“Every great and commanding moment in the annals of the world is a triumph of some enthusiasm.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Nadal plays like he's broke," Jimmy Connors, an ultimate warrior himself, once said admiringly. Indeed, Rafael Nadal exudes a competitive ferocity that belies his comfortable upper-middle class upbringing on Mallorca, a tranquil island off the coast of Spain.
Nadal's primal intensity starts even before the first point with his trademark zig-zag wind sprint from the net to the baseline after the coin toss. Fist-pumps and cries of "Vamos!" punctuate his play after he smacks winners, especially on big points. It ends only when he pummels his opponent into submission on match point.
"I expect to play my best in every point and try to fight every point like the last," said Nadal, after he knocked off Tomas Berdych to capture his second Wimbledon title in July, just four weeks after he predictably seized his fifth French Open.
Injuries, exhaustion and red-hot opponents had stymied Nadal's previous attempts to win the U.S. Open, the only Grand Slam accolade once missing from his glittering resume. Before this year he hadn't even reached the final at Flushing Meadows. Even so, the time had come for this high-energy, irresistible force that his Spanish friends call "Biturbo" ("Twin-Turbo").
"Rafael Nadal wants to win the U.S. Open so badly, and it would be hard not to pick him, even though he's never won it," predicted John McEnroe, four-time U.S. Open champion and now a CBS tennis analyst. "The guy's just an animal; he's mentally and physically incredible, and he can definitely do it if he's in shape."
With enriched plasma injections in both knees to help rebuild his tendons and kill the pain − that had forced him to retire against Andy Murray at the Australian Open in January − Nadal was ready to inflict pain on opponents. And it wouldn't come just from relentlessly pounding vicious lefty forehands to foes' righty backhands, which Andy Roddick likened to "Chinese water torture." His backhand, especially crosscourt, had become a weapon, and his steadily improving volley ranked among the best in the game. By positioning himself close to the baseline, he dictated rallies more than ever to complement his incomparable defense.
Pundits questioned Nadal's ability to cope with Flushing Meadow's hard courts, which some players consider even faster than Wimbledon grass. But Rafa had already proved his hard court prowess by winning an Olympic gold medal in Beijing and whipping Roger Federer in the 2009 Aussie final. And he now has another ace up his sleeve: his new booming serve.
The 6'1", 189-pounder was finally flexing his massive muscles, and in his first six U.S. Open matches, he unleashed first serves of more than 130 miles per hour and averaged 119 mph, compared to 107 mph at the 2009 Open. Most important, he lost his serve only twice while not surrendering a set. "I have never seen a guy who was that good already be able to improve that much," praised a thoroughly impressed McEnroe.
Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic escaped two match points to score a sensational 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5 semifinal upset over five-time champion Federer. That prevented an eagerly anticipated 22nd meeting (Nadal then led 14-7) between the superstar archrivals. To achieve a rare career Grand Slam, Nadal would have to conquer the razor-sharp Serb who owned a 7-3 edge over him on hard courts and had defeated him the last three times they met.
No one had ever beaten Nadal four straight times, though. When it mattered most, Nadal had always prevailed against Djokovic − in their four previous Slam encounters, at the 2008 Olympics and in a 2009 Davis Cup tie.
Although Djokovic retrieved superbly and played as aggressively as he could, he would suffer the same fate in the U.S. Open final. Like a rampaging bull offensively and a quicksilver matador defensively, Nadal often verged on tennis perfection in his virtuoso 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 triumph. McEnroe marveled: "To be in such defensive positions and hit outright winners is something I had never seen in this sport before Nadal arrived."
The scintillating shot-making and extreme physicality displayed in the enthralling semifinal and final captivated even longtime critics of tennis. Bill Gallo, the hard-nosed veteran sports columnist for the New York Daily News, wrote: "I was now a tennis fan" who "has changed his tune, seeing tennis as one of the most grueling, hard-fought games in sports. Yes, indeed, it belongs in the ‘big boys' sports club…. At the recent U.S. Open, I found that Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer can give sports fans as many thrills [well almost] as Ali-Frazier. You see Federer as the clever, innovative artist, one who can adapt to match his opponent's will. Nadal is the big puncher, the guy always looking to knock you out. He's as strong as the bulls in Spain, and carries with him an indomitable spirit, plus a very powerful left hand. That is the makings of the champion he is today."
The Greatest Ever?
If Nadal, now ranked No. 1 by a whopping 3,305 points ahead of No. 2 Federer, has attained the summit of a tennis evolutionary chain, where does he stand in the pantheon of all-time greats? With a career Grand Slam at the tennis middle-age of 24, he joined an elite club whose other members are Fred Perry, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Andre Agassi and Federer. But only Nadal and Agassi have won the four majors plus the Davis Cup and the Olympics.
