speak English impressively. Nadal, however, used translators for his first several years. He has picked up the language, although with a strong accent, and sometimes his thoughts as well as his words are confusing to the listener.

To his credit, what Nadal, along with others of his skill level, has learned is he must deal with all sorts of questions from the press, some professional, some personal, some stupid.

After Nadal said he thought he played a solid match against the 166th-ranked Pella — “For a few moments I played well; for a few moments I played less well” — he was asked where the sport would be in the future. Would the men all be 6-foot-5? Would there be limits on racquets?

Nadal doesn’t want a serve and volley game, but one in which shots go back and forth, long rallies. “People can think it’s because it helps me, but I am talking about the sport overall, no? … I think good points, if we want to maintain a good show for the people.”

With his frantic movements and his wicked forehands, Nadal presents an exceptional show. He’s a scrambler, a battler, not as graceful as Federer but arguably more exciting to watch.

“In Melbourne,” he said, meaning the Australian Open, “I played some great matches. In Acapulco (where he lost in the final to Sam Querrey) I played well. In Brisbane (before the Australian) I played well. In Abu Dhabi (Dubai, the end of December) I played great.

“Four events I played at a very high level. Very happy the way I started the season. Now there is another opportunity.”

An opportunity to continue flexing his muscles.

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