While Roman emperors have come and gone over the centuries, the current one – of Spanish origin – holds the old town in the palm of his left hand. And has no intention of letting go.
Crowned for a Roman record fifth time, Rafael I should be known as Ravaging Rafa as he comes to town, sweeps up the goodies, and nobody dares to resist. Rafa started winning the Italian Open as a teen-ager in 2005, and boosted his match record here to 27-1 by beating countryman David Ferrer, 7-5, 6-2, on a cold, wet and windy Sunday.
How did he ever lose in Rome, this a gladiator in plaid short pants? Blistered feet and another Spaniard, Juan Carlos Ferrero, did him in two years ago. Unwisely Rafa insisted on playing when he had no chance. Typical.
It looks as though Nadal, bursting with pride and punch, no longer worrying about his gimpy knees, could become the Eternal City’s eternal champion. The only things that roadblocked him yesterday – momentarily – were two rain delays. The second washed out most of the sell-out gathering of 10,400 in the new stadium at Il Foro Italico.
What would an earlier emperor named Nero think of this successor? Can’t you hear him saying, “The Spanish kid’s just as tough and melodic as I was on a stringed instrument. Every year he burns down the town. I could only do it once.”
Those few citizens who waited out the weather for several hours, among them US Ambassador David Thorne, were rewarded by more of Rafa – and No. 12 Ferrer, who resisted fiercely. Both of them love the rust-toned European clay, and they played as if their lives depended on it. Though their battleground was slippery and uncertain – both were knockdown victims – they drove each other to the far reaches of the enclosure, and ran down balls like Labrador retrievers. Ferrer, who had beaten a pair of top tenners along the way, Andy Murray and Jo Wilfred Tsonga, just about equaled Nadal’s shotmaking. And sometimes topped him. It’s the kind of give-and-take tennis, double digit rallies that you see only on European soil.
Rafa lost serve only once in the entire tournament. That was to the greatest player in the history of Latvia, Ernests (cq) Gulbis (can you name another?) in their 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 semifinal. Watch out for lanky 21-year-old Gulbis, Nadal would tell you. Their tussle wasn’t settled until the very last game.
Ferrer was quickly behind Fernando Verdasco – yet another Spaniard – 5-1 in their semi. Only to win eight straight games and the decision, 7-5, 6-2. “I was just worn out,” said the tall lefty, Verdasco, instrumental in Spain’s Davis Cups of 2008-09. He played almost every day for three weeks, and won Barcelona. “It was the best three weeks of my career.”
A year ago Nadal played anywhere he could set foot on a clay court, but realizes he has to pace himself, as Roger Federer is doing. The knees soured, he lost his French title and No. 1 standing and was unable to defend his 2008 Wimbledon.
“I’ve had a lot of bad days over the last five years. The thing is to have enough motivation to want to improve all the time. That is the main thing for me. No I didn’t have problems with my knees for a whole week. Unbelievable.”
Ferrer, keeping it hot for Rafa despite the champion’s onerous spin that is so terrible to solve and do anything with. His to-the-point thought on Nadal: “Rafa is in form, especially in difficult moments, and it is difficult to beat him.” Amen.
All dirt roads lead to Paris, and the Emperor longs for the French championship lifted from him a year ago by Robin Soderling, allowing Federer to win. Is he as good as he was in grabbing four straight at Roland Garros? I think so, but sometimes knees don’t please.
Will these abundant Spaniards keep it up? Three semifinalists, and the only all-Spanish final in Italian annals. They were blooming like the azaleas on the timeless Spanish Steps. Tangling with the Emperor in this settlement is like being thrown down those Steps.