He was 19 years old when a congenital rare foot injury surfaced in his career. The doctors said his career was over, the family advised him to take up golf but he was not made for anything else. The year was 2005 when he started to get visibility on the international tennis stage. Winning Roland Garros in his first attempt and defeating Roger Federer en route to finals was no mean task at that time. But this glory was short lived. He faced a career threatening injury which changed his priorities. He had to concentrate on two things from then on. His knees and his game. Ironically, his knees have got more attention than him in the last few years. The only player in tennis whose injuries are as popular as his game style is Rafael Nadal.
Since 2005, Nadal has been plagued with injuries almost every year, leading to a large group of diversified self proclaimed votaries of lawn tennis to give him the title of “The most inconsistent top ranked player”. Today he is again facing that same forcibly put mental barrier created very strongly in the form of speculation that he will never be able to compete at the same level as he used to do because of the intermittent career threatening injury surfacing again in his more than popular knees. But now, he has mastered the art of overcoming the speculated mental barrier. He not only conquers that barrier but also demolishes the premise of the speculation. In such a diversified opinionated world of tennis, he faces them as a routine task.
In the game of lawn tennis, a single thought of being dominated by one other player has created such impregnable famous mental barriers in the past which have virtually ruined the careers of many great players or have at least marred their career statistics. Roger Federer’s remark “It’s killing me” while crying during the presentation ceremony of 2009 Australian Open Final is a testimony to his helplessness due to that mental barrier and how it can affect even a great player like him. There have been many mental barriers in Nadal’s career too but every time he has overcome them successfully which puts him in an entirely different league of great tennis players. He proved that imprudent predictions are never turned into reality which is clearly evident from the following instances.
He didn’t know how to play on surfaces other than clay but became the youngest player (Open Era) to hold the trophies of all Grand Slams which are played on all surfaces. His tears displayed emphatically his helplessness of not being able to win on grass courts after losing the 2007 Wimbledon final. One year later, he defeated Roger Federer in arguably one of the greatest matches in tennis history in the Wimbledon Final. Every time he has a knee injury, speculations become rife over his retirement or of an unsuccessful comeback to the competitive level. After a prolonged injury from mid 2009 to 2010 Australian Open, Nadal returned with a bang, winning 3 consecutive Grand Slams in 2010. After a hamstring injury during 2011 Australian Open, he went on to reach the next 5 consecutive Grand Slam finals. He lost seven times consecutively to Novak Djokovic in the finals, including 3 straight Grand Slam Finals during 2011 and 2012 which led many to believe that what he did to Roger Federer was eventually happening to him. Even Nadal had to accept for the first time in his career that Djokovic had become his greatest mental block at that time but as humble as always, he said he would try next time. That mental block, arguably the biggest to overcome, was broken in Monte Carlo Masters and then in the French Open 2012 when he defeated Djokovic comprehensively. All these instances say a lot about his mental strength in the most vulnerable of circumstances and about the hard work he puts in to build that strength.
Rafael Nadal is associated with many stand-alone records, titles and achievements which not only prove that he is the most complete player the game has ever witnessed but also sets him apart from the herd of other great tennis players of all eras. Some of his unique records which are always overlooked and are often unnoticed are worth mentioning here. He is the only player in the history to have won 8 consecutive titles at any single tournament (Monte Carlo), youngest to achieve a career Grand Slam in open era at the age of 24, second player to hold 2+ titles on each of the three surfaces of clay, grass and hard courts, only player to simultaneously hold the Olympic gold medal and majors on clay, grass and hard courts and only player to have won Roland Garros in his first attempt. He is also the best performing player in ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments, sharing the spot for the maximum titles with Roger Federer. Leaving aside these records, Nadal also has the distinction of featuring in some of the epic and longest matches ever played which testify his fighting spirit on field and how it has helped in transforming the game from merely a competition between two individuals into a battlefield between two warriors. 2008 Wimbledon Final, 2009 Australian Open Semi-Final and 2012 Australian Open Final are some of the numerous matches in his illustrious career till now which will always be remembered for his never say die spirit, more than his game.
Rafael Nadal, 26, is already considered in the pantheon of tennis greats which includes names such as Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. Though his critics may always find some illogical and unreasonable specious arguments which make him look slightly inferior to Roger Federer, but sadly for them, he is the closest contender to surpassing Federer in the near future. And if the highest number of Slams is the only criterion to adjudge the best ever, then Nadal comes closest to put an end to all arguments regarding the greatest ever. If it is not, then no player can be compared in this sport where each player is so different in so many ways. It is high time that tennis fans around the world look beyond the statistic of highest number of Grand Slams and instead acknowledge Nadal’s dominance over other players in this era. Only he has a favourable head to head record against each of the other better players of this era namely Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. If Roger Federer, who is often considered as the benchmark of greatness, could not dominate the best players of his era, then this achievement is worthy of extolment. Even if Nadal’s achievements seem to be highly skewed towards clay court surfaces, he has proved his mettle by defeating the best on other surfaces also.
In his enigmatic career so far, Rafael Nadal has given numerous moments of joy with some emphatic hard earned victories which would have made even the sharpest of his critics stand up and salute him. He doesn’t always need to come out and prove a point whether the competitiveness and the fire in the belly still ignite. Champions are not made in a day and Rafael Nadal is indeed one of the most illustrious champions the game has ever seen. He has wrapped his miraculous journey with inconceivable dedication and persistence.
Perhaps Rafael Nadal is the only player whose absence is felt as much as his presence. The competitive spirit of tennis loses its sheen without him which was very evident from this year’s Australian Open. His aggressive game play may have given him perennial injuries in his career but he is happier to hold 11 Grand Slam titles, with a record 7 Grand Slams at Roland Garros, against the label of inconsistency. Only time will tell whether he will exit the game with the most number of Grand Slams ever. But till now, he has comprehensively overcome every barrier put forth and has carved for him a niche among that list of great players.
Tennis fans all over the world await Nadal’s arrival in his favourite Grand slam at Roland Garros this year and thereby again putting an end to all the intense speculations about his declining career. Nevertheless, the champion is back. Brace yourself for another season of breathtaking rallies, nerve-wracking ground strokes, brutal top spinning forehands and much more. Tennis is never the same without him and it awaits its enigmatic fighter with undulated poise.