Tennis - the Greatest Game - Oh, my leg, my leg (foot … toe … ear ...)
Oh, my leg, my leg (foot … toe … ear ...)
The ATP tennis rules [ATP 2008 Official Rulebook (ATPRB), attached] allow for a medical time-out of 3 minutes to be called once for every type of injury a player may suffer [ATPRB, VI-P to VI-Q, pp. 102-107]. This even includes cramp, which one usually associates with a lack of fitness rather than being considered a true injury. Although the umpire has the authority to disallow a request for a medical time-out, it is virtually impossible to judge whether an injury is real or not. Apart from requesting Nadal to submit himself to a polygraph test, there is likewise no direct means of proving that he stooped very low during the crucial final in Monte Carlo this year. Instead, I will use an example of a similar event that occurred some years ago and the effect it had on the outcome of that match. I will also show that Nadal had every reason to resort to such tactics.
Being a South African, I closely followed the roller-coaster career of Wayne Ferreira, one of the handful of top ten ranked players South Africa has had. The year 2003 began on a high note for Wayne, who defeated the number four seed Juan Carlos Ferreiro 7-6, 7-6, 6-1 in the Australian Open. These two players would again come face to face in October that year, this time during the Madrid Masters Series Event, the home town of Ferreiro. Ferreira had lost the first set 3-6, but won the second set 6-2 and was leading the final set 5-2 when Ferreiro called for an injury time-out to have ankle strapping removed. Ferreira's momentum and concentration were broken, he missed two match points and eventually lost the match. The fact that he also had to face a partisan crowd who cheered his mistakes and booed whenever he got the ball in, did not contribute to his mental state either. Is this what we can expect in Madrid when Nadal faces tough opposition in a crucial match?
It is well known that at the professional level it usually is the mental state of a player which determines whether he will win or lose a closely contested match. Once a player believes that he can beat the higher ranked player, his chances of doing so increase significantly. This is even more true when the lower ranked player had already succeeded in doing so, as Ferreira had done during the Australian Open. At 2-5 Ferreiro had his back against the wall, facing an opponent who was charging to victory. He had only one fall-back to stop the charge - the injury time-out. And stop the charge he did.
So, back to Nadal. Nadal had enjoyed an 81 match unbeaten streak on clay courts until he was defeated on clay for the first time by Roger Federer at the Hamburg final in 2007. Federer had lost the first set 2-6, but won the second set 6-2 and then steamrollered Nadal 6-0 in the final set. Apart form the French Open final shortly afterwards that year, Federer and Nadal did not have any clay court encounters leading up to Monte Carlo. In the first set of the Monte Carlo final Federer started off like a rocket and was leading 5-2 when, lo and behold, Nadal called for a medical time-out. I vividly remember the hushed silence among the spectators, echoing my own disbelief. During the treatment one could clearly hear Nadal's concern as to whether he should continue playing or not, which certainly created the impression that his injury was serious. Roger most certainly must have heard this as well. The treatment however worked a miracle and Nadal was back on court, as fit as a fiddle. The balance swung in his favour and he proceeded to take the first set and then also the match.
There can be little doubt that had Federer won the first set, it would have been very difficult for Nadal to avoid defeat. The very last thing Nadal could afford was for Federer to beat him on clay just before the French Open. Nadal would be trying to equal Bjorn Borg's record of four consecutive titles at Roland Garos, whereas Federer would be aiming for his first. A victory at Monte Carlo would have boosted Federer's confidence tremendously, at the same time undermining Nadal's belief in himself. In addition, just over the horizon waited Wimbledon. They met again on clay in Hamburg, Nadal winning 7-5, 6-7, 6-3, further eroding Federer's self-belief on clay. Federer was no match for Nadal at Roland Garos, losing 6-1, 6-3, 6-0.
Would Nadal have stood any chance at Wimbledon against Federer had the latter won his first French Open title? Probably not. It is therefore very clear that although the Monte Carlo tournament itself was not of particularly high importance, it was immensely important for Nadal to deny Federer a victory. He succeeded in doing so and how well he succeeded. During the first two sets at Wimbledon Federer uncharacteristically squandered several break point opportunities, a clear indication that he did not believe in his own ability to take crucial points.
Nadal regularly expresses his respect for Federer, but is it real? If I recall correctly, John McEnroe, probably the most infamous player of modern times, was once asked why we did not witness his characteristic outbursts during his matches against Bjorn Borg. His answer was that he had too much respect for Borg. The use of any form of gamesmanship against an opponent demonstrates disrespect for that opponent. Nadal's dirty trick in Monte Carlo was nothing short of an insult to Roger Federer.
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