Sunday July 4th, 2010

Three quick thoughts on the men's final at Wimbledon on Sunday:

The new tennis is 6-foot-5. The new tennis has a bludgeoning forehand and employs the latest in slam-bang technology. The new tennis beats Roger Federer. But the new tennis has no answer to a healthy, relentless Rafael Nadal. His 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 victory over Tomas Berdych was a masterpiece of all-court play, equal parts power, finesse and panache.

Berdych's forehand is a force of nature, but when Nadal got his first service break, for a 4-3 lead in the first, he sprinted to his left to return that shot with a running, down-the-line forehand winner of his own. If Berdych hoped to stall the inevitable as the third set began, Nadal shot him down with one of those ridiculous cross-court backhand winners on the run. John McEnroe, among many others, was blown away as he watched from the NBC booth. And the final flourish -- Nadal's cross-court forehand winner with Berdych standing hopelessly at the net -- was vintage Rafa.

What sets Nadal apart is the constant evolution of his game. Every aspect of it is improving, especially at the net, where his elegant backhand volley gave him a 4-3 lead in the second set. Perhaps most importantly, he doesn't treat the backhand as a single, machine-like entity. The two-hander speaks for itself, but Nadal has become particularly adept with the one-handed slice, particularly when he's returning those first-serve bombs from the likes of Berdych and Robin Soderling. It's good to know that variety and ingenuity still have meaning in this game.

As he fights to restore his dominance, Federer has two problems: The big hitters, who clearly give him problems, and Nadal, who played with such utter abandon over the semifinals and finals, erasing any notion that his knees are a concern. Imagine having to fight through the new-tennis assassins in a tournament and then drawing Nadal, looking as fresh as a man coming off a long vacation.

That's a daunting prospect, and with eight major titles, Nadal suddenly has a legitimate place among the all-time greats: one more than John McEnroe, as many as Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors. At a time when its popularity is sagging, tennis badly needs this conversation.

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