Seemingly small changes in the ball matter a lot in sports, and I think it had something to do with Rafael Nadal's relatively quick close-out of Novak Djokovic this morning, just as it did with Sunday's Djokovic comeback before the rain ended the proceedings. Every tennis player has hit with "muffins" in hot and humid conditions that make the felt stand up so you can pinch it between your fingers. And everyone knows about balls that become as hard and heavy as rocks on hard courts that haven't been cleaned lately or Rubico courts that have not been watered.
Nadal hits the hardest, fastest-spinning ball ever. The rain and humidity slowed it down Sunday and gave Djokovic fresh life. Conditions were more normal Monday, and a revived Nadal was putting too much juice on the ball for anyone to beat him and he claimed his seventh French Open. That's to take nothing away from his accomplishment. But on clay he is unbeatable, and on hard surfaces, where the ball acts differently, he is not.
Forty years ago in Memphis, there was an interesting experiment. A great handball player, Paul Haber, took on a great racquetball player, Bud Muehleisen, in a "hands versus racquet" match at the University of Memphis. They played with a handball, which was much smaller, harder and faster than the racquetballs of the day. Haber won the match because he was an animal and because he got to choose the ball. A squash player might have had a better chance because the balls are more similar (and the racquet longer).
Here is a video clip of that match.
In every sport I have played in my life, there were subtle differences in the ball — Penn, Wilson, Dunlop, Tretorn (remember them?), Voit, Spalding, on and on. Certainly equipment made a big difference too, especially in racquet sports after the composite over-sized racquets came in 30 years ago. But what didn't get so much attention was the ball. And in a toss-up match, if one player got to choose his or her favorite ball, chances are that that player had an edge. As Nadal did today.
The moment came in the third set when Federer came to the net and Djokovic hit a high, weak shot to Federer's forehand and Federer . . . let it go. The ball was in by a couple of feet. Djokovic looked like he couldn't believe it.
Federer made three times as many unforced errors as Djokovic in the two-hour match, which was barely a third as long as Djokovic's classic earlier this year in the Australian Open. Federer double-faulted several times and sprayed forehands, backhands, and service returns all over the place. As always, he was stoic and sporting, but it had to kill him.
The French Open is notoriously unpredictable, but Federer looks like he may have won his last major tournament. It is now the Big Two of Djokovic and Rafael Nadal instead of the Big Four of those two plus Andy Murray and Federer.
Watching Federer play so far below his best game was like seeing:
The boy or girl you dated in high school at a reunion 30 years later.
Willie Mays playing for the Mets.
Archie Manning riding the bench for the Vikings.
Brett Favre in his last game.
Joe Paterno in the booth.
Pete Maravich on the Celtics bench.
Gilbert Arenas on the Grizzlies.
John Daly imploding and missing another cut.
Michael Jordan playing minor-league baseball against the Memphis Chicks.
Painful. Wish I hadn't seen it.