Nadal's incredible desert storm
There are times when reality resembles a dream, even if rarely so. As the white, blue and purple confetti rained down upon a delirium struck Rafael Nadal, it was hard not to think that the packed Sunday crowd at the Tennis Garden in the Californian desert was witnessing one such moment.
The impossibly hard working Majorcan was awash in resplendent joy lost for once in a moment where reality and dream morphed into a seamless narrative written specifically to coronate a man who never stopped being King. After seven months of injury laden absence, the 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Juan Martin Del Potro must have tasted like a sweet pill that healed all the pain of those agonising days spent in rehabilitation at once. The sheer joy on the face of this uniquely coded athlete captured the relief and pleasure that must have coursed through the veins of Nadal; much better than any prose one could possibly imagine writing.
But do not fret over it, for even Rafa himself struggled to capture the essence of his joy. All he could muster was, “when you have one comeback like I’m having,” he said, “you remember all the low things, lower moments that you had during this seven months, doubts and all these things. So beating three top 10 players and winning a title like this is just something unbelievable for me. Very, very happy, and very emotional.” He may not have a way with the English lexicon, but trust the beast in him to come alive with a rousing vengeance when the man from Spain takes to a tennis court.
No player since Jimmy Connors has displayed powers of perseverance like Nadal has time and again. It is a matter of habit for the Spaniard to hang tight even on a day when he is second best till he slowly and gradually schemes his way around his opponent to eke out yet another improbable victory. Down a set and 1-3 in the second, Nadal looked like a man destined to play muted witness to the exuberant power of his Argentine opponent. Instead, Nadal kept working away on aspects of his game – the consistency on his serve, reading better to increase the effectiveness of his returns and increasing the pace off the ground to get his opponent running quicker among other things – to gradually work his way back into the contest before finishing off the deflated Argentine.
If you roll back a few months, the uncertainty around the return of Rafa consumed most followers of the game into thinking that 2013 could even turn out to be the most open clay court season since the arrival of this precociously determined King who made the dirt decorate his drawing room. Not many would have given the beast an even chance of making the finals at each of the comeback events, let alone win three out of those four. But the manner in which Nadal has roared back to life should drive maddening fear into his opponents seeking a way past the Spaniard.
Andre Agassi knows a thing or two about coming back from a lay-off. Quizzed at the Australian Open about the prospects of Nadal, this is what the legendary American had to offer: ”I found whatever time you take away from the game you need that time to double to be fully where you were when you left, that’s my experience,” Agassi said. “If he comes back in the first half of the year, you won’t see him at his best, historically speaking with my experience, until this tournament next year.” The American would have been better served to speak for himself, for Nadal is no ordinary player. He is a warrior trained to do battle till the last drop of blood drains out of his system and in the face of such stoic resilience, many an opponent had nowhere to turn but relent and surrender.
Nadal’s tentativeness in Vina Del Mar, where the sluggish looking Spaniard lost against Horacio Zeballos turned out to be the classic red herring. The indomitable spirit in him had just been stoked enough to kindle the best out of the raging bull. The manner in which he toyed with David Nalbandian in Sao Paolo was just a harbinger of what was about to transpire in Acapulco. The seven-time French Open champion made both Nicholas Almagro and David Ferrer dance to his tune with remarkable ease. Who can forget the bagel he served Ferrer as he swept through the finals 6-0, 6-2 to record his 38th career title on the red dirt, with what many believe is among Nadal’s best performances on a clay court. So much for those comeback blues!
Despite those successes, not many – Nadal included – believed that the resurgent Spaniard had a chance at clinching his 22nd Masters Series title from among the star studded field. As he worked his way through the rounds and especially after that victory over Roger Federer in the quarter-finals, Nadal forced the tennis community to take notice. Even though that victory was dampened by the fact that Federer was suffering from a sore back, it served to boost the morale of Nadal and add to his growing confidence around the arena. The manner in which he destroyed Tomas Berdych with some monstrous forehand winners alerted his fans of the great man’s abilities to control his own destiny. Del Potro however, did him a huge favour by taking out Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic in quick succession.
The Tower of Tandil played a similar brand of demolition tennis to take control of the finals against Nadal, but unlike Murray and Djokovic who just could not find the means and imagination necessary to tide over the storm the Spaniard adapted to the situation and eventually averted being washed away by the tide. It was in doing so that Nadal established himself as the firm favourite yet again ahead of the rich season on clay. Nadal will have rested adequately before arriving in Monte Carlo for what might turn out to be his ninth straight title in the French Principality. Barcelona, Madrid and Rome will help him prepare for an assault on Roland Garros in search of an eighth French Open title. Just a month ago, everyone wondered how Nadal might stand up to being away from the tour for such a long time. Now that we have a resounding answer, it is time to wonder if the monster from Majorca will sweep everything in front of him during the European summer.
In winning his 600th match, Nadal has inched past Bjorn Borg’s success rate of 82.6% – Rafa’s 600-123 record gives him a winning rate of 82.99%. And he now stands alone at 22 Masters Series, one more than Federer. For the moment, Nadal has ample time to enjoy the warm luxuries of being at home, relaxing with a fishing rod or a golf club, as might suit his mood even as he celebrates the rich haul immediately after his return to the professional circuit.
As for his key opponents – count on them to spend a few restless weeks in trepidation of the pounding they might receive at the merciless hands of Nadal when the tour reaches Europe later next month. Either way, he has left us in no doubt that the months of rehab and rest have only made the Majorcan more determined without ever threatening to blunt the sharp edges of his incredibly resilient game. It will take a very brave man or an outright fool to bet any money on Nadal not cleaning up the honours on clay as he has done almost every year since that summer in 2005.