Winner of his first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros in 2005, Rafael Nadal suffered a foot injury in the fall that could have put an end to his career. He missed the Australian Open in 2006 but came back and fought his way to a second Roland Garros title.
Extract from Nadal’s autobiography, Rafa:
Returning to Monte Carlo that year was like coming home. Once again I came up against Federer in the final, and once again I won. Then I faced him again in the final at Rome. It was a killer match, a true test of whether I recovered from my injury. I had. The match went to five sets, lasted five hours; I saved two match points, and I won. And then it was Roland Garros and a chance I thought I’d never have just four months earlier of preserving my French Open crown. It meant more to me to be back here now than it had to be here the year before, even though tgat had been my first time. Winning this would mean, for me and my family, that the nightmare we’d gone through would be, if not forgotten, exorcised, and we could resume, in a clear and confident state of mind, the victorious trajectory that had been so nearly terminally curtailed. And I had a point to prove: I wanted to show that my win in 2005 had not been a one-off, that I was in the Grand Slam league to stay.
I made it to the final by a tough route, beating some of the top players of the moment, among them Robin Soderling, Lleyton Hewitt and, in the quarterfinals, Novak Djokovic. A year younger than me, Djokovic was a hell of a player, temperamental but hugely talented. Toni and I had been talking about him and I’d been watching him in my rearview miror, looming closer, for a while now. He’d been racing up the rankings, and I had a strong feeling that he would be neck and neck with me before too long, that it would not just be me, but me and him, against Federer. Djokovic had a strong serve and was fast and wiry and strong – often dazzling – on both forehand and backhand. Above all, I could see he had big ambitions and a winner’s temperament. More a hard court than a clay court player, he was competitive enough to make it difficult for me in the Roland quarters. I won the first two sets 6-4 6-4, and was preparing for a long afternoon’s work when unfortunately for him, but fortunately for me, he had to pull out with an injury.
In the final it was Federer again. I lost the first set 6-1, but won the next three, the final one on a tiebreak. Wathing the video of the match later, I thought Federer played better than me overall, but in an atmosphere of high tension (he, so eager to complete the foursome of major titles; me, so desperate to banish the ghosts of my exile), I stuck it out.
As Carlos Moya saw it, Federer was not fully Federer when he played against me. Carlos said I had beaten him by attrition, badgering him into untypical mistakes for a man of such enormous natural talent. That had been the plan, but I also think I won because I’d won the year before and that gave me a confidence I might otherwise have lacked, especially against Federer. Whatever the case, I’d won my second Grand Slam.
After all I had been through, it was an incredibly emotional moment. I ran up in the stands, as I had done the year before, and this time it was my father I sought. We hugged hard and we were both crying. “Thank you, Daddy, for everything!” I said. He doesn’t like to show his feelings. He had felt the need to look strong and composed during my injury, but it was not until now that I fully grasped how hard he’d battled to stop himself from breaking down. Then I hugged my mother, who was also in tears. The thought that filled my mind at that moment of victory was that it as their support that had pulled me through. Winning the French Open in 2006 meant that we’d come through the worst; we’d overcome a challenge we feared might overwhelm us, and we had come out the stronger for it. For my father, I know, that was the moment of greatest joy of my entire career.
Extract from Hard Courts: Real Life on the Professional Tennis Tours by John Feinstein
For years the Italian was considered the most corrupt tournament in the game. Line judges routinely cheated foreigners who were facing Italians. When Adriano Panatta won the tournament in 1976, almost every player he beat felt he had been cheated. One umpire quit in the middle of the match, when he was not allowed by the tournament referee to overrule several horrendous calls. (It was in fact in 1978, read the all story here: Italian Open 1978: silenzio cretini! )
One story Italians tell holds that in the early 1980s, when Panatta, the god of Italian tennis, was beginning to slide, he would sit in on the draw – then done in private – to make sure he drew a first-round opponent he could beat.
The story goes that one year, Panatta rejected three different names that were pulled out for him, the last being Ismael El-Shafei, an Egyptian who won a few matches on tour during his career. On the fourth try, El-Shafei’s name came out again. Okay, Panatta said, I’ll play El-Shafei. He did – and lost.
