29 June 2008

Aggression without hostility, combat without contact, hatred of losing but not of opponent: nothing does it like tennis. No one does it like Rafa Nadal.

For a whole set Nicolas Kiefer matched him, standing high and handsome, defying the years as well as Nadal to do their worst. At 31, with his gathering beard and long dark curls tumbling out of the back of his reversed white cap, his face can take on a slightly soulful look. But there was nothing gentle about his tennis. He matched Rafa shot for shot, one service was timed at 136 mph. It took Nadal until the tie-break to nail him.

You could sense the extra adrenalin surge within him. The great theatrical knight Sir Peter Hall looked down from the Royal Box, but this swagger was not acting, it was a force of nature. Kiefer could not handle it. It is 11 years since he first succeeded Boris Becker as German No 1 and the next nine points were not ones he will want to file into the memory bank. What could he do? Nadal was on fire.

One of the inside-out forehand winners was hit with such bullet-like ferocity and telescopic-sight accuracy that the reaction was more wince than applause. It ended 7-3. There were 66 minutes played on the clock, still a small patch of sun on the roof. It might yet be over before nightfall.

Nadal was now raging from the force within. He broke Kiefer in the second game and was 3-0 up within 10 minutes. The German held on to get to 2-4 but in no time he was serving to stay in the set at 2-5. You could see his resistance crumbling when a weak backhand was put into the lower part of the net. With Nadal you cannot show weakness. In only 34 minutes’ extra we were into what was surely the final set.

Kiefer’s resistance was now almost over. In the first game he got to 30-0 on Nadal’s service, only for Rafa to pick a half-volley off his toes and angle it impossibly for a winner. The German’s serve was broken twice. Whenever he put up some resistance the rampant Nadal would get across the court to outsmart him. If Kiefer looked soulful when he was holding up in the first set, he seemed as if he had the sins of the world on his shoulders now. It was 4-0 and then 5-0, closed out with almost the cruellest point of all, Kiefer hitting a magnificent forehand only to find Nadal at full stretch returning it cross-court for a winner. Now Kiefer had to serve to stay alive.

The night was coming but not quick enough. He got to 30-0 with a 134mph serve but Nadal got it back to 30-15 with a flat forehand cross-court that took your eyes off. Another 133 mph ace meant it was 40-15 and then 1-5 to at least give the score a hint of respectability. Kiefer danced on the service line to pump himself up. He got to 15-30 and 15-40 against the serve. You could see the sweat soaked beneath the Nadal bandana. Kiefer was chasing everything. To enormous cheers he broke back.

If this were rugby or boxing Nadal’s face would be screwed up in fury, but amazingly it was calm, the killer’s instinct all inside. Kiefer went on to clinch service, the Centre Court crowd’s tumultuous uproar followed by absolute silence as everyone knew the final scene was upon us.

All Kiefer’s strength had flooded back. He traded Nadal shot for shot and under extreme pressure hoisted a beautiful overhead lob. It dropped just out. He turned to the crowd, his face now lit with smiles. What could he do with a force like this? He hung in but Nadal would not let it go. After two hours, 21 minutes it was over. Nadal’s arms were in the air. The world was on its feet. The camera lights flashed in the gloom. Sir Peter Hall had left the Royal Box. He shouldn’t have done that.

The force that is Nadal moves into the second week. The might that is Federer awaits. Aggression without hostility, combat without contact, but only one wolf can stand at the top of the heap.

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