Bitter Rivals: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Nadal


When God announced “LET THERE BE LIGHT” he apparently moved fifteen degrees longitudinally per hour and said it twenty-four times. This poor logistical decision forces tennis fans in EST-land to be awake at 3:30 AM for tonight’s Australian Open semifinal.

It’s a big one.

Knowing nothing about Australia, I inaccurately picture it this way. Melburnians are toasting a mid-summer sunset with Vegemite and oversized cans of Foster’s.  A radio plays Men at Work in the background.

“Who can it be now?”

A germane question.

It will be two of the best athletes in history. It will be the unquestioned ambassador of one of the world’s most popular games alongside the second-in-command. Oddly enough, the second-in-command has usurped his elder on many of the sports’ greatest stages to the tune of 22-10. It doesn’t matter.

It is what almost everyone wanted.

Roger Federer is, simply, Roger Federer. He is the artist behind the best tennis that’s ever been played, dominating opponents with an efficient virtuosity befitting his Swiss roots. He is the first call to endorse the high end – be it Mercedes, Rolex, or Credit Suisse. He’s succeeded so thoroughly, that it’s almost inconceivable that he could have won so much more if not for one man.

Rafael Nadal emerged from Majorca to become probably the most famous Spaniard in history by his mid-twenties. His ascent has coincided with a greater Spanish athletic renaissance. Their soccer team has excelled in both the World and Euro Cups, their basketball team has excelled on the international stage, and Nadal has joined the shortlist of greatest players of all time.

This is not just a rivalry. This is a clash of superpowers. Sports are humanity’s preferred form of entertainment because of these moments. Nothing else can offer the unbridled reality, the raw humanity, of live competition. In the era of HD cameras and slow-motion replays, no sport provides a more dramatic stage than tennis.

In tennis, as in life, there is nothing more exciting than a good rivalry.

In 1965, The Beatles, already the most recognizable men in the world, released their first true artistic statement, “Rubber Soul”.  It is one of the period’s best albums, in a time when with each month came a legendary LP. It blew the lid off of what a #1 album could be. The Beatles had been spending a lot of time in the U.S., cavorting with Roger McGuinn (of The Byrds) and Bob Dylan. McGuinn was a principal architect of what would become the folk-rock sound. Dylan was entering his esteemed electric period, and introduced the Fab Four to pot in 1964. Lord knows what they talked about.

I always call “Rubber Soul” a British band imitating an American band imitating a British band (which was, at heart, imitating American music). It is certainly their most “American” work. Twelve-string electric guitar shimmers and chimes in the McGuinn tradition (interestingly, McGuinn had first seen one in George Harrison’s hands, and made it his own trademark). Taking a cue from Dylan, The Beatles attempted to write lyrics more sophisticated than the formulaic “boy meets girl” template that had brought them so much success. Much of “Rubber Soul” is love songs, but they’re interesting love songs reflecting a level of literacy developed through years of writing and the pervasive influence of the American folk movement. It could be called a pre-cursor to the imminent concept album. “Rubber Soul” was The Beatles taking everything they’d learned in America, and distilling it to fourteen tracks.

The album was a tremendous hit and a universal influence. Living in 2014, it is difficult to comprehend that music can simultaneously be “the best” and “the most popular”.  It doesn’t happen anymore.

Brian Wilson led The Beach Boys, heralded as America’s answer to The Beatles. Wilson took this to heart. He was no stranger to creative rivalry, at the time with ubiquitous producer Phil Spector. Rock lore states that Brian Wilson would listen to Spector’s “Be My Baby” (the best pop song of all time) dozens of times a day, calling it the song he “could never do”. Spector said “I’d like to have a nickel for every joint he smoked trying to figure out how I got the ‘Be My Baby’ sound.”

Wilson, being the singular genius that he is, was able to turn his frustration over “By My Baby” into “Don’t Worry Baby”. It is Spector-esque in scope, a tremendous aural wall of teen-aged concerns and impeccable harmonies. It was a work of art.

After vanquishing the scepter of Spector, Wilson heard “Rubber Soul”. It was a far cry from the filler-laden albums of the day. Pop music at the time was delivered primarily as 45 RPM singles, with periodic compilation/filler albums to get people to buy the songs again. Sounds a lot like today.

“Rubber Soul” wasn’t like that. From the first needle drop to the dead wax on side b, it was consistently of exceptionally high quality. Wilson said “It felt like it all belonged together. ‘Rubber Soul’ was a collection of songs… that somehow went together like no album ever made before and I was very impressed. I said, ‘That’s it. I really am challenged to do a great album.’”

