Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Grandest Slam of them all?

Rafa aka Conquistador Nadal has a very good chance to win the calendar year Grand Slam. It may sound funny to you, especially coming in February, but I think you might end up needing to get used to the idea. And I want to warn you now so you don't forget to set your DVR's.

The Grand Slam. It's only been done three times (2x by Laver, 1x by Budge). It is the most dearly coveted and rarely threatened milestone in tennis, hallowed ground, and one that demands an improbably immense skillset to achieve. It demands a level of tennis magic that not even legends like Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, and Pete Sampras, (should I go on? Should I say Federer? Mcenroe? Agassi? Emerson? Rosewall?) were ever able to produce. It is a defining feat, one that is virtually unnatainable, a challenge that only the mightiest of the mighty could ever dare to envision, let alone approach.

It's been 40 years.

It's been so long that we've almost forgotten about envisioning it.

To aid in comprehension of the largeness of the feat, consider that no player has captured the first 2 majors of the year since 1992. That's 17 lonely years. But that streak should end in May. Barring a catastrophic event (very improbable given the domination of the phenom that is Rafa on clay) Rafa will take the French Open with ease. He will slide his figurative steaknife through the buttery limbs of his competition just like he typically does. He will do it methodically, and they will be begging to be put out of their misery. It's just the lay of the land at Roland Garros, at least for now.

So now that were getting used to the fact that Rafa will be the first man in 17 years to win the first two slams of the year, let's prognosticate a little further: Let's say that, sensing the challenge, and wanting to honor his country and his family with his prowess, Nadal embarks on the ultimate vision quest. "I've already won wimbledon," he thinks, "I must not be stopped...I will not be stopped...I will be the machine...I am the machine!" Nadal is 22 and such intense vision-questing is a very likely possibility. For it is the young that are too naive to be anything but bold. You can see it in his eyes when he plays. He has this pure sense of focus that is mystical. He has been exponentially improving for the past 5 years. The time is now for him.

If Rafa Wins the French and Wimbledon, we are set for the most alluring U.S. Open since 1969.

1969: The year of Laver's domination.

As you might imagine, sweeping the slams was not a simple task for Laver. In the first slam of 1969, the Australian Open, Laver had to survive a 5-setter against his country mate Tony Roche in the Semis. During the match, the exhausted players stuck cabbage leaves in their hats to avoid sun stroke as they battled on. After a 42 game 2nd set (longer than most matches) that Laver eventually won 22-20, an ornery Roche fought back to even the match at 2 sets apiece.

But it was to no avail - he was sent packing in the fifth. When sheer determination is all that either player had left, Laver had more of it. Laver had also endured a 34 game set in the quarters against Fred Stolle.

1969, continued: After scoring a relatively easy victory at Roland Garros, Laver again ran into stiff opposition on the grass at Wimbledon. First he was down two sets to love against an unknown in the 2nd round, but escaped. 2 Rounds later he fought for five sets with American Stan Smith, and advance yet again. Laver did not need another 5th set, even though the challenges didn't cease. He dispatched legends Arthur Ashe and John Newcombe in the final two rounds to solidify his third consecutive slam.

1969 U.S. Open: For his fourth and final magic trick, Laver ripped through some more legends: At the 1969 U.S. Open it was Emerson in the quarters, Ashe in the semis, and Roche in the finals. He used a 24-game set to break open a close match against Emerson, while a 26-game set culminated a dagger to the heart of Ashe in the semis, 8-6, 6-3, 14-12.

The final looked to be academic for the clearly invincible Laver, but when Tony Roche won a 9-7 first set against him, shocked crowds began to wonder if maybe it was all too good to be true. But Laver didn't disappoint them. It was too good, but not too good to be true. He steamrolled Roche from that moment, losing only 5 games in the final 3 sets.

2009: Watching Rafa finally conquer the hard court in Melbourne certainly made a believer out of the Fan Child. He can get this done if he keeps building. The man is traveling on an arc of performance seems to know no bounds - It just climbs higher and higher. With that look of furious intensity laced with a serene calm (no tantrums for this kid), Rafa goes about the business of wearing down his opponents. He seems to know what he is capable of, and as much as he remains humble and grounded, he seems to be spurred by a desire that is as big as the collective desire of all of his peers.

It's only February, and Rafa is currently taking some time off with a strained knee ligament. You might think I'm way out of line for bringing this up in February. You are entitled to your opinion. Nothing is a lock, naysayers might argue. He still hasn't won in New York, they might add. He plays too physical a style to endure the rigors of all 4 majors, of course they will say that too.

Maybe so. I'm not saying it's probable, I'm just saying it's possible. Okay, very possible. But it's not like I don't see the sheer imperviousness of the task at hand. I get it. It's like Joe Dimaggio's 56 game hitting streak - I get it. But what I also get, and I got it while watching the Australian Open, is the feeling that Rafa Nadal is steadily climbing, higher and higher, to this great peak.
It is a lofty peak, and he will not stop when he reaches it; he will not even know that he's there.