Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: Nadal can join Federer as an all-time great

Only Wimbledon can seize quite so hungrily, even hysterically, on the lost cause of an underdog and, naturally, most of the passion is reserved for the home-bred variety. Sooner, rather than later, though, this particularly supply runs out and maybe someone from the Czech Republic will do.

Tomas Berdych, who had played such an inspired tournament before Rafa Nadal appeared at the other side of the net, immediately announced his candidacy yesterday and the response was predictable enough.

Every sliver of hope was thus rapturously received. You might say this is all rather sweet but some will never really understand the point. They are the kind of people who tend to think that the highest of achievement, as represented by performers such as Nadal and Tiger Woods, is worthy of pretty much all available admiration.

This is not to approve of gratuitous cruelty to the outgunned, the plainly doomed. Polite applause for a superior shot, a notable piece of defiance, plainly deserves acknowledgment – but perhaps not a hint that the Red Sea has just been parted.

The point is that there is surely not anything to regret or react against in the evidence that one man is so clearly in front of the field. When Woods won his first Masters tournament in 1997 the tournament was over after two days and some said it had been reduced to a yawning formality. Of course, it hadn't. It had simply changed its form until someone came along with the nerve and the work ethic and the talent to challenge somebody who had plainly stepped into a league of his own.

This was the case in the first two sets yesterday when Nadal appeared to be able to raise his level at will. It was wonderful to see someone so much in charge of everything he had to do. Berdych had been relentless, tough and often brilliant in ushering Roger Federer away from the arena he had dominated for so long. Then he ambushed the world No 3 Novak Djokovic with fine intelligence and some beautifully worked shots. Yesterday, though, he was powerless against the rhythm and the poise of a natural-born winner whose ranking as No 1 is not so much a hard-won status as the promise of a march along the peaks of his game to rival, if not surpass, that of Federer.

If Andy Murray had the heart to watch Nadal's ruthless subjection of Berdych in the third, by which time the Centre Court was devouring every moment which gave the illusion of parity, it can only have increased his sense that the future represents a sentence of desperate striving in front of the crowd which yearns so heavily for some home success.

Plainly opportunities will be scarce and, with just a year separating him from the man who has now exerted such a stranglehold, he can only vow to be ready for any gift of fate.

He better keep his ear to the ground. Nadal, meanwhile, has set himself only the highest standards as he seeks to build on his eighth Grand Slam triumph. Essentially, the battle is – as it was for Federer before the emergence of his young rival – with himself, his ambition and his appetite. For the moment it is plainly filled with an all-consuming health. Naturally, some will say it is for bad the game that one man should be so ascendant. It is nonsense, of course. Wood pushed out the parameters of golf and may yet return to the task at the Open next week, but however that goes no one can dispute that the game is immeasurably rich for those years when he set all the standards.

Now Nadal must follow in the footsteps of Federer, not with the same elegance, the same surreal touch, but with a game of both power and beauty that can draw its own line on the art of the possible. If the process seems inevitable it will be no less glorious for that. Sir Nick Faldo once said that many people understand how hard it is to become the best in the world but do not guess quite how tough it is to hang on to that status.

Nadal's ability to do this, after a year of injury concern, was stunningly re-established. It was about as ho-hum as watching an avalanche.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph