The ritual has not changed with the twitch, tug and the racquet whirl. The ceaseless bouncing of the ball before winding the serves is still as excruciating for the opponents as it was before. Though Rafael Nadal has been through much wear and tear, but the biceps are still ripping the sleeves off and the hairline, though sparse in the middle, is still showing no sign of receding. The Matador from Mallorca is a tennis colossus and that is vouched by the legion of admirers, be it veterans like Rod Laver or young tyros like his latest victim, Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The Greek prodigy had a breakthrough last week with some scintillating tennis. He ousted Dominic Thiem and the reigning Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic. He had the wind behind his sails, but Rafa turned out a bit more than the Rock of Gibraltar. Nadal was merciless in the first set. The Greek youngster managed a competitive second set in a 6-2, 7-6(4) defeat. This was Nadal’s fourth Rogers Cup and second in Toronto after 2008. Other two came in Montreal (2005 and 2013).
Extolling his opponent, Tsitsipas exclaimed, “[It] is amazing what he has built as a player. I mean, he was, you know, normal like all of us, and he managed to become this beast, this monster that he is today.” He also lost the final at Barcelona to Nadal earlier this year.
Monster! Beast! Those are normal to avid WWE watchers, gawking at human wrecking balls like Brock Lesnar or Braun Strowman. But, it seems more apt for the sensational Spaniard and is just another of his gladiatorial monikers.
However, there is much more to the supreme athlete. There is body, mind and a determination to never yield. ‘Victor numquam cedit!’ As Tsitsipas observed, there is the indefatigable patience that Rafa exudes. He may give a few yells and anguishes but seldom shows cracks or even chinks of crumble. He is relentless with the execution of his plans and “he will make you suffer”.
Holder of records
Nadal is not new to phenomenal breakout tournaments himself. He won his first ATP match at 15 year of age and at 19, he clinched his first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros. Today, he has a staggering 80 ATP titles and 33 ATP World Tour Master 1000 titles. He has conquered the French Open 11 times now, out his astonishing 17 Grand Slams.
Nadal’s a statistician's nightmare. According to ATP records, Nadal has an overall win-loss record of 913-188 with a winning ratio of 0.829. That is only lesser than Bjorn Borg's, who has a deficit of 300+ games and a benefit of two retirements over Nadal. Djokovic has a career win-loss ratio of 0.824, which is slightly better than Federer’s 0.820.
Nadal has not yet won the end-of-season ATP Finals while Federer has 6 (20 Grand Slams and 27 ATP 1000s) and Novak Djokovic has 5 (13 Grand Slams and 30 Masters 1000s).
This was Nadal’s fifth title this year. Interestingly, all other four (French Open, Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome) came on the clay surface. The hard-court win in Toronto will be a shot in the bulging arms before the US Open.
The trils and the sacrifice
It has been a gruelling journey for Rafa. Battling numerous knee injuries, he had a nightmarish spell with the 2015 season being his rock bottom. That season, he had a dismal win-loss record of 61-20. He did not win any Grand Slam outside France for 3 years. Rewriting the Tabula Rasa, he eventually won last year’s US Open to break that streak.
Over the years he has had his uncle Toni Nadal at his side as the cornerstone and he added former World No. 1 Carlos Moya to his team in late 2016. The move has paid its dividends and how!
Nadal has always shown a trenchant eye for detail from technical, tactical or even superstitious standpoints (the bottle placements around his chair!). In his 2017 US Open victory, Nadal delivered a tactical masterpiece against his opponent Kevin Anderson.
In the end, Anderson paid his own tribute to Nadal, “I know we’re the same age but I feel like I’ve been watching you my whole life.” It was a measure of the impact Nadal has had on the sport — and also a tribute to his tenacity and imperturbability.
The Dragon Ball of tennis, as he is fondly referred to due to his fondness to Japanese Anime, has had to quell speculation and predictions of his demise on more than one occasion. The bruising, frantic and physically demanding style of his play has often been touted as the catalyst for speeding his fall from the top.
The champion, however, sees the theories as mere musings of fanciful minds as he rises highest in the toughest of scenarios. He was doomed to fail outside the bosom of clay. He has three US Open titles. He was relegated into the ranks of ‘also-rans’ when he lost two consecutive finals at Wimbledon against Federer. He has won twice there and also ended the Federer streak in the unforgettable ‘duel at dusk’ in 2008.
Clearly, the costs of continued success have taken its toll on Nadal. The biggest impact has been on his personal life, though. He struggled on and off the court during 2009 when his parents went through a separation. He has often lamented the fact that he would have wanted to have a family and kids before he turned 30. He is 32 now.
Playing the field
2017 saw a returning Federer astonishingly claiming the Australian and the Wimbledon crowns. Rafa had two of his own at Roland Garros and New York. At Wimbledon this year, the draw, script and stage were set for another of their titanic clashes but Kevin Anderson and the Djoker did not get the memo.
Of course it remains to be seen how many duels we are likely to see the two feature in, as both of them (especially Roger) are cherry picking tournaments at this stage of their respective careers. The two have often been described as the Messi and Ronaldo of tennis. Nadal has been likened to the Portuguese in this analogy which he wouldn’t mind as he is a lifelong supporter of Los Blancos. Nadal has an eye-popping 23-15 record with Federer, the best ever tennis player for many.
The Djokovic–Nadal rivalry, even though not as celestial, is a lot closer. In terms of statistics the Djoker edges Rafa with a 27-25 record. 2018 Wimbledon’s semi-final was an epic match and there have been a few like that like the 2009 Madrid Masters semi-final, the 2013 French Open semi-final and the 5hr 53 min Australian Open final in 2012 (often regarded as the greatest match to be played.).
For his contemporaries and past icons, Nadal is the ultimate competitor and consummate professional. The way he trains is the way he is on the court. This makes him, as Djokovic puts, “Probably the biggest challenge that you can face in sport, especially on clay.”
Some may point to the diminishing challenge in world tennis while others will hide behind his discretionary preparations to devalue the sheer enormity of his accomplishments. He has silenced the critics and dissenters all through his tennis life, and the warrior within the victor has always welcomed those walls.
Nadal describes himself as an ‘ordinary guy achieving extraordinary things’ which he delivers with characteristic sangfroid and modesty. This equanimity of Nadal is the core behind the nuke-show on the tennis court. It is his ability to keep things in perspective and within context of time and space that has empowered his resurrection and return to the pantheon of Tennis Titans.Published 15 Aug 2018, 18:26 IST