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The Prince of Madrid

Rafa Nadal, shouting “Vamos!” and looking as good as ever.

By 5.14.13

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Stanislas Wawrinka, the perennial No. 2 Swiss champion -- you can talk about predestination in his Calvinist country, but the simpler explanation is that the courtly Wawrinka and the courteous Roger Federer are just four years apart, competing in the same time span -- had a great tournament but in the end great was not good enough because Rafael Nadal’s tournament was even greater . He had a close call with Spain’s perennial No. 2, the amiable and admirable David Ferrer, in the quarters, overwhelmed another countryman, Pablo Andujar, in the semis, and wrapped it up with a score, 6-1, 6-4, that does not do justice to Wawrinka’s excellent play. Winning the Mutua Madrid again, the mighty Majorcan demonstrated why they call him the king of clay.

The surface at the Caja Magica stadium, where the center court is named after Spain’s Manuel Santana, “Manolo,” world No. 1 in 1966, the year he beat America’s Dennis Ralston at Wimbledon, who serves today as tournament director, is red clay, the same as the one they will play on in less than three weeks at the historic Roland Garros stadium in Paris. It is markedly different from the crazy material Romania’s Ion Tiriac, who owns the tournament -- globalization obligé -- tried last year, a blue composition that Serena Williams said felt like ice. Fast, it worked for Federer, who likes fast, but it sure did not work for clay court traditionalists, and Nadal, patriotism notwithstanding, warned he would boycott Madrid this year if they did not return to red clay. They did, and he ran over his opponents like bowling pins, only his friend and country man David Ferrer giving him a scare.

Wawrinka is from Lausanne, a discreet city on a pleasant lake in the west of Switzerland. I believe Vladimir Nabokov lived there, or maybe it was on the opposite shore in Geneva. A Henry James novel, Daisy Miller, one of the key documents in American literature (to sound like an English Ph.D.) takes place here. It is not a tennis town at first sight, but then neither is Basel, Roger Federer’s hometown. The maestro was beaten in three sets by a young son of the Rising Sun, Kei Nishikori, an odd match in which Federer almost looked like two different people: his old self in the second set, wherein he never gave Kei a chance, and almost lethargic in the first and third sets; lethargic being a word that fits Federer as well as indulgent applies to Cotton Mather, John Calvin’s American epigone and a real hard nose.

But it seemed the only hard nose on the men’s side at the Madrid ATP 1000 -- a designation that puts this venue in the same league as our Indian Wells, which Nadal also won this year -- was, in fact, Nadal’s. It is true the Majorcans, like the Catalans, have a reputation for ruthlessness, but then so do other Spaniards. At Washington’s Tennis and Education Foundation the pros tell the kids you gotta be mean on the green (they also play on blue surfaces, so I guess they also say make the other guy rue the blue). Personally I grew up with English coaches who said give the other chappie a chance. It does not work, but nature, nurture, I hate changing old habits.

Stan Wawrinka, at any rate, is no softie, and certainly not a quitter. He gave Nadal a strong match, as Rafa acknowledged afterward. It was, actually, a much stronger match than the one Maria Sharapova gave Serena Williams in the ladies final. The leading American crushed her Florida neighbor. However, Maria -- Masha to her friends, notably Grigor Dimitrov, the young man who pulled a major upset by beating world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the second round (the Serb had a bye in the first round), still considers herself a Russian. She looks Russian, though slender at six-two.

Maria Sharapova may be ice on the court, she is not without a sense of whimsy. She teases the gossip press about her Bulgarian boyfriend, to whom she is rumored to have given the Porsche she won a few weeks ago at a German tournament. Observe that Russian-Bulgar flirtations have a history. The most famous Bulgar of the revolution period was Georgi Dimitrov, who gained international fame for staring down the Nazi hangmen at his trial for setting fire to the Reichstag. They did not dare shoot him and he was traded for some Nazi spies the Soviets were holding. He became a Stalin favorite, a risky position, and boss of Workers’ Bulgaria after World War II, dying in ’49. No relation to young Grigor (Dimitrov in Bulgaria is as Sanchez in Spain), whose parents, like so many top tennis players, Ferrer’s for instance, are teachers.

Nadal, after his seven-month recovery from the knee problems that plagued him following his win at the French Open last year, has been doing very well. His return to the tour really has only been marred by his loss to Djokovic in the final at Monte Carlo. The running story among sportswriters is: Will Djokovic stop Nadal at the French Open in Paris? This would give the Serb his first win there and with it a career grand slam, meaning at least one win in each of the big four “slams,” though not in the same year, which is the requirement for a “grand slam” strictly understood. Djokovic’s parents are teachers too, mountain sports instructors.

