Rafa’s Gift for the Ages

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Bill Simons

“One day, I will stop caring so much about tennis. One day, I will realize it made me feel too many emotions…One day, I will not lose sleep because of it, and I will live happily and healthy. But today is not this day. See you at 3 am suckers.” – Tweeter Andre Rolemberg

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Sports has a brutal honesty. It doesn’t mess around. Sweet or mean, naughty or nice, whether you are Mother Teresa or have sympathy for the devil, it doesn’t matter all that much. 

For two weeks, tennis had been bathing in the graceful goodness of Rafa Nadal.

As Novak Djokovic seemed to be taking all the oxygen out of the sport, Nadal noted that stars come and go – and tennis is bigger than any individual. When facing a crisis in his match against Denis Shapovalov, his advice to himself was poignant: “Time to suffer and to fight.” 

The Spaniard had been sidelined for five months with a bum foot. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever play again. Then he fought COVID, and in Australia rebuffed fierce foes seeking epic upsets. Nonetheless he brought a happy message to the Happy Slam. He said he felt “alive again.” For him, he said, playing tennis is “a present of the life.” He brushed aside the fact that, after his quarterfinal he was “destroyed physically.” Plus he scoffed at the notion that winning a record-setting 21st Slam would be a game changer in his life. To him it’s happiness, in his life and with his family, that really matters.

The Spanish conquistador’s goodness even touched our sport’s favorite grizzled old uncle. John McEnroe gushed: “Rafa is the classiest, perhaps the most humble superstar in the history of any sport…You can’t help loving the guy.”

Rafa’s foe in the Aussie Open final, Daniil Medvedev, observed, “We know Rafa’s…like, the perfect guy.”

Daniil is not. The Russian, like Marat Safin who inspired him, is a rebel they call “the skinny villain.” Whether with a mischievous glint in his eye or a fierce stare, he’ll offer nasty rants that push the envelope. But eventually he draws back, noting that it all was in the heat of the battle, and gamesmanship is just part of the sport.   

Medvedev conceded that tennis players “don’t fight with the fists. But tennis is a fight. I can get really emotional…five years ago I was just insanely crazy.” More recently, he’s taunted crowds in New York, Madrid and Melbourne. And his journey to the Aussie Open final has been explosive. The combative Russian provokes controversy with barbs, trash talk and x-rated commentaries. But usually he draws back from the abyss. 

When Australia’s pro-Nick Kyrgios crowd booed him, he informed them they weren’t nice. When the powerful Maxime Cressy had him reeling, he said the ATP newbie was just lucky – and his game was boring. He mocked the grunting of one of the sweetest players in the game, Felix Auger-Aliassime. And in his semi against Stefanos Tsitsipas, he went off on a creative rant about small cats and courtside coaching cheats. 

Tsitsipas later called him “not the most mature person.” But Daniil’s game has matured, and now he’s thought to be the best hard court player on tour. After coming back from two sets down to beat Auger-Aliassime and then beating Tsitsipas in four sets in the semis, Meddy was now poised to be a spoiler once more. Just as he had denied Djokovic his 21st Slam and a calendar Grand Slam, he again unleashed his genius as he sought to rebuff Nadal. 

From the start, Daniil was in ascendance. Playing quickly and in command, he moved with effortless ease. The 6’ 6” octopus was everywhere. With varying speeds and long strides, the fastest big man in tennis happily traded blows with the Spaniard. Rafa couldn’t hit through him. “He’s out-Nadaling Nadal,” commented broadcaster Chris Bowers. Calmly he picked his spots and unleashed a torrent of winners. His lean-in backhand was a potent jab. 

In frustration, Rafa looked to his box. His glance said everything: “What can I do?” Medvedev survived an early marathon game, then confidently collected the first set, 6-2.

Little did we know that Medvedev’s early dominance was merely the opening chapter of one of the most riveting tennis sagas in memory, a battle filled with countless twists and story angles. Someday they’ll write a book. 

