x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Nadal v Laver: game, set and match to the Spaniard

It seems to be a whole new ball game for Rafael Nadal when compared to Rod Laver's time.

Rafael Nadal looks determined in practice yesterday ahead of the Australian Open.
Rafael Nadal looks determined in practice yesterday ahead of the Australian Open.

For a genteel game, tennis breeds some tough cookies.

I once interviewed Martina Navratilova in the trophy room at Anfield stadium. It was the summer of 2005, shortly after Liverpool had won the Uefa Champions League but failed to qualify for the following season's competition.

Soft-hearted souls were demanding Liverpool be given a free pass into the tournament, seeing as they had just won the thing. And, let's be honest, seeing as the football club is a money-spinning global brand with endless reserves of self-entitlement.

I asked Navratilova if she would give Liverpool a place in the competition. Surrounded as she was by Liverpool fans and officials, I expected her to concur.

"Of course not," she snapped back. "They should have qualified, like the other teams."

Like I say, tennis players are tough cookies. They have to be. No other sport demands such mental strength and unflinching honesty.

I was reminded of this incident when Rod Laver, another tennis icon, appeared to rain on Rafael Nadal's potential Grand Slam parade. If the lovable Spaniard wins the Australian Open, which starts today, he will simultaneously hold the four big ones: the French, US and Australian Opens, plus Wimbledon. That would be a Grand Slam, right? Wrong, according to Laver. A true Grand Slam, he insists, must take place within a calendar year.

"What he's trying to do is a great effort," said Laver, generously, "but it is not a Grand Slam."

Laver, now aged 72, was not being a grumpy old man. Nor was he selfishly defending his own record of winning two Grand Slams, in 1962 and 1969. He was simply applying the brutal fastidiousness without which he would never have scaled the heights he did.

Like Navratilova's hardened stance towards Liverpool, sentimentality or "going with the flow" are alien concepts.

So he will not mind if we offer some clinical and brutal honesty in return. Which feat was harder to achieve: a "true" Grand Slam in the 1960s or Nadal's supposedly tainted version in the 21st century? I'll be the umpire.

Surfaces: three of Laver's titles were on grass, one on clay. For Nadal it will be one grass, one clay and two hard courts, the least-forgiving surface. Advantage Nadal.

Equipment: comparing modern rackets to the wood-and-catgut affairs of old is like comparing a Ferrari to a Fiat. Plus, Laver had to play in full evening dress, more or less, which must have been more restrictive than Nadal's skimpy , breathable, lady-viewer-friendly muscle-tops. Deuce.

Fitness: Modern players are sculpted by teams of nutritionalists, conditioners, physios, masseurs, shrinks and occasionally surgeons. Australian players in the 1960s were sculpted by pies. Advantage Laver.

Intensity: modern tennis is faster and more explosive than the old game, and the number of fixtures far greater, making fatigue and injury more likely. Deuce.

Scrutiny: not that it seems to faze the genial Nadal, but the media glare he lives under is a white dwarf compared to Laver's 40-watt lightbulb. Advantage Nadal.

Competition: Laver was a supreme player but he ruled a sport which was clinging to its gentlemanly roots, and was mainly played by the privileged few. That is less the case today. Laver was a tough cookie, but he would have faced many more of them in today's game. That, in my mind, is more important than quibbling over a calendar year. Game, set and match Nadal.

Do the right thing as regards the bragging

Yesterday should have been a bumper day for “Bragging Rights in the English Premier League”, which saw three proper local derbies.

By “proper”, I mean genuine and historic rivalries, as opposed to those tenuous “auld foes” cooked up by viewer-hungry marketing men. (“Don’t miss the League One Battle of the Peninsulars: Tranmere versus Exeter!”)

Sadly, all three games ended in draws. Birmingham City-Aston Villa and Sunderland-Newcastle United both offered predictable 1-1 scorelines, while Liverpool-Everton provided a raucous 2-2.

According to all pundits, this meant Bragging Rights were shared.

I am not sure how this works, in practice, in the frequently mentioned “workplace canteens” of the pundits’ imagination. Perhaps one set of supporters is allowed to rib the other during the main course, then they must swap during dessert. Who even has a canteen, nowadays? Or a lunch hour?

Surely this old adage should be updated to: “And the home team has won the Bragging Rights, which they will surely make full use of during tomorrow’s hastily scoffed sandwich at the desk while checking Facebook.”

Frankly, in today’s money-mad game, I am amazed that the Bragging Rights have not been sold off already. They sold our clubs, shirts and stadium names to savvy investors, so why not that as well?

Perhaps this is something Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea owner, should consider as a consolation prize, as his dream of winning the Champions League ebbs further away. (Carlo Ancelotti, the manager, now admits that failure to qualify is a possibility.)

You can just imagine it.

“And Fulham thrash Chelsea 5-0 in the west London derby, meaning the Bragging Rights go to the visitors from Craven Cottage.”

“Actually, Brian, Mr Abramovich bought exclusive ownership of the Bragging Rights during the close season. The deeds are in a safe on his yacht. So I’m afraid the Fulham fans will have to keep quiet or face a civil prosecution.”

Stranger things have happened.