Rafael Nadal: The greatest fighter in the sport
Nadal remains the ultimate warrior in tennis. Never settling for anything less than a victory, he has defined the tennis of his generation.
The euphoric storm that gripped the world after Roger Federer won his 18th Grand Slam has now had time to settle. A million odes, all deserved, have been written in the past few hours praising the Swiss Maestro's greatness, and this writer has left his minuscule offering at the altar as well.
But while the world was exalting the genius of his opponent and rival, the other hero of the 2017 Australian Open had quietly boarded a plane without much fanfare and left for the clay courts in Majorca. Such are the ways of this world – only the victors are ever remembered.
The ultimate warrior
But Rafael Nadal won’t have it any other way either. He places an infinite premium on winning, never giving up before the umpire calls out the final score from his high chair. Injuries over the years may have taken a physical toll, but in his mind he still is who he has always been. A fighter’s fighter. A warrior’s warrior.
If the gladiators from the Roman empire ever travelled into the future, he is the one they would cheer for. He would be Rocky Balboa’s hero. Until the last forehand has been ripped and the last serve sliced away, the battle is still to be fought.
He came to the Rod Laver Arena for the final match having spent almost four hours more than Federer on the court through the earlier rounds. But was he a step slower or his steely heart any softer? Of course not. Did anyone watching the match think that after losing the third set 6-1, Nadal wouldn’t mount a comeback? Of course not.
Such is the legend that Nadal has created for himself over the past decade. Time and time again, he has fought his way from behind and gone on to win from impossible situations. A two-set lead against him means very little.
The scoreboard stands for nothing. Lesser players would be nervous but he unleashes his groundstrokes with full ferocity even when he is match point down, swerving them in from the sideline and roaring to the heavens. No one can dare stand between him and victory.
Mind over matter
It’s easy to forget that his body has required years of mental stamina to be chiselled for the sheer brutality of his game. When every ball is chased, every backhand ripped and every forehand spun, injury can’t be very far behind.
In the past few years, he has had many. But no matter how excruciating the pain might be, Nadal refuses to give in. Points can never be ended early with a tired shot. After a 40-shot rally, he is always ready for the 41st. If he is standing, no one can stop him from running it down.
His game is such – its raw physicality twists the body in ways that it is not accustomed to. He has a boxer’s biceps and a sprinter’s thighs, but even his perfect physique can’t live up to the demands his mind puts upon them. A broken mirror can’t be put back together again and a broken joint will always remain just that little bit weaker.
His fingers are always taped. However, the real bruises are deep inside, in aching muscles and scarred tissue that no tapes can mend and no balm can reach. They must scream at him every night. Wailing limbs must sing him his lullabies.
Despite the anguish, never does a hint of discomfort leak into his expression. On the court the mind is the master, driving the body forward the way an expert charioteer tames his horses. The pain must remain hidden behind a determined frown.
Doubt must be pushed back by pumping fists. His body may be ready to surrender, but he outlasts his opponents with the stubbornness of his mind.
The greatest rivalry ever
In his magnanimous speech after winning the final, Federer heaped praise upon his opponent. They have laughed together and cried together. After being rivals for many years, they are now friends whose lives destiny has chosen to forever intertwine.
Through the annals of tennis history, their names will be taken together. Their matches will be re-run on sports channels 50 years from now. They are the sport’s greatest rivalry, outshining Laver vs Rosewall or Borg vs Mcenroe or Navratilova vs Evert. When Federer spoke, cradling the Australian Open trophy in his arms, he said he would have been happy to accept a draw with Nadal.
It was a beautiful sentiment, but anyone who has seen Nadal’s grit would know that if tennis had draws, the Spanish braveheart would have been playing a different sport. Victory is the only way forward. Drops of sweat drip regularly off his brow on to the court and they might as well be blood.
No corners are given. None taken. In Nadal’s mind there is no other way to play, and tennis is all the better for it.