Monday, January 20, 2014

The Oddity of Watching Nadal

When I sat down to watch last night's match between Rafael Nadal and Kei Nishikori, I never imagined it would be as end up being my favorite match of the Tournament thus far. Nishikori played some of the best tennis of his life, pushing Nadal to the limits before losing (7-6, 7-5, 7-6). It was a fascinating performance by Kei, showcasing the strides his game has made since the addition of Michael Chang as a coach (on a side note, Chang was my favorite player as a kid and I am transferring much of my youthful adoration to Nishikori. Any friend of Changs is a friend of mine). Kei covered the court tremendously and played with an aggression that had Rafa on the ropes throughout, giving the match a high level of play that made it extremely enjoyable .

But as with every match involving Nadal, the story is ultimately about Rafa more than the opponent. And with Nadal a bit rusty (and a bit gimpy on his ankle), I became less enamored with his play and more with his strange mannerisms around the court. Can we just say this out loud for once?  Rafa is kind of odd. I say that not as a criticism, but more of as a point of real fascination. His nervous tics and mannerisms during the match can actually be overwhelming and when one focuses in on them, they reveal a person in a state of constant motion. Whether it is taking his fingers through his hair after the point, adjusting his shirt while selecting the service ball or grimacing his face like he is smelling a fart during the serve, Nadal is perpetually moving from one superstitious quirk to another, only stopping to actually you tennis. Against Nishikori, we were presented with yet another Nadal-ism, as we were told by the ESPN crew that he left his water and energy drink in the sun, rather than under the shade, because he believed it needed to be a certain distance from his seat on the side of the court. For Rafa, he would rather have his drink scalding hot, than upset his usual routine on the court.

And then of course the most obvious, and least talked about in the media, quirk of Nadal's is his insistence on picking his wedgie before every serve. Don't believe me? Watch a Nadal match with a non-tennis fan and ask them what they notice first. Inevitably, they will mention that Nadal is picking at his butt on serve after serve.  I am unclear as to whether Rafa needs to get new undergarments (I would recommend a good compression short if you are having difficulty) or if he simply is doing it as a habit, but the sight of the world's best player looking like a nervous 2nd grader at Field Day during a Grand Slam match is surreal. "The Daily Beast" showcased the issue rather succinctly with this video:

How is it that now after many years of this wedgie-picking habit, Nadal hasn't yet altered it? Can anyone imagine Lebron, Jeter, Peyton Manning, Tiger Woods or any other similarly situated elite athlete reaching for his underwear before every big play?  Am I the only one that wonders about this during matches like last night?  Look, I am a huge Nadal fan. I once met him on an elevator and had a funny interaction with him (in which a grandmother also in the elevator said, "I CANT BELIEVE I AM MEETING YOU!" and I acted as if she was talking to me, and we all laughed was funnier if you were there I guess) in which he then posed with me with the most awkward smile I have yet seen:

But while he may be the nicest player one could meet in person, at some point, someone has to explain this wedgie-picking thing to me. It, along with all of the other quirks of Nadal, is bizarrely fascinating. We not only have the current world's greatest player (and one of the 5-8 best of all time) in front of us, but he also seems slightly neurotic and somewhat socially awkward, at least on the court doing what few in history have ever done better. That to me is a great combination and makes events like his match with Nishikori must-see television...not just because of his play on the court, but also because the oddities during the breaks as well.  Rafa Nadal is both tennis's Muhammad Alit (the GOAT) and it's George Constanza. What a great combination.