Sport Tennis In defence of the boo-boys who jeered Nadal

In defence of the boo-boys who jeered Nadal

Rafael Nadal
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• Nadal pure class, Melbourne utterly graceless

I was at Melbourne Park for the men’s final on Sunday and, to all those sanctimonious types who’ve wailed about the crowd’s heckling of Rafael Nadal, I must say I felt exactly the same way as the boo-boys.

I’d been mesmerised by Stan Wawrinka’s play over the first set and a bit. It was tennis of the most sublime quality – backhand winners peeled off down the line, crunching off forehand winners – that rendered Nadal’s power game almost impotent.

The crowd had turned up hoping for some sort of contest – anything but the straight-sets bore-athon which had been predicted by just about every expert – and they were loving the way Wawrinka was, in his first Grand Slam final, totally dismantling the world No.1 and raging favourite.

Here was a sporting moment that every underdog-loving Australian could revel in: a no-hoper – tennis’ Buster Douglas – playing the match of his life to give the world champ not just a bloody nose but a standing count from the ref.

I was actually, by some ticketing quirk, sitting in Row A, right in the corner of the court, above the Chinese characters that apparently denote the ANZ Bank. Close enough to feel the hoardings reverberate every time a Wawrinka serve crashed into the signage just below me; close enough to see the despair on Nadal’s face as his opponent bullied and bossed him around the court in a way that few, if any, players have done before.

When Nadal came back on to the court after his medical time out, at 1-2 in the second set, he walked towards the ball boy just below me to collect a handful of balls, his brow furrowed even more deeply than usual as boos echoed around the stadium. He couldn’t seem to comprehend the crowd reaction: they’re booing me?

Four nights earlier, I’d seen the usually imperturbable Roger Federer feel aggrieved enough at Nadal’s antics to complain to chair umpire Jake Garner about the Spaniard’s grunting and time-wasting.

Channel Seven flashed up a stat at one stage of that match, indicating Nadal was taking an average of 28 seconds betweeen points on his service, Federer 20 seconds, the maximum time permissible under ATP rules. So why was Nadal allowed eight seconds longer than everyone else? And why isn’t he more regularly called out on that?

Federer wanted to know as much, calling on weak offials to clamp down on the Spaniard’s serial gamesmanship.

He later said Nadal had been given just two time violations in the 33 times they’d met, covering 80 hours or more of tennis. Two measly violations.

Which is why I felt Eva Asderaki, the Greek chair umpire during Nadal’s round-four match against Kei Nishikori, deserved some sort of Australia Day medal. There was Nadal serving, with the third set locked at 4-4 and deuce, and taking his usual interminable time between points when Ms Asderaki piped up: ”Time violation, Mr Nadal”, meaning the gobsmacked world No.1 had to forfeit his first serve.

For me, an absolutely priceless moment that should feature in any tournament highlights package.

(Just to illustrate how Team Nadal doesn’t get it, uncle Toni later told Spanish radio it would be better if umpires were drawn from a pool of former players who knew what it was like to be out on court in a pressure situation. “We had a problem with a girl (Asderaki),” uncle Toni gallantly explained to the interviewer.)

Nadal’s flirtation with gamesmanship – bolder commentators (of the sort you don’t tend to find in the Seven commentary booth) might go so far as to call it cheating – has been going on for years.

Here’s the start of a piece in the New York magazine (entitled Rafael Nadal and the Dark Art of the Tennis Dive) from July 2011 about the very same subject:

”Rafael Nadal is in acute distress. He’s just lost the game, he’s facing a momentum-defining tiebreaker, and his opponent has his second wind. Rafa’s just hit yet another impossible shot from an impossible angle, and one foot seems to have borne all the acrobatic brunt. He’s in deep crouch, trying to gauge the extent and implications of the pain. Then he heads to his chair and calls for the trainer; the tiebreaker will have to wait; his opponent, oozing adrenaline, will have to cool his heels. After a tense interlude during which his opponent, visibly upset, remonstrates with the umpire to restart, Nadal returns, takes the tiebreaker, and romps. The press waits with bated breath to hear the results of the MRI — will he be able to carry on and defend his title? The results show nothing of any concern, and Nadal smashes his next opponent in four sets, fresh as a daisy…”

