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Australian Open 2017: Rafael Nadal and being on the other side of a final for the ages

A Nadal fan trying to figure out how he is who he is.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer pose before the start of the Australian Open final

The euphoria will take a while to die down, and for me, being a Rafael Nadal fan, the disappointment too will take a while to die down. How can you not be disappointed when your favourite finishes on the wrong side of such a match? 

But the Australian Open men’s singles final was not just a tennis match. It was an occasion as big as the sport has ever seen. It showcased two of the greatest sons of the sport, nowhere near their prime, but somehow still better than the rest of the field.

The GOAT debate revisited

A lot has been said, and a lot more will be said in the coming days about Roger Federer. I’m not going to weigh in on the GOAT debate. That is futile. It is futile because it is unfair, in many ways. 

Why? Because the man on the other side of the debate has enough claims to being the GOAT himself. That might be an unpopular opinion, but Nadal has done enough to cement his place in tennis folklore. Yesterday’s final was only further proof. 

Why, Rafa? Why did you have to be on the wrong side of that? Actually, a more pertinent question would be, how on earth did you make a contest out of that final? Your opponent was hitting some tremendous groundstrokes. You were serving rather terribly. Your usually reliable backhand was finding the net and going out of play more often than it ever has. 

But you know what, unlike the other six Grand Slam finals you have lost, this was possibly the least disappointing. You were not playing well. Your opponent was. Yet, you were three holds of serve away from becoming the first man in the Open era to win every Slam at least twice.

How did you make a contest out of that final? I know one part of the answer: Nadal never gives up. But, why? WHY does he not give up?

If Nadal plays at his best, he will win

The closest I’ve read to summing up yesterday’s final was from a tweet from Jamie Murray. He said, if Rafa plays at his best, he will win. If Roger plays at his best, he may not. 

Yesterday, in the first set, Federer played some scintillating tennis. He didn’t give Nadal any time on the ball and the 6-4 scoreline was rather misleading given the quality of tennis that he played. 

But the Spaniard came out of the break and took a 4-0 lead in the second set. How can you explain that? How can you explain that 4th set, when his serves were sitting up so nicely for Federer to hit, and yet Nadal still won it?

I guess a mere mortal can never comprehend all of that. But then, why should he? Why should he try comprehend any of it when he can watch THE Rafael Nadal play? 

A bonus for Nadal fans

In truth, every bit of these two weeks has been a bonus for a Nadal fan. After two years in the doldrums, with all his injuries, one would have never expected him to play another Grand Slam final. But he did. Again, how do you explain that, Rafa?

Even with Nadal’s form over the past two years, it would have taken something gigantic for Florian Mayer and Marcos Baghdatis to beat him in the first two rounds at Melbourne this year. And then, Alexander Zverev almost pulled off something huge. But huge is not gigantic. He gave Nadal an inch, and the Spaniard drove a truck through that gap. How? Why?

Monfils and Raonic came. Monfils and Raonic went. Dimitrov came. Dimitrov went. But the Bulgarian played the match of his life. Nadal’s forehand was finding the net more often than it passed over it, but as he always does, he found a way.

With Federer having made the final the previous day, how could Rafa pass up on an opportunity to write another chapter in one of the sport’s greatest ever rivalries?

This Australian Open has been my most fulfilling tournament as a fan. I saw my hero being far from perfect, a far cry from the World No. 1 of 2010 and 2011, but I saw my hero in all his glory. That forehand down the line, the countless passing shots off both sides of the court, the perfect finishing volleys are all part of Nadal the tennis player.

Rafa: My hero

But my hero is not just Nadal the tennis player. It is Nadal the individual. It is the Nadal who chases down every ball, and makes sure that the opponent has to hit the ball into the crowd for it to be a winner. My hero is the Nadal for whom no adversity seems difficult to bounce back from. In short, my hero is every bit the Rafael Nadal we saw at the Australian Open.

My hero is not the Nadal who has beaten Federer 23 times. My hero is the Nadal who didn’t react any differently when Robin Soderling, Lukas Rosol or Steve Darcis had other ideas in the early rounds of Grand Slam over the years.

Nadal has beaten Federer 23 times and I was euphoric every time he did it. I was at the other end of the spectrum on the first 11 occasions that Federer beat him. But on the 12th time, yesterday, the emotion was not that of disappointment. It was pride. It was joy. 

It was the joy of being able to see my hero play on the sport’s biggest stage again. It was the joy of seeing my hero in all his glory, that fighting spirit, that never-say-die attitude on full display.

My hero has been a much better tennis player than he is right now, but I have had my fair share of joy watching that breathtaking player. Yesterday, my hero had no right to take that final to the fifth set, but he did.

Yesterday, my hero also gave all us lesser mortals some solace. There was no way on earth he would have ever let a 3-1 lead in the fifth set drop, but he did yesterday. He is human after all.

But he was back in a Grand Slam final. How, Rafa? Why, Rafa? I guess we’ll never know.

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