From Inside Tennis, a season on the pro tour by Peter Bodo:
Borg is broken in the first game. In the second, Panatta gets the benefit of a close call at love-30. “Now the robbery begins,” an Italian friend of mine whispers. However, Borg breaks back. At 15-30 in the next game he suddenly strikes his head with his racquet and walks calmly to the sideline. He has been bitten just above the right eyebrow by a bee. When they continue after a five-minute delay, Panatta runs out the first set, 6-1, by taking the pace off the ball at every opportunity. He has lured Borg into the forecourt, the place the Swede likes least, with succinct dropshots from the backcourt. Panatta has served well and volleyed precisely, ending many points before Borg could force him to rally. It is a highly conceived strategy.
Each player holds his first service game of the second set. In the third game, Panatta departs from his touch game and begins to rally with Borg. He is promptly broken. In the next game, a crucial one for Borg, he reveals the remarkable fifth gear that none of his opponents possesses. He hits heavily top-spun balls that pound the clay and hop out of reach. Each successive stroke has more pace and less margin of error; after three or four such shots, Borg is in the groove and soon he finishes the sizzling rally with the easy placement offered by the final, desperate retrieve of his opponent; Borg leads, 4-1.
At break point against Borg in the next game, Panatta casts himself into the air and strikes a miraculous forehand drop volley off the frame, just wide of the sideline. but there is no call of out; borg looks at the spot where the ball fell, as does Panatta. The umpire makes a quick gesture indicating the ball was good. Borg bows and quickly rolls the spare ball in his hand to the umpire’s stand. He begins to change court. This act of complete surrender is so disconcerting that Panatta starts to hedge. He asks the linesman to come out and verify his call by examining the mark. The official insists that the ball was good.
Thus far the crowd has been subdued. Borg’s reaction to this first loaded moment has been so swift, so cool and effective, that there is no reaso no challenge him. A puzzled murmur runs through the galleries. Borg’s acquiescence has either disarmed the audience or intimidated it. The lean blond has self-control that would be a credit to the most accomplished of assassins.
Back in the match at 4-2, Panatta returns to his coy, artistic game plan and plays brilliantly to hold for 3-4. The crowd rallies to him now; the chant rises, swamping the cheers of a small cluster of Swedes high up in the cheap seats. But Borg is right on the mark. He wins the next two games to even the match at a set-all. Panatta clings to his strategy through the third set, but a flurry of forehand errors he cannot afford against a player like Borg gives the set to the Swede, 6-1.
Panatta‘s ambitious strategy continues to pay dividends in the fourth set; when he breaks Borg in the fourth game, the crowd is on its feet again, singing his melodious name. Another stunning game gives Panatta a 4-1 lead. passive play by Borg increases Panatta’s margin to 5-2 but Borg breaks him for 3-5, with the italian serving for the set.
Borg waits in the deuce court. He spits air onto his hands four or five times and swoops into his crouch. His feet shuffle on the clay as he rocks from side to side. Panatta is about to toss the ball for his first serve when Borg pulls up and raises his palm. He bends over, picks up a coin tossed from the stand, and flips the money to the foot of the umpire’s stand. He goes back into his crouch and proceeds to win the game at 15, striking unanswerable winners as he glides across the court.
Now Borg can serve to even the fourth set, but he falls behind 30-40 on the strength of Panatta’s volleying. At break point, Panatta hits an imperfect dropshot that Borg reaches easily and sends toward the far baseline with a vengeful forehand. Panatta gets to the ball and sends a backhand skimming over the net, past Borg, and deep into the backcourt. In or out? An agonizing moment of hesitation by the linesman is broken when Borg nods toward Panatta and turns his back to the net, signifying that he is yielding the point, game, and set to his opponent.
The final set begins with Panatta holding the first two service points, but then Borg strikes, swiftly as a thunderclap. He wins eight straight points; when his heavy strokes are not pounding the clay, he walks with his head bowed, his hips swinging in cadence to his fastidious steps. He is putting greater effort into his serve now.
Borg playsa few unexpected drop shots and touch volleys in the next game, but Panatta, imprevious to them, holds with relative ease; The players change ends, with Borg leading 2-1/ Borg leans forward, bounces the ball, and plans his serve, but then he pulls up. He takes a few steps toward the sideline, stops, and inspects the court. He heard the light clink of a coin striking the clay, and he will not be content until he locates it. When he does, he carries it over to the umpire’s stand. Then he approaches Bergelin, who is standing in the portal just behind the umpire.
“If they throw more things, I will stop to play,” he says.
