All the cool people are into World Cup soccer right now. But then I’ve never been very good at being cool. Right now I’m skipping work to watch Wimbledon, entranced all over again by the total heat of Rafael Nadal.
I admire the coolness of Roger Federer and the nonchalant mastery of his play, but it’s Rafa I feel passionate about, and have done ever since I first saw him on court. Passion inspires passion.
Watch his eyes — not just focused, but fiercely focused, a look I see sometimes in Federer’s face, but all the time in Rafa’s. It’s that intensity that gets me. That and the sheer physicality: the sweat flying off his hair as he swings, or the boxer’s trot to the baseline, or the huge leaps of celebration when he breaks a tough opponent’s serve — leaps too balletic, almost, for such a heavily muscled body.
I once saw Rudolf Nureyev dance in London, shortly after he defected to the West. The curtain rose on three men standing still with their backs to the audience. Yet even in absolute stillness, you had no doubt which was Nureyev. His body seemed to vibrate with energy, ready to explode at a split second’s notice.
That’s Rafa. What seems wild energy is bent to his intent. What seems all muscle is in fact all will. Or rather, muscle and will — brawn and brain — are fused. The hard work’s been done so thoroughly — the tens of thousands of hours of daily practice and exercises, training and reviews — that now he can let trained instinct take over. There is no hesitation as he spins, dives, races, returns unreturnable shots, finds impossible angles. It’s as though the moment he walks on court — or perhaps the moment he puts on the headband he always wears to play — he is transformed into pure vitality.
That headband is like his version of a Samurai sword. When he puts it on, he’s girding himself to enter another realm of existence. Each point is played like it’s the only point in the world, each moment taken as though it’s the only moment that ever has existed or will exist. Then, as soon as he’s hit the match-winning shot, he snatches off the headband, shakes the sweat out of his hair, and is transformed back into the sweet, somewhat shy 24-year-old I’m assured he is off court.
So he’s not suave and sophisticated and sexy like Federer. I don’t care. When I watch him, every nerve and muscle firing, I’m watching the fullest expression of vitality. I’m watching being at its most intense.
And then, okay, I confess — there was something very sexy about that nibble on the Wimbledon trophy…