It was a fine match. In the second set, Nadal let a service game nearly slip away, going up 40-love and then allowing Wawrinka to get back to deuce. Rafa then played some great defense at the net, standing like a stone wall as Stan slammed forehands at him until he finally sent one out of bounds. Rafa yelled “Vamos!” after that one, his trademark cheer, the way Serena Williams goes, “C’mon!” My English tennis background prohibits me from engaging in such exuberance, which coaches say is good motivation. I permit myself only the occasional “Good shot old boy,” and it is directed not at me but at the other chappie. They never acted like this -- either like me or like these hungry new-style tennis champs -- in bullfighting, a sport that seems to be on the wane in Spain, challenged by contemporary sensibilities and legislative attacks (it is banned in Catalonia and the Canaries). I mean you would not say “Good shot old boy” to a two-ton beast ramming his horn in your groin, now would you. You would not say “Vamos!” either, but the ladies with their pretty dresses and their fans would flutter their eyelashes and say nice things about the handsome caballero down in the ring, waiting for him to do the estocado, a deft and ruthless move for which one of Spain’s best present-day matadors, Juan Jose Padilla, is renown. They simply love Rafa in Madrid, that is sure, estocado or no. He did, as it happens, finish the match with a service winner.

You have to hand it to Stan for a good nature and gentlemanly demeanor. He has had a good tournament, and he has had a good year too, so far, with a great run at the Portugal Open, which he won. However, bullfighting may be consigned to the dustbin of history soon. Will democracy be to blame? Or Europe, the union, which Spain joined soon after emerging from the years of dictatorship under the leadership of King Juan Carlos, who sadly has been embroiled in some family and financial unpleasantness of late, the two often going together. Europe has been good for Spain, economically, but now it is not so good. Money is tight. Unemployment is high. The government is suggesting it put money into bullfighter-training academies, which would create jobs. The EU subsidizes agriculture, which includes the breeding of fighting bulls. One of these animals got a horn into Padilla’s head two years ago. He is back in the ring, however, following some remarkable surgery and rehab.

IT WAS A GOOD MATCH, even if its outcome was never in doubt, as it was during Nadal-Ferrer. Nadal broke Wawrinka in the seventh game of the second set. It was the only break he needed. He lay on the court on his back, raised his arms, joy, vic’try, prince of Madrid once again!

Wawrinka, admittedly, looked dejected. He would feel better later, and there is always another chance. It is always a pleasure to watch Stan Wawrinka, his intelligent tactics, his perseverance, his stunning inside-out shots down the line. Ranked just below the top for several years, Stan is one of a handful of players you expect to see in the quarters and semis and whom you keep thinking, as soon as there is a changing of the guard, he will be part of the change.

Unfortunately, this is a cliché. There has been much talk in tennis circles lately of a changing of the guard, a passing of the torch, this sort of thing. It was reinforced at the Mutua, of course, what with Djokovic, Federer, and Murray all taking it on the chin. However, caution is advised. A changing of the guard means, if it means anything, that a generation is moving in to claim its own. Youth will be served and so forth. The term “generation” varies from sport to sport, but basically it cannot be less than five years nor more than ten, that is, a quarter or a half of the biological unit. Which just goes to show that biology is sociology, something Stalin did not believe, nor did Francisco Franco.

If there were a generational coup d’état in the tennis world, guys -- and girls -- in their early 20s would be moving in on the current leadership. But that is scarcely the case. The Bryan brothers, into their 30s, show no sign of let-up . The competition is within a five-year age range. Wawrinka is less than a year older than Nadal, who is five years younger than Federer and scarcely a year older than Novak Djokovic, and about a year and a half older than No. 4 Andy Murray, last year’s Olympic and U.S. Open champ. The only near-loss for Nadal in Madrid was due to his friend and compatriot David Ferrer, who is Federer’s age. Ferrer took the first set in his quarter-final match against Nadal and nearly won what would have been a decisive point in the second when instead he muffed a smash from the net and blew the match. It was kind of interesting in that Ferrer, one of the toughest competitors in the game, made a comparable mistake against Andy Murray in Miami a few weeks earlier. He let a shot go by him when he was on match point, demanding a review. He was mistaken; it was in and he lost the point, and Murray took full advantage.

Failure of nerve at decisive moments is not how you would qualify the stunning upsets by a couple of early-20s in Madrid. But if Grigor Dimitrov was able to knock out Djokovic, and if Nishikori was able to do the same to Roger Federer, why were both of them beaten fairly easily in their next matches? Immaturity? As when the Washington Nationals, best team in baseball last year, were unable to get through the first round of post-season playoffs. The almost unalterable pattern is that you need the experience of a few tries before you learn to master the different mental state that comes on top of the physical fatigue at the end of a tournament or during the high stakes of a playoff.

On to Rome then. “Manolo” Santana and Ion Tiriac should be happy, as the remarkable stadium with retractable roofs proved once again to be a successful venue for a big event just before the height of the bullfighting season, and the winners must be happy, with pockets full of cash -- 700 thousand for the winner, half that much for the runner up (euros, that is), considerably less for the doubles champs, but it seems the commercial appeal is not the same, despite the beauty of a great doubles team like Mike and Bob Bryan, victors here. As the clay season moves toward its finale, it will be interesting to see, of course, whether Rafa Nadal remains the undisputed king of clay or whether someone -- another of the top ten or one of the up and coming youngsters -- can usurp the throne.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.