“Work with humility and never make do with what you’ve got. Always want more.” ~ Rafael Nadal
Sports gives us much – seasons of triumph, championship runs, the inexplicable challenge of loss, and, as much as anything, it gives us great icons with their signature blends of beauty, power, grace and grit. There’s Muhammad Ali dancing about the ring, or Mike Tyson flattening a foe in 59 seconds. There’s Michael Jordan soaring to the heavens or Wayne Gretzky making balletic rushes from mid-ice. Willie Mays roaming free in center field or Pele creating one of his World Cup spells. And then there’s our Roger, the man who cannot avoid beauty.
But in this exalted collection of sublimely gifted greats, don’t forget to include a tanned fellow from a distant island. Rafael Nadal is a wonder. The eleven-time French Open champ has dominated a tennis surface like no other. But don’t dismiss him as merely a one-surface kind of guy. The king of clay prevailed over Federer in the most stunning match of all time, the 2008 Wimbledon final. He’s been No. 1 for 185 weeks and counting. And New York works for him. In the past eleven years, he’s won the Open three times and reached the semis at least seven times.
There should be a rule: This man, whose muscles have muscles, must always wear a sleeveless shirt. Someday a sculptor will capture the kinetic beauty of his chiseled body. As for tonight, New Yorkers saw the power of his bulging forehand – topspin has consequences. They saw the inspired defense of a man who refuses to lose. They saw his speed, his ability to change gears and determination to overcome humiliation against a zoning foe in the solitary spotlight that is Ashe Stadium at night. Dominic Thiem was on a startling run – his all-out strokes imposed. In the first set of their quarterfinal instant classic, the Austrian won 6-0 in a blur – just 24 minutes, OMG! It took five sets, a brassy tiebreak for the ages and a faulty Thiem overhead at 2:03 a.m. for Nadal to prevail 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7, 7-6. Pam Shriver said the level of play in the fifth-set tiebreak was the best she’d ever seen in a tiebreak. Chris Evert said the 4:49 marathon was the greatest men’s match ever.
In the longest US Open battle Rafa has ever had, there were plenty of muffs and mistakes. Just as Roger did the night before, Nadal netted a user-friendly overhead. It would have given him a fourth-set match point.
Still, we saw a master calling on all his resources – speed, power, will. He showed us a sprinter’s burst, the breathless grit of a marathoner, the courage of a battered boxer, the heroism of a climber near the summit, and when, time and again, he unleashed teardrop dropshots we saw the delicacy of a surgeon. But more than anything, we saw Nadal’s greatest gift – heart.
Mad dashes to every corner, power fist pumps, fire-in-the-belly pep talks, Nadal freely displays a ferocity, intent and will like no other man who has ever picked up a tennis racket. Jimmy “wrong side of the tracks” Connors was fierce. But his game had flaws. His focus could waver and a hefty part of him was a shameless showman. The in-your-face battler Lleyton Hewitt rarely viewed himself as an entertainer. The Aussie was a fast, fierce warrior and his backhand passing shot was one of the best. But after that his weapons had limits.
Rafa is on a whole other plain. His obsession is obvious. His snarls are snakes. You feel his will, you see his intent. His passion inspires. Nothing matters – battered knees, bloody blisters, manners-free fans, gifted foes. Bulge and blast, Nadal celebrates the value of suffering and says he doesn’t like to sleep – such a waste of time. And he bristles at the folly of arrogance.
Never mind that the Spaniard with 18 Slams is competing in the thick of the Golden Era of tennis – Federer, Djokovic and Murray are mighty. The night before, his older rival Federer said he couldn’t breathe. He lost in four sets to a player ranked No. 55, and, worse yet, said he was glad the match was over.
Nadal, 31, does not blink. His train will not be derailed. When he first excelled, his sneaker company told us, “Tennis has changed – get used to it.” We have, but we don’t take the Spaniard for granted. He’s gained millions of devotees who inform us, with only a slight wink, that “His forehand will inherit the Earth.”
For this man, every shot, every game, every match, every tournament, every season matters – no breaks, no rest, no excuses, no matter. His practices are war games. This battler won’t be rebuffed. Mary Carillo said the only way to beat him on clay was to “hit every shot on the lines.”
When we talk of the greatest combatants in sport, Rafa’s glorious fury, explosive power and gifted athleticism should be right there in the conversation.So, if you haven’t seen this athletic deity in person, make a plan. If, sadly, you sense you are stuck in the ho-hum drone of life, think of Nadal and his shout-out – “Vamos Rafa!” And know this truth. There is a Nadal within you. Embrace it.