Early in the second set, Rafa finished off a 40-shot rally with a brilliant cross court backhand flick to go up 3-1. But Medvedev promptly broke back and took full advantage when the Spaniard inexplicably netted the simplest of overheads. 

An intruder soon jumped on the court, and was immediately whisked away by security, but nothing could intrude on the unfolding drama. Rafa managed to get a set point, but then faltered, and on a fifth break point, Medvedev broke back. 

Nadal, whose muscles have muscles, so often had ground down foes. Now he seemed to be getting a taste of his own medicine. He broke twice in the second set and then had two mini breaks in the tiebreak. But Daniil prevailed in the breaker 7-5, and gestured to the crowd in defiance. Laver Arena was not pleased. Boos echoed. 

Down by two sets, the 35-year-old Rafa seemed bound for defeat. Daniil was up 3-2 in the third set and poised to take total command. But with three break points in hand, the Russian was tentative. Nadal narrowly skirted disaster and, after a 21-stroke rally, managed to hold serve. The tide turned, and McEnroe again saluted Nadal: “You got to love it. This is a perfect example of what this guy has been for 20 years.” 

The Spaniard blasted a forehand to capture the 64-minute third set 6-4.

A classic was brewing. In a marathon game early in the fourth set, Medvedev double faulted to suffer yet another break. Sarcastically he applauded the crowd, but then broke back. Daniil then survived six break points before Rafa again broke serve to go up 3-2. Medvedev pleaded with the ump to tame the crowd, whom he called idiots.

Rafa survived another break point and, in the longest match of the tournament, forced a fifth set. There, a decisive forehand gave him a 3-2 lead. But Daniil fought back.

As Medvedev gained three break points, Nadal certainly must have suffered a case of severe deja vu. The No. 6 seed had lost fifth-set leads to his key rivals – Djokovic in 2012 and Federer in 2017. As Rafa and Daniil dug deep. they traded dazzling blasts, stroked delicate drop shots, gained many a golden opportunity and fought fatigue. As the momentum continually shifted, broadcaster Peter Marcato said, “It’s madness all around, but good madness.” 

Up 5-4, Nadal was just two points from the championship. But the Russian pounded a forehand winner to break, and evened the fifth set at 5-5. 

Then, on his third break point opportunity, Nadal watched his foes’ forehand fly long and gained a 6-5 lead, enabling him to serve for the title for the second time. 

After 5:24 of grueling combat, Rafa first served an ace and then hit a backhand volley to the open court to score one of the greatest triumphs of his career. His 2-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 win opened a floodgate of emotions for Rafa. 

His 21st Slam in hand, he grinned in disbelief and delight. “This revisits history,” said Australian Open Radio. “Rafa has cemented his place as an immortal. He’s taken tennis to a whole new level. This is one of the greatest performances we’ve ever seen.” Filled with emotion, the great and resilient man bent over, tears flowing. The Spanish hero, who now has won each of the majors twice, was in shock. As Rod Laver snapped photos, Rafa’s triumph triggered many a question. 

Where will tonight’s riveting epic rank among the greatest matches of all time? 

Just how did this 35-year-old man, who seriously considered retirement just a few months ago, orchestrate such an unexpected triumph? And what other player has shown more grit? Today we saw just why his motto is, “Time to suffer and to fight.” 

And just how fantastic are the Big Three? Djokovic and Nadal alone have won 11 of the last 15 Australian Opens. And deep within, what now are Novak’s musings? Does he have regrets? And, for that matter, what is Federer thinking?

Certainly Rafa’s win reshapes the GOAT debate, and the King of Clay could well extend his Grand Slam lead in Paris. Most of all, who could have imagined that the Happy Slam, which began in such sorrow and disarray, would end up with such a happy, fairy tale ending?

Rafa explained the key to his success: “Love for the game, passion, positive attitude and working spirit, that’s all. And the right people around me helping every single day.” Again and again, he dismissed the importance of record books, insisting, “Tennis is a present of life.” 

True enough. But the humble and mighty Spanish warrior tonight gave us his own present – a triumph that was a gift for the ages. 

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