Will it be Rafanole XLI at Roland Garros? And what will they wear? Here in blue, the color of the moment, and white in 2013 (Nole) and 2011 (Rafa). Photograph of Nole by Yann Caradec.
After his 6-3, 6-3, 83-minute drubbing by Novak Djokovic in the March 30 Sony Open final in Key Biscayne, Fla., Rafael Nadal was asked a perfectly existential question: Is he glad Nole exists?
“No,” he said. Laughter all around. That Rafa, what a kidder. Then he added, “I like challenges, but I am not stupid.”
Nole had a Descartian “I play Roger Federer and Rafa, therefore I am” answer to the same question:
“I think challenges, big challenges that I had in my career changed me in a positive way as a player. Because of Rafa and because of Roger, I am what I am today in a way.”
Welcome to Rafanole XL as the media dubbed their 40th encounter, the most in the Open era. Oh, Rafa and Nole, you’ve finally been accorded NFL-Super Bowl Roman numeral status. Can your own John Madden fantasy league be far behind?
This was a great match – unless you’re a Nadalista. Then it wasn’t so good as Nole took him down in every way. But it had its moments. Watch the 28-shot final rally to end the match here. These guys really do match each other stroke-for-stroke – and goal for goal. That’s what makes this one of the best rivalries in sports: Each ups his game in response to the other. Nole has had the upper hand since he lost to Rafa at the U.S. Open, but we’re coming upon the European clay-court season, otherwise known as the “Rafa season.” Uh-oh, Nole.
There’s always much reading of the tea leaves in tennis, particularly when these two are in the mix. Why was Nole practicing with Wayne Odesnik, who was banned for two years – it was reduced to one for his cooperation – by the International Tennis Federation after pleading guilty to bringing human growth hormone into Australia? (Maybe he needed practice with a lefty before his match with Rafa? Maybe he was giving the middle finger to the ITF, which suspended his buddy Viktor Troicki for missing a drug test – a theory that some in the blogosphere and Twitterati have suggested? Or maybe Nole figured that there’s a statute of limitations on these things and the guy has suffered enough?)
Was Uncle Toni coaching Rafa illegally during his match with Stan the Man Wawrinka?
And more to the point, what’s with the nifty shades of grey among the top men? For the final, Nole wore one of his pale grey and white Uniqlo outfits while Rafa was in a medium-grey, orange and white color block Nike look. When Nole played Feddy Bear in the final of Indian Wells a couple of weeks ago, he wore his grey and white Uniqlos while Feddy countered with a grey Nike shirt and white shorts – although it looked more periwinkle to me. I mean, do they call each other up beforehand and coordinate this stuff?
The big question of the moment, though, is How long will it take before Nole dumps Boris “Bam Bam” Becker, who’s in London having double-hip surgery? Since Marián Vadja – Nole’s former head coach – returned to the tour while Becker’s on the disabled list, Nole’s two for two, pulling off the difficult Indian Wells-Key Biscayne double. Before that, he lost in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open to Stan – how I wish he had that match back – and to Feddy in Dubai, which like Australia is normally Nole-land. Are we seeing a pattern here?
Look, Boris was a great player who knew how to come to the net. But he has the look of a man who has since led a self-indulgent life. I’m of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school. Still, since Marián is only a phone call away, why not see how this plays out?
Regardless of who’s head coach, it comes down to this: If Nole really wants the No. 1 ranking back, he’s going to have to take the fight to Rafa where he lives – and that means not just in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome but where it will really count – the French Open at Roland Garros in Paris.
This is Rafa-land. The question remains, Can Nole do it?
And what will he wear?