By Tumaini Carayol
(May 8, 2013) MADRID – Seven years ago, the differences were palpable. Both sets of hair were considerably longer, the biceps were bigger, the courts were bluer but without any controversy thanks to the hardness that complimented the color, the season was different and the crowds. Well, the crowds were one of the few constants as Tomas Berdych and Rafael Nadal took to the Manolo Santana court to compete their 2006 Mutua Madrid Open quarterfinal.
Quickly, this young and promising Berdych rose to the occasion. The serve first began to inflict irreversible damage and the forehand soon followed suit, releasing an array of winners that a flailing Nadal struggled to counter. As the crowd sensed their hero falling, they themselves rose to fend off the challenger, sending a chorus of boos and whistles raining down as the Czech pretender continued in his attempts to usurp the champion.
Berdych would be successful in his quest, closing off a perilously tight second-set tiebreak to move through in straight sets. As he strode confidently to the net, the then 22 year-old would produce one of the enduring images of the event’s history. He placed one finger to his lips in a “shushing” gesture towards the already booing crowd. The jeers were deafening as he finished his journey to the net, and as he attempted to shake the hand of his fallen foe, Nadal interjected. “very bad,” was the audible cry from the Spaniard to the Frenchman as they met at the net.
Though the seven years have passed assuredly by, in reality not much has changed. As Novak Djokovic, Nadal’s greatest rival in recent years, entered the metal box. The booing and jeering quickly followed as, though facing a still not-quite-known, Djokovic was seemingly treated with a distain usually reserved for criminals. Every routine query was met with a chorus of boos and, by the bitter end of the second set, even his missed first serves resulted in grand cheers. The result was an outburst from the Serb, who eventually responded to the crowd’s jeers with a variety of choice words of his own. As the world No. 1 left the court in defeat, even his final exit was met with yet more loud boos. To say he was livid afterwards would be an understatement:
“In the first set, every single close call that I went to look at the ball and the chair umpire comes to see, I got whistled. I don’t see any reason for that. I didn’t do anything bad.
“When I see the ball, it’s good, I clear the mark. I give him a point. I never did anything opposite in my life. I’m honest. If I see the ball in, I play the ball; if it’s close, I call the chair umpire.
“I don’t understand why they turn against me, for what reason, but it is what it is. I’m a professional, and it’s not the first time I’m experiencing that.
One day on, Nadal made his debut on centre court. Up against the charismatic but unknown Benoit Paire, the Frenchman was simply fulfilling his job description by endeavouring to defeat his illustrious opponent. During the second set, Paire reeled off three winners in a row, a trademark dropshot punctuating the final point of the series. Rather than applauding the challenger’s gusto, the Madrid crowd decided to launch yet another array of boos. Sporadically throughout the match, the heckles raised once again. The Frenchman is perfectly capable of inciting a crowd to boo, and even his home crowds routinely boo him off the court for his tendency to give up without a fight. Against Nadal, however, he was being for the complete polar opposite – for trying. When asked about his thoughts on the crowd, Nadal angrily defended them.
“I am not agree with you,” he said. Sorry. The crowd today was 100% correct. That’s my opinion. The crowd didn’t say nothing against Paire.
“I am from Spain, and it’s normal the crowd want to support me. It happens to me the same when I play in different countries against a local player. That’s the good part of the show.
“In the end, this is only a game, no? It’s nice to have the crowd involved in this show. Nothing against the crowd. I think the crowd here is very emotional. That’s all.”
“”I think they respect the players always, and I repeat that I cannot have a real opinion on yesterday’s match because I didn’t see it.”
Tumaini Carayol is in Madrid covering the Madrid Open for Tennis Panorama News. He is a contributing writer at On The Baseline, and writes about professional tennis at his site Foot Fault. Follow his tournament updates on @TennisNewsTPN and his personal twitter @TumCarayol.