“I’m Back and Off to a Winning Start But I Hope I’m Not Boring”

Can you learn much about a player by reading his blog?

The video above shows Rafael Nadal playing a junior tournament in Barcelona ten years ago. Not much has changed, except that he lost the match. Uncle Toni was sitting courtside ten years ago just as he does today. Rafa was cute to die for then and he’s cute to die for now. He was already a good returner as you can see with that forehand stab return on a point he ended up winning, though it’s hard to tell because the wide shot is a serve to the ad court while the close up is a serve to the deuce court. The editor obviously was not a tennis player.

Rafa may not shrug his shoulders in media sessions today as much today as he did during this interview on Spanish television, but the look on his face is the same. It’s the facial expression that accompanies a shoulder shrug, a facial shrug let’s call it. Usually a shrug means “I don’t know” or “I don’t care,” but when Rafa does it, it means, “Do you really want to know the answer to that question? It’s not that interesting.” Or, “Am I being boring?”

Thus the title of this piece: “I’m Back and Off to a Winning Start But I Hope I’m Not Boring,” which is the title of a 2008 US Open post to Rafa’s blog on Rafa’s official website. Clearly he’s still concerned that he might be boring us.

Here’s the question: How much can you learn about a player from their blog? Or, to put it another way: Can you learn just as much watching a video of the player when he was 12 years old?

Because there’s a lot on this video. Rafa is already precocious and famous. He’s the star here even though his opponent won the match because Rafa is only 12 years old while his opponent is 15. And Rafa’s not all that worried that he lost:

Today I haven’t played as good as I have [played] before, but…well, I don’t care. From 9 o’clock until 12 at noon I am at school, and so from 4-8pm I play tennis.

I always thought Rafa showed great patience and equanimity during his three year stay at number two. It must have been exceptionally frustrating to come along at the same time as Roger Federer and find yourself literally stuck in place and stuck there for three years. I can’t think of anyone else who went through the same thing, can you? And yet he never showed frustration in media sessions and he never seemed to be discouraged.

On the other hand, maybe we never knew because he doesn’t tell us all that much in media sessions. Does he tell us any more in his blog? In our title post he teases us a bit:

[This blog is] also a good way to let my fans know, first hand, what I think and do. I don’t think this will be a very deep blog if you know what I mean.

He’s gonna let us know what he thinks but it isn’t going to be very deep. He did discuss his decision to play Toronto, Cincinnati, the Beijing Olympics, and the US Open without a break:

[My team] thought and I agreed that the best is to keep with the good swing and the results. My uncle always say that you have to take the good moments and I was feeling strong enough to do this.

Presumably this also explains why Rafa played himself into the ground at the end of the year and ended up hurting himself badly enough that he had to drop out of the Davis Cup final. If I’d been reading the blog at the time, I’d have sent along the following question: “Do you think you might have something to learn from Roger Federer when it comes to planning a judicious yet effective playing schedule?”

I’d love to hear analysis of other players’ games too but this is the tenor of the discussion about Andy Murray as an example:

Some people do not really appreciate the game that Andy has. He is really good, very good.

I think we knew that already. Along with player analysis, it would also be nice to get match analysis from the people playing the match. This is what Rafa has to say about his US Open match against Sam Querrey:

Well it has been a very difficult day with a difficult match played. I started playing pretty well and for those of you who have seen the match I ended playing not that great. I played good the first set but mid second I could not find my game, played with bad intensity and made too many mistakes.

I’d love to know more about intensity, in particular, what makes Rafa the player with the strongest mental focus – and thus intensity – in the game? Short of Dmitry Tursunov, who should have been a writer/performer/comedian or even blogger rather than a tennis player, professional tennis players are good at tennis, not writing or journalism. They can analyze a match but that doesn’t mean they can analyze themselves.

Give me the video any day. The information I want is in the player’s movement, facial expression, and their game, it’s not in their blog.