The Swede does not return to court immediately. He stops by his chair, towels off carefully, and takes a long slug of San Pellegrino. He moves at his own pace, oblivious of the crowd. When he goes back out, he loses the first point, but then reels off the next four to lead 3-1.
Panatta will have to play catch-up for the rest of the match, with Borg clinging to his margin with conservative tennis. He does not exert himself much against Panatta’s serve and holds his own so deftly that he keeps the tension from accumulating. Working with the precision of a surgeon, he cuts the heart out of the contest and leaves the crowd with no target. He has not uttered a superfluous word or given the Roman crowd the least sign that it does, in fact, exist. Soon he leads, 5-3.
It is match game, Panatta serving. The score reaches 40-15, but then Borg turns it back. He wins three straight points to reach match point, but the talents that have sustaiened Panatta are still intact. Four times the Italian has advantage, four times Borg brings the score back to deuce. The crowd is tense and breathless – there will be plenty of time to shout should Panatta hold the game and force Borg to serve for the match at 5-4.
But it will not happen. Eleven points go by with Panatta holding off Borg’s onslaught with a series of flying volleys, delicate dropshots, and crackling ground strokes. but then, at yet another deuce, he double faults, presenting Borg with his second match point. Panatta strikes a good first serve, but Borg’s pendular backhand snaps it up and spits it back, crosscourt.
The Italian’s backhand volley strikes the top of the net and dies there. Borg has won the title.
From Inside Tennis, a season on the pro tour by Peter Bodo:
The Italians are aware of the suspicion that surrounds their championships; consequently, the difficult task of keeping a match under control is not always entrusted to native umpires. The Panatta-Higueras confrontation will be chaired by Bertie Bowron, a sixty-nine-year-old Englishman with ruddy cheeks and a head of hair as white as a cloud. Bowron is a chipper, independent fellow who has a mailing address in London and lives in his camper throughout most of the spring and summer. He follows the European tournament trail, welcome at every stop because he is a paladin of the game who accepts only expense money for his services; but his impeccable reputation did not prevent Ion Tiriac from grabbing him by an ear and dragging him around the locker room at the Foro one year because of a misunderstanding during a match.
Great expectations fill the Campo Centrale, for Panatta and Higueras are Davis Cup rivals, and their nations hold that competition in highest esteem. The Spaniard cannot match Panatta’s elegance; his service motion is studied and downright unathletic. he prepares for his forehand with a baroque, looping backswing; overall, his style suggests that he is impersonating a world-class player, but his steadiness and accuracy are uncanny. All Higueras lacks is that vital spark of genius that the deity breathes into the most attractive players.
Panatta is nervous again; the grim expression on his face implies that some battle is raging within him. He wins two points in the first game, but then only four more as Higueras, snapping top-spin balls at the lines and passing deftly, takes a 5-0 lead in the first set. The crowd broods as its hero wins only nine points and no games in the twenty-five-minute first set. As Panatta prepares to serve the first game of the new set, the familiar chant is taken up with mounting enthusiasm.
But Panatta cannot respond. When he hits a forehand too deep to give Higueras the first game, he bounces the racquet on its head twice as if to bang some sense into it. Soon it is 3-0, and the prospect of the Spaniard’s winning three love sets become a possibility. Emboldened by Panatta’s struggles, Higueras begins to push his luck. Although he is not a confident attacking player, he begins to press forward at every opportunity. In some players, aggressive play reflects a failure of nerves leading to a premature desire to end the match. With Higueras, a proficient baseline tactician, eagerness undermines his strength.
Panatta finally gets a game, breaking Higueras for 1-3. But the Spaniard breaks back and holds to take a 5-1 lead, four points from a comfortable margin of two sets to none. Panatta holds his service for 2-5, despite three set points for Higueras, and he brushes aside another pair of set points as he breaks Higueras again. When Panatta holds service at love, Higueras finds his margin reduced to a single game. He leads 5-4, and as he prepares to serve the crucial tenth game, the crowd is humming.
Again Panatta attacks. Higueras chips a backhand pass into the net, and the Campo Centrale erupts. The tumult increases through the next point, as Panatta follows a sliced backhand to the net, and it reaches another climax as Higueras misses the passing shot. Now the Spaniard is chagrined. He accepts two balls to serve, but the clamor will bot subside; shaking his head in disgust, he rolls the balls to the baseline.
