December 26, 2010
Rafael Nadal survived a shockingly difficult third-round encounter Saturday, defeating Philipp Petzschner of Germany 6-4, 4-6, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-3 to advance to the second week of Wimbledon. So now both favorites, Roger Federer and Nadal, have played two grueling matches, something neither is accustomed to this early in a Grand Slam event. Whether this indicates waning dominance or actually strengthens them as the tournament goes on remains to be seen.
But the more interesting developments to emerge from Nadal's match were the accusations leveled at the Mallorcan. He was scolded by the chair umpire for allegedly receiving coaching signals from his uncle and coach, Toni, and there were murmurs from his opponent, fans and commentators that Nadal used a bit of gamesmanship by calling an injury timeout early in the fourth set trailing two sets to one.
The coaching accusation is something that followed Nadal far more often earlier in his brilliant career. Many felt then that Uncle Toni's exhortations stepped beyond encouragement into that illegal realm of advice from his position in the players' box. Even Nadal's chief rival, Federer, called out that he suspected Toni of unfair tactics while they played in Monte Carlo several years ago.
When given the first warning of the perceived coaching, Nadal looked truly miffed. In an unintentionally humorous moment. he looked over to his uncle, finger pressed to lips, imploring him to keep quiet to satisfy the umpire's concerns.
For his part, Toni Nadal said after the match: "I say, `Positive! Positive!' Nothing else." And Rafa backed that up, saying: "He wasn't giving me any tips. He was only supporting me."
The warning appeared to greatly anger and agitate Nadal, and he told the umpire he desired a meeting with the tournament supervisor to discuss the matter. After receiving the warning, Nadal - in a rare vocal display of ire - pointed aggressively and shouted at the umpire. Never had I seen Nadal so demonstrative under such circumstances.
However, the incident seemed to spur Nadal - as if he needed additional motivation - and he ran through the final two sets with relative ease.
The truth is that coaching does happen from time to time, and the suspicions have not been limited to Uncle Toni. On the women's side, former No. 1 Justine Henin, among others, for years has been called out for exchanging knowing glances with her coach.
There's really not much to be done about it. How can a chair umpire truly intuit whether a "come on," a "vamos" or a determined nodding of the head are subtle signals from coach to player? Unless a coach is explicitly heard yelling blatant instructions, there's no way to validate such an indictment.
It would be utterly comical if an official disqualified a player for "significantly improving his play due to the secret sunglasses on/sunglasses off indicator from his coach, which obviously gave him the idea to continue to hit to the backhand side of his opponent, giving him the key advantage which led him to victory."
For the sport to be rid of future allegations of improper coaching, the only way to solve it would be to have the player's entourage sit in a box fitted with a two-way mirror. That, or as Mary Carillo suggested somewhat seriously, have an official sit with the coaches to make sure nothing funny is going on.
To the matter of gamesmanship regarding Nadal's injury timeouts, I find the allegations unfounded. The entire tennis world is aware of Nadal's often fragile physical condition - especially his knees - and for him to call on a trainer is nothing unusual. Due to his frequency at winning events, Nadal routinely plays more matches on tour than anyone else, and this exacerbates his injury problems.
Nadal's injuries, while real, perhaps weren't that serious, and he also used the time to take a breather. Again, this is nothing unusual, and it would be awfully hard to tell if a player was abusing the injury timeout rules. And nearly every great player - including Federer, as recently as Australia this year - has taken very selective timeouts, for an injury or a bathroom break, when trailing.
Petzschner was a bit suspicious of Nadal's timeouts.
"You have to ask him what it was," Petzschner said. "But I didn't feel any difference afterward or before. I thought he was moving great. I only could say if I would be injured like this once, I would be happy. I don't know. Maybe he had something. Maybe it was just a clever part to take a timeout there."
Nadal's sportsmanship is generally perceived to be unimpeachable. He rarely blames injury for a loss and is regarded as one of the nicest, most polite and fair of competitors. He takes his role as one of the best players very seriously.
Looking ahead, fans will be treated to their annual feast Monday, the day Wimbledon contests all 16 fourth-round men's and women's matches. If only the U.S. Open could copy Wimbledon's intelligent and rational scheduling.
Among the stellar matches Monday are: Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters vs. Henin and Novak Djokovic vs. the suddenly resurgent Lleyton Hewitt.
Nadal will take on Paul Henri Mathieu, and Federer meets Jurgen Melzer. I'd say those should be relatively easy, but thus far it's been anything but for the top two seeds. It should be riveting theater from the grandest stage in the sport.