One helluva article which left me spellbound.
25 April, 2007
Jimmy Connors the boy is gently tapping half-volleys against a wall, when his grandmother, Bertha, snatches the racquet, and slams the ball violently against the wall, as if to say this is how you play. Recounting this incident in Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, author Joel Drucker defined the attitude of the Connors family: "Tennis wasn't art. It was combat".
The workhorse will smile. He, Nadal, carries none of Connors' discourteousness, but has absorbed his playing philosophy. When he exits matches, like the Monte Carlo final on Sunday, hair glued together by sweat, clothes soiled, it looks as if he has come from battle. Predictably, his favourite film is The Gladiator.
The workhorse knows no other way except giving everything. It's why, if your kid wants to seriously pursue sport, make him watch the Spaniard. His work ethic will either terrify the child into seeking another career path, or drive him forward.
The artist, Roger Federer, is more fun to watch than the workhorse. So are Ronaldinho and Lara. If artists elicit a pleasure the grinder cannot, they are also harder to identify with, their artistry beyond normal reach.
Ronaldinho's magic is beyond mimicking. Federer defies impersonation. Lara's exaggerated flourishes were mesmerising, yet his ability to dominate with such technique was unique.
The Spanish workhorse offers a different virtue, one possible to duplicate.
Not without skills
He is not without fine skills, but is mostly an unbending creature of perspiration, produced from the same factory as Lendl, Gooch, Dravid, Vijay Singh, Keane, Viera, men built with a gift for struggle. Not that genius doesn't work hard, but these fellows must compensate for their absence of genius.
Dravid lacked Tendulkar's facility to flick a good ball for four; what he owned was the patience to wait for the right ball to flick for four.
Keane did not dazzle rivals, he just went at them, repeatedly, a swearing force of nature, till he drove a metaphorical hole through the opposition.
The tennis workhorse is a masochistic marvel, whose ability to punish opponents is born from an extraordinary punishment of the self. To earn that bicep, that movement, that consistency has taken brutal repetition in weight room and practice court. He is best friends with pain. He must be to compile a record streak on clay of 67 matches.
Coaches plead of athletes, "commitment, commitment". They would adore the workhorse, for he lives it. Every single point against the artist on Sunday.
This is not easy. Sporting contests on an everyday basis are decided not so much by outstanding shots as loose strokes. A small ebb of concentration and a batsman swishes outside off stump; a footballer's focus flickers and his pass goes awry. Players are distracted by exhaustion, losing, stress, let down by weaknesses of character, and so their intensity fluctuates.
Not the workhorse from Spain. He will play bad points but never lazy ones, he will bring the entire force of his passion, intellect and concentration to every point, his mind allows for no compromise.
Perhaps the extra time he seems to take between points is him actually repeating some vow of dedication. He is deeply invested in every shot, he must be, for, unlike the artist, his style wins him few cheap points.
It is a fascinating labour, a devotion that makes the workhorse better, for after stale performances following last year's French, he was unstoppably aggressive in Indian Wells and now Monte Carlo. Undoubtedly clay elevates him, but his sheer power in covering the court, in hitting forehand winners out of position with an abbreviated backswing, produces a reaction no opponent has managed. He rattles the artist from Switzerland.
Barcelona, Rome, Hamburg, the artist has three opportunities before Paris to experiment with a more forceful attack, sliced backhands, more telling returns. He is outside his comfort zone on this infernal surface that hides his brilliance; he is not the best player in the world here.
The workhorse will never equal the artist elsewhere, but here he will enjoy watching confidence bleed from the artist. He will know, too, the artist will come back stronger, bolder. He knows he must be ready to run. He spits in his callused hands and he waits.
Look at that. I have never read a piece of writing so powerful and so mesmerising. Yet.