Aditya Iyer (Chief Cricket Writer)
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Rafa Nadal wears a swoosh across his chest and he has his game-face on – squinting eyes, furrowed brows and head shifting from side to side. Because the month is April and the clay leg of the tennis season would’ve been in full swing if not for the global lockdown, Nadal’s body language wouldn’t have been out of place on the courts in Barcelona.
But Nadal is at home in Mallorca. His current stage is not a tennis court but Instagram Live. And the camera that captures his incredible concentration and frustration is not a broadcast lens but a pinhole on his laptop. Nadal is no master of technology, it would seem. With plenty of support from his box (who can be heard on the mic), Nadal finally manages to give the crowd (his social media followers) what they want and connect with Roger Federer for a video chat.
“Are we in? Did we make it? I went in and out and in and out I don’t know how many times. But we made it, my God!” exclaims Federer and Nadal grins and shakes his head as he would for a hand-clasp at the net and says: “Finally! We are too old for all of this.”
“As you can see, I’m a disaster in everything. But I’m trying hard,” Nadal says, smiling. Andy Murray takes a playful dig in the comments: “This is brilliant… He can win 52 French Opens, but not work Instagram.”
The all-time greats with 39 Grand Slams between them catch up and banter with the awareness that they are being watched. “So, you have not played since Indian Wells or what?” asks Federer and Nadal nods. “Haven’t touched a racquet since,” he says. “Perfect,” replies Federer and laughs. “You won’t be able to play tennis anymore when you come back.”
Later in the same Instagram chat, Nadal tells Murray that he has been spending all his time practicing for the virtual tour of the Madrid Open and Murray informs him that he too has been on the PlayStation – and in his first match he chose to play as Nadal in a match against Federer. Nadal smiles on hearing this and adds: “I hope you hit against Roger’s backhand all the time.”
The only criticism to have held any water about the ongoing men’s era has been the lack of off-court characters in the game. Among the five men to have won 62 out of the last 67 Slams dating back to 2003, there simply are no ‘bad guys’.
Far from the heat that existed between the top players of the past, the greats of the game today have nothing but love and respect for one another. But it is precisely that camaraderie that has come as a balm for the bleak times; and possibly even set a precedent for inter-player conversations for the better times ahead.
Murray’s conversational abilities have been nothing short of a revelation. In an hour-long Instagram session with Novak Djokovic that first paved the way for how engrossing these player chats could be, Murray got his long-time rival to open up in ways tennis journalists seldom have in press conferences.
Murray and Djokovic are born a week apart, first played each other as 11-year-olds and went on to meet in each of the four Grand Slam finals. So, when Murray brought up the GOAT topic, Djokovic did more than smile. “I’m personally very fortunate that I am in that conversation… But I’ve had this opinion since forever—I can’t compare generations,” said Djokovic, but Murray persisted.
“In reality all three of the best players are playing in the same generation today. So you can compare them,” said Murray. “I feel like I’ve competed against the best hardcourt player ever in you. And I’ve competed against the best clay court player ever in Rafa and the best grass court player ever in Roger.”
Djokovic nodded. “There are people close to me who are biased and they are leaning towards me. And, of course, people who support Roger and who support Rafa do the same,” he said. “But sure, it is good for tennis and amazing for the conversation.”
True. For their conversations and for ours too.
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