“Silenzio” Bowron implores. But the crowd has engaged Higueras, who has been proud enough to stand up to it. Now it provokes and bullies him, accepting no plea and giving no quarter.
“Silenzio, cretini!” Bowron commands. The noise abates as the crowd ponders this insult.
Ultimately Higueras gets to set point again, only to see Panatta’s volley eturn the score to deuce. tHe Italian is playing brilliant tennis under extreme pressure. Higueras strikes a good serve, but a let is called. He shakes his head and questions the call, knowing that there is no hope of reversal. Still, he wins the point with a delicious lob that Panatta hits just wide with a backhand overhead. “Vantaggio Higueras.”
All semblance of restraint vanishes from the Campo Centrale when Higueras squanders yet another set point, his sixth, with a forehand error. Jeers and exhortations cascade onto the court. Again Bowron pleads for silence, but this time “per carita” – for pity.
Panatta gains the advantage when Higueras hits a defensive volley and then makes dismal work of Panatta’s equally tentative lob. Boos and whistles echo in the stadium as Higueras prepares to serve; he finally hurls his racquet to the ground, whirls, and hammers his arm at the galleries. This obscene gesture seals his fate. Within moments, a cola can strikes the clay at Higueras’ feet, and a resounding chant of “Buffone! Buffone! Buffone!” rises over the still pines.
There is nobody lingering over coffee on the charming patio now, nobody strolling by the field courts to sample doubles matches or the women’s semifinals. The awful lust of the crowd rules; the uproar has magnetized the Foro, drawing spectators as if they were steel shavings. Excited youths are perched in the trees and even on the shoulders of the statuary.
In the ensuing mayhem, Panatta’s coach takes it upon himself to seize the public address system and plead for silence. He is jeered off the court. Eventually Higueras is allowed to serve. He fends off the break point when Panatta earns another game point with a fluky forehand that skips off the net cord for a winner.
As Higueras starts his service motion, a one-hundred-lira coin strikes him on the ankle. The Spaniard holds up play to summon the tournament referee, who has been lingering near the sideline, to remove the coin. This further angers the crowd.
Higueras’ game has gone to pieces; blinded by rage, he denigrates the lineage of the entire audience and nets an easy backhand approach shot to surrender the game for 5-all in the second set. Panatta wins the next game at fifteen holds a set point of his own against Higueras’ serve. The first ball Higueras delivers is a fault, but Bowron awards him two serves because of the noise. Higueras wins the next point for deuce. The tumult accompanying his subsequent fault again forces Bowron to award the Spaniard two serves. But this time, the referee steps from the shadows to overrule Bowron.
A moment of discussion between the two officals ends with Bowron announcing, “Grazie”. He waves at the crowd and climbs down from the chair, refusing to brook his violation of the rules, which clearly state that the tournament referee can only intervene at the request of the umpire. Bowron is replaced by a Roman, but there will be no more controversy. With the only man who stood for him gone, Higueras capitulates; his two feeble backhand errors give Panatta the game and the set, whereupon Higueras stalks to the sideline, yanks his jacket from the back of his chair, and quits the court.
There is pandemonium in the passageway beneath the stadium. Tournament officials gesticulate wildly at each other. As Bowron tries to make his way through the tunnel to the clubhouse, Higueras catches up with him. “I want to shake your hand,” the Spaniard says. “I want to thank you because you did the right thing.”
Kjell Johanssen, the number-two Swedish player, is in the locker room when Higueras barges through the door and cries, “I had to quit or else I would have killed somebody!”
Later Johanssen said,
“Higueras is the most honest guy in the world. There’s no way he would act the way he did without the best reason. It’s unbelievable! Panatta lost every match, but he’s in the final!”
He shook his head but he couldn’t deny Panatta his due. “It’s incredible how well that guy can play under pressure, isn’t it?”
Breathless reporters and amazed officials continued the debate in the pressroom. Marty Mulligan of Fila stopped by, as excited as the rest of the company.
“I know Borg only plays here because of his contract with the shoe company, but if this kind of thing happens tomorrow, he won’t come anymore. This tournament may be finished forever.”
After two victories in two weeks in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, Rafael Nadal lost to defending champion Andy Murray in the Madrid Open semifinals. Next tournament for Rafa: Rome, where he could face Djokovic in the quarterfinals.
A few pictures from Nadal’s practices this week in Madrid: