Why Rafa Fights

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Photo by Harjanto Sumali

Bill Simons

Indian Wells

Let’s get something straight. Tennis is mental. The sport has no finish line – you can’t run out the clock. Tennis has ghosts; locker room cred matters. The escape artist Houdini is the patron saint of this game. From Jimmy Connors to Novak Djokovic, tennis has been blessed with many fierce warriors who have battled on center court.

But, “Vamos Rafa!” there is only one Nadal. Just ask the millions around the globe who saw the Spaniard come back from the brink to score a feel-good comeback win at the Australian Open, a victory that lifted millions of hearts at a time of disarray and gloom. But the 35-year-old conquistador was not done. He prevailed in Acapulco in front of adoring Mexican throngs. 

Now the hero of the sport, who months ago couldn’t walk and then got COVID, was on a 15-0 winning streak. And he is beloved, by both fans and foes alike.

Goodness, young Sebastian Korda named his cat after Rafa. But Nadal is the sport’s prevailing panther. He swept to a tidy 6-3 first-set win and was up 1-0 in the second set, when all of a sudden the superhero seemed like your neighbor on Sunday afternoon. He flubbed two rally balls, and gave life to the vastly talented Korda, who used his pure shots, quiet power and uncanny calm to storm back. In a flash Korda sprinted to a stunning second-set win 6-1, and twice broke Rafa in the third set to go up 5-2.

Shock descended.

The man in orange and blue was blue. And so were 16,000 Indian Wells fans, the tournament promoters and many a TV executive. “Yes,” said a former ATP star, “Korda winning will be good for American tennis, but bad for the sport.”

The Floridian, who struggled from behind to score a key Davis Cup win for the US just eight days ago, has been touted as the next US Grand Slam champion. He’s tall, he’s fleet, his groundies go deep, his volleys are crisp. His power game had Rafa reeling. “I thought I was lost today,” Nadal confided. 

But Seb is still young – and you can’t teach experience. Korda, who was just playing in his tenth Masters tourney, lost two weeks ago in Mexico after being up 5-2 in the third against Serbian Dušan Lajović. As Rafa later noted, “For everyone is the same, no? We all get nervous when we have to win matches.”

Worse yet, Seb was facing one of the greatest battlers in all of sports. “Rafa’s a freak of nature,” said one broadcaster. 

And soon a familiar drama unfolded. The man who had struggled mightily to gain wins over Adrian Mannarino, Denis Shapovalov and Daniil Medvedev in Melbourne once more was locked in. “He’s in pure, competitive beast mode,” noted Jim Courier.

“My mindset before returning in that 5-2 game is, ‘Okay, I am playing bad, I had two breaks [against me], but even if I am going to lose, I going to try to finish the match having some better feelings. I need to fight to find these better feelings.”

So Rafa hit two brilliant forehands and a deft lob. Houdini always escaped – these days Rafa often seems like a river seeking the ocean. He won’t be denied.

Nadal blasted two brilliant backhands. “If you are able to hit a couple of good balls,” he would tell the media, “the opponent gets a little bit nervous.”

Seb was tight, his level dropped, his groundies were errant. Nadal won four straight games, forced a deciding tie-break, and at crunch time won five straight points to win one of the most dramatic second round Indian Wells matches in memory – 6-2, 1-6, 7-6(3). 

While Orange County housewives squealed in delight, veteran writers shook their heads in shock and awe. Then again, we’ve been to this rodeo before. In Rafa’s press conference I asked him about one of the biggest mysteries in tennis: where does he get his fighting skills? 

“All tennis players fight for victories,” I noted. “And some say that maybe along with Jimmy Connors, Lleyton Hewitt and Novak, your fighting skills are obviously exceptional. Could you talk about how that emerged, how you nourished that, and is that a talent in itself?”

Rafa replied, “Well, the word ‘talent’, it’s difficult. In this world there are so many different talents, no?…Everything is a talent. From my point of view, you need to feel the passion for this sport, but at the same time you can practice everything.

“The reason…I have the right self-control or I have the right attitude or fighting spirit during my whole career is simple, because I grow with this kind of education. My uncle, my family, never allowed me to break a racquet, never allowed me to say bad words or give up a match…They didn’t care much about winning or losing…But the most important thing was the education, and that I grow with the right values.

“I didn’t have many chances. I had to do it that way. If not, I will not play tennis. Honestly, no? If I went on court and I create a circus or break a racquet or lose my self-control, I will not be playing the next tournament, without a doubt. That’s probably why I have this mentality.”

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