Nadal back, but can he re-escalate?
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A conversation at the end of the cult hit 'Batman Begins' goes like this:
Jim Gordon: What about escalation?
Jim Gordon: We start carrying semi automatics, they buy automatics; we start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor piercing rounds. And you're wearing a mask and jumping off rooftops. Take this guy: armed robbery, double homicide. Got a taste for the theatrical, like you. Leaves a calling card. (Batman flips it over to reveal a 'Joker'.)
Gerald Marzorati, writing in the New York Times, claims 'rivalries in tennis are like no others in sports'. The personal nature of the one-on-one clashes (unlike team or fan based rivalries of, say, football or baseball), the seeding and draw that ensure the protagonists compete against each other for silverware and how despite the presence of family and coaches, it is really the other player that goads one to greatness, says Marzorati, make tennis rivalries unique.
Then, there is also the question of escalation. Each phase of domination, during the last decade, has provoked a definitive response from the principal rival.
The fizzing, bouncing, top-spin laden forehand of Nadal was a weapon meant to prey relentlessly on Federer's one relative weakness in an otherwise perfect game: his backhand. The next big rivalry of our age, the one between Djokovic and Nadal, was decided in the Serb's favour by his ability to convert defense into attack mainly through his backhand down-the-line, the steeple and revs on the ball notwithstanding. If each big rivalry altered the way the game was played, then it can be argued that, now, Djokovic and Murray have added another layer of sheer physicality to the battle of the baseliners.
In the period that Nadal has been off the courts, each of his major rivals ó Federer, Djokovic and Murray ó have won a Slam each. The game itself has continued further away from the serve and volley era (a development in which Nadal played no little part), hurtling towards a golden age of baseline tennis. Nadal disembarked seven months back, and without him, the top-three have pushed each other and the game itself onwards. There are the demurring tendons, but the returning Nadal will be playing catch up in other, maybe more crucial areas than merely fitness.