Of all the rituals in sport, there is none more boring than a tennis draw. It’s bingo without prizes.
It has the added benefit of involving numbers, which is a lot like math, which is for many of us deeply confusing. No. 8 goes into position 16 and so forth.
All you really want to know is who plays whom, but tennis insists on making you sit through the prelims. It’s another sales opportunity.
They were hitting that part hard at the draw for the coming Rogers Cup in Toronto on Friday.
“Arguably the best Rogers Cup in history,” tournament boss Karl Hale said beforehand.
This event – and particularly the men’s iteration – has historically been afflicted by all sorts of mystery ailments, usually in the hours just before the thing started. Watching the world’s best find new excuses to get out of coming to Canada was as much a sport as the tennis itself.
They’ve been lucky this time around. Nineteen of the top-20-ranked men’s players will be here. However, they are missing the biggest name of all – Roger Federer.
The women play at IGA Stadium in Montreal this year. Competitors include World No. 1 Simona Halep, Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Angelique Kerber, Maria Sharapova, Sloane Stephens and Caroline Wozniacki.
Federer at least had the decency not to feign injury, or drag it out to the last minute. He declined to come because he didn’t want to.
That’s fair enough. We’re Canadian. We can live with honest disappointment.
Imbued with his own good fortune, Hale would say it again later – “arguably the best …”
As he said it, the man sitting beside him – world No. 1 Rafael Nadal – smiled beatifically.
There are a lot of superlatives you could append to everyone’s second-favourite men’s player, but “ingratiating” might be prime among them.
No one on Earth appears quite so content to be where they are, doing whatever they’re doing, in whatever company surrounds them, than Nadal. He has the gift of perpetual satisfaction.
He was bored as everyone else. You could tell – the faraway stare; the eye rubbing; the chin on hand – but not offensively so. Everyone who managed to catch his eye received a reflexive smile.
They did the draw. Everyone “oohed” and “aahed” in the right places (e.g. Nick Kyrgios versus wild-card entrant Stan Wawrinka in the first round).
Nadal had the decency to look over his shoulder at the big screen as the names were announced, pretending fascination.
Later, he admitted the truth – “At a Masters 1000 [a sub-major-level tournament], it is impossible to have a good draw.”
But he seemed to enjoy watching the blank spaces fill up.
In the question portion of the afternoon, people tried to draw some strong feeling from Nadal. What were his fondest memories of the tournament? How did it feel losing last year to Dennis Shapovalov (the Canadian teenager’s big coming-out moment)? How does he prepare?
Nadal tried his best to play ball, but he couldn’t come up with much aside from blandishments.
“I’m very excited to be back at this tournament I love,” Nadal said.
Like you love the French? Or Wimbledon? One doubts it. But it’s still a nice thing to say.
Nadal is, in the least exciting sense of the word, a professional. He rolls into a new town every week or two, does what he does as well as he can do it, and then rolls out.
He’s 32, and has been doing this work for half his life. No one can live in the moment that long.
That doesn’t diminish the excitement for the rest of us in getting to see Nadal, which he seems to understand. His regular day’s shift is, for someone sitting in the live audience, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He’s plainly trying to keep that in mind. It’s one of many things that make him so likeable.
But this generosity of spirit does tend to highlight Federer’s absence. These two are like Frick and Frack in the global imagination – you can’t summon one to mind without thinking of the other.
Every top tournament is an event, but one without the prospect of a Nadal-Federer encounter is bittersweet. As they trundle into their early- and mid-30s, respectively, it grows moreso with each passing year.
They’ve never played each other at a Rogers Cup. Between Nadal’s pernicious injuries and Federer’s decision to prioritize the big four tournaments, it now seems unlikely they ever will. That is an honest-to-God shame. For us, not them.
Because of that, the tournament we get is more like a meet-and-greet than a sports extravaganza. Neither Nadal, nor any other truly elite player is going to kill themselves to win a non-Grand Slam.
You could see at last year’s Rogers Cup in his final set against Shapovalov – a moment when Nadal decided to ease off the pedal and let the younger man pull ahead.
They play as best they can, hope to win and if it doesn’t work out – off to the next. They hoard their emotional resources for the big moments. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t last.
The Canadian tournaments Nadal could remember each involved times he’d retaken the mantle of world No. 1. Which is another way of saying, got back on top of Federer.
He talked about the word “deserve” in both instances.
“I don’t like this word,” Nadal said. “In sport, you don’t deserve. You do it, or you don’t do it.”
It was a small, telling comment. More than any other athletes, truly great tennis players are journeymen. Their work is itinerant. They never settle. The money comes easily and, beyond a certain point, does not matter.
A career cannot be defined in a single instance. Instead, it’s years of labour adding up to an impression. That so-and-so stood in the top rank or not.
This week, someone asked 79-year-old Australian legend Rod Laver who he thought was the best ever.
“No one,” Laver said. According to him, a man might define his era, but that’s the most he could wish for.
Nadal is emblematic of the type. He does the work and leaves the posturing for the pundits.
For now, he’s in Toronto – a tournament he loves.
Which may just be another way of saying having the chance to do the thing he loves in front of people who appreciate the craft.