That account of Nadal seeking medical attention mid-match took place during his fourth-round US Open victory over Juan Martin del Potro. After days of speculation about the Spaniard’s injury, he dismissed Mardy Fish in the next round, telling reporters that he was using a heavy anaesthetic to numb the pain in his foot.

Pulling a swifty? Rafa against Philipp Petzschner, Wimbledon 2010. Photo: AFP

Yet that sequence of events could have been from any number of Nadal matches in the past five years. In 2010 at Wimbledon, in the third round against Germany’s Philipp Petzschner, Nadal was trailing by two sets to one. Petzschner, as anyone who was watching the game could see, was in the zone and serving bombs that Nadal was simply not able to get a racquet on.

Nadal called for the trainer several times on the way to a hard-fought five-set victory yet never appeared injured, a tactic his opponent characterised after the match as “pretty clever.” He did the same thing to disrupt Federer’s rhythm during the first set of the 2011 French Open final. In each instance the timing was impeccable, and unsportsmanlike.

So that was the backdrop to Nadal’s injury time out against Wawrinka on Sunday night. That was the reason for the crowd’s booing. That was why Wawrinka went ballistic in his courtside seat, berating the chair umpire and gesticulating to uncle Toni and Team Nadal sitting across from him in the stands.

Those who follow the sport for longer than two weeks a year – the ones being derided by Angela Pippos in The New Daily, Cameron Tomarchio in the Herald Sun and Will Brodie in Fairfax as ignorant and boorish – understood exactly what was happening.

That this was Nadal’s tried-and-tested fallback position, his modus operandi, when his opponent has all the momentum and he needs to do something to stall proceedings and win himself back some breathing time.

The Swiss player clearly felt he was being duped as well, complaining to chair umpire Carlos Ramos that he deserved an explanation about the nature of Nadal’s injury.

What Australians don’t like (if I can indulge in a little racial stereotyping here myself) is shysters and conmen.

The crowd picked up on Wawrinka’s annoyance and started slow hand-clapping the Spaniard who was still doing whatever he was doing underneath the Rod Laver stands.

And then when Nadal finally appeared, well that’s when they gave it to him with both barrels.

Critics have labelled the booing of Nadal as un-Australian. Yet this concept of what constitutes ‘Australian’ and ‘un-Australian’ behaviour – nebulous at the best of times – is now so blurred as to be rendered utterly meaningless.

This country’s cricket fans booed England’s Stuart Broad for two whole months this summer for doing what every Australian Test cricketer (with one notable exception) has been doing since Ian Chappell had sideburns: not walking after edging a catch. So is that Australian or un-Australian behaviour?

What Australians don’t like (if I can indulge in a little racial stereotyping here myself) is shysters and conmen.

And they felt on Sunday night that they – and Wawrinka – were being conned.

The Swiss blew him off the court in the first set and then broke him to love in the opening game of the second set (have a look at that on YouTube if you want to see a small slice of tennis perfection) and suddenly Rafa starts grimacing in pain and clutching at his back.

Well that’s mighty convenient, isn’t it?

Of course he was hobbled by the back complaint but cynics will wonder just how badly. Will he, for example, front up next week, as bright as a button, claiming the back problem was just a momentary spasm and everything is A-OK now? That he’s taken a ‘heavy anaesthetic to numb the pain’. We’ll see.

Nadal is a wonderful champion and gracious winner, always heaping praise on his vanquished opponent. It’s this descent into gamesmanship when he’s losing, though, which is threatening to become a blot on his career.

Charles Happell writes for Back Page Lead.