Wilson settled on a goal: creating the best rock album ever. He started writing in 1965 and studio work in earnest started in January 1966. He was legendary for bringing in a vast assortment of musicians to record music he had arranged. He used the studio in novel ways, bringing it to the forefront as its own instrument. He was a pioneer in multitrack recording, mixing eight tracks down to one, laying 7 more over those, and then doing it again.

The result was May 1966’s “Pet Sounds”, and it was the greatest rock album anyone had ever made. Brian Wilson succeeded. It was, to that point, the ultimate confluence of popular culture and high art, with such sophistication as to quiet those dismissive of contemporary music.

Ironically, “Pet Sounds” sold far better in the UK than the US. The British loved it. Particularly, The Beatles loved it. It became Paul McCartney’s favorite record – so much so that he wrote new material for “Revolver” in the period between “Pet Sounds” and “Revolver’s” August 1966 release. According to Sir Paul, “I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life… I figure no one is educated musically ‘til they’ve heard that album.”

He’s right. There is no better album than “Pet Sounds” for a teen starting their musical journey. It is triumphant and wistful, ornate and accessible. It is full of vulnerability, both in Wilson’s composition and lyricist Tony Asher’s libretto (appropriate terminology, because “Pet Sounds” is truly operatic) though it never wallows in self-pity. It is the perfect musical expression of youth – the mania of adolescence can only be met with equal force. That’s what Pet Sounds was.

Encouraged by Pet Sounds’ success, Brian got back to work on its follow up, “Smile”. He wanted it to be “a teenage symphony to God”, and he claimed it would be even better than “Pet Sounds”. He wanted to create a uniquely American pop-music opus, expanding on everything he’d done before. Wilson started reading Arthur Koestler, and consumed a lot of drugs. I mean, a lot of drugs. He built a hotbox tent in his house. I bet the token (tokin’) stoner roommate’s never attempted that.

Wilson worked and worked, becoming more unstable in the process. In February, 1967, The Beatles released “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Brian heard it in his car and pulled off the road. He listened, smitten. Dejected, he said that his British rivals had “got there first”.

A few months later, “Smile” was officially terminated. The Beach Boys released “Heroes and Villians” as a single. It would have appeared on the album, and Brian wanted to gauge the reception. It was a moderate success. Brian Wilson took this as abject failure.

People still associated The Beach Boys with surfing and deuce coupes. Brian was trying to change that – he thought he had changed that. His growth as a musician was not met with a commensurate expansion of expectations amongst the audience.

The Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in June, 1967. If not for “Pet Sounds”, it would never exist. Paul McCartney has said that Wilson’s work was the single largest influence on every aspect of “Sgt. Pepper”. It was The Beatles’ attempt to outdo Brian Wilson.

According to Brian, they outdid him. It’s claimed that he cried upon hearing it for the first time. Worse, he suffered a nervous breakdown which crippled his creative output. The world accepted everything The Beatles, his rivals, did. Their work was, deservedly, unequivocally lauded. Brian Wilson’s work also deserved that acclaim. It’s likely he would have gotten it. The original “Smile” recordings were released in late 2011 to universally positive reception. It is now, as it would have been then, a work of genius.

But it didn’t matter. Brian thought he lost. When you think you’ve lost, you have.

This is especially true in tennis. The stats are intimidating, but Federer has the game to beat Nadal. He’s done it before. The courts have been playing fast and low, which favors Roger.

But there’s the head to head. 22-10 overall in Nadal’s favor. Nadal 8, Federer 2 in Grand Slams. There’s the discrepancy in style, the fact that Nadal’s kicking forehand can dismantle Roger’s backhand.

For the first time since 2012, though, Federer seems to have his groove back. After an equipment false start following disappointing  results at the end of the 2013 season, he has fully embraced a new racquet.

There’s a new coach, Stefan Edberg. The Swede had a historically elite offensive game, and elite offensive play is the key to beating Nadal.

There’s no doubt Roger has the game to beat Nadal. The issues have been stubbornness and lack of confidence – the same stubbornness and lack of confidence that plagued Brian Wilson. At their best, they’re the greatest ever. They were pushed to their best by rivalry. Past a certain point, Brian didn’t put up a fight. Here’s hoping Roger does. 

image – marc_diluzio