Judged by the overall record however, Nadal doesn't hold a candle to Federer − yet. The Mighty Fed enjoys a commanding 16-9 advantage in Grand Slam titles, by far the most important criterion. He leads 6-2 in Wimbledon titles, 5-1 in U.S. titles, and 4-1 in Australian titles. Only at Roland Garros does Nadal hold the edge, 5-1.
On a more subjective level, while the men's game today clearly boasts more depth from No. 20 to No. 100 than ever before, during 2003-2007 when Federer cleaned up with 12 major titles, his competition among elite players was weak and shallow. The best he faced were an aging Agassi with a chronic and painful back injury, mentally fragile underachiever Marat Safin, huge-serving but otherwise flawed Roddick, a middleweight counterpuncher in Lleyton Hewitt, and highly talented but still-developing Djokovic and Murray. Clay superstar Nadal had never even reached a Grand Slam semifinal on hard courts and emerged as a major threat on grass only in 2007. When Federer took his 14th and 15th majors in 2009, he was also quite fortunate that Nadal was hampered by bad knees in Paris and sidelined during Wimbledon.
Federer failed badly though, at the Olympics, which many experts and players equate in importance with a major championship. He suffered upset losses to No. 79 Berdych at the Athens Games in the second round and to James Blake in the quarters at the Beijing Games, which Nadal won. Nadal has also surpassed Federer in Davis Cup competition. He helped powerhouse Spain win the prestigious Cup in 2004, 2008 and 2009 and boasts a near-perfect 14-1 Cup singles record, compared to 29-year-old Federer's longer 27-6 record with no Cup titles.
However, Nadal also has some catching up to do in another key GOAT (Greatest of All Time) category, total years ranked No. 1, which Federer leads 5-2. Now in his late prime, Federer focuses chiefly on winning majors. He may never garner the season-ending top spot again because he may lack the week-in and week-out motivation to gain enough ranking points at other tournaments. He still owns a substantial 66-43 advantage over Nadal in career titles, including a 5-0 lead in Barclays ATP World Tour Finals titles. Nadal, however, smashed Agassi's Masters Series record with 18 career titles, passing Federer's 17.
Both champions have established records that may never be broken and further ensure their immortality. Nadal, who this year became the first man to complete the "clay slam" − winning Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid and Paris in one season − amassed an extraordinary 81-match winning streak on clay (2005-'07). With several more chances and no outstanding young clay courters on the horizon, he also seems destined to overtake the legendary Bjorn Borg's 29-year-old record of six French titles.
Federer's statistical claims to fame, besides his 2009 eclipse of Pete Sampras's record of 14 majors, feature a 65-match victory streak on grass, winning 24 straight ATP Tour finals, and reaching 22 Grand Slam finals and 23 consecutive Slam semis or better.
Some analysts make much of Nadal's 14-8 head-to-head edge over Federer in the enduring GOAT debate and contend the Swiss can hardly be considered the "greatest ever" if he was dominated by the leading rival of his own era. However, much of that edge comes from the Spaniard's lopsided 10-2 advantage on clay. Pressed by a reporter before he won the U.S. Open final, Nadal thoughtfully replied, "Head to head [results] is not an element for me. It is a part of the statistics, but it is not the decisive element." Nadal is right, but it's also noteworthy that he leads 6-2 in their Slam duels and has prevailed on three surfaces − on Australian hard courts, French clay and Wimbledon grass − while Federer has come out on top only at Wimbledon.
Breaking the most storied record in men's tennis, Federer's 16 majors, is daunting enough, even for the dynamic force of nature that is Nadal, but the magic number may increase. In August, Fed told the BBC that winning 20 major titles remains a realistic goal: "Having won three Grand Slams per season three times and two per year a couple of times, it's something that's doable for me."
Sampras points out that Federer shouldn't be counted out despite losing in the quarters, quarters and semis in his last three Slam events. He predicts Federer, a good friend, "is going to win a few more majors," partly because he's working with Paul Annacone, his former coach, and "they're implementing coming in [to net more] and being a little more unpredictable."
Conversely, the retired seven-time Wimbledon king also says, "Nadal is just an incredible athlete. Mentally and physically, he's as strong as anyone I've ever seen. He's just 24. Mentally and physically, if he stays strong, he'll win as many majors as anyone."
But just how much more sprinting, leaping and stopping can hyperactive Nadal's fragile knees take? Mikel Sanchez, an orthopedic surgeon who treated Nadal in 2009, told Spanish sports daily Marca, "He's going to continue at the same rhythm, and there is a risk his tendons will degenerate again. It could occur in other tendons such as the Achilles. He subjects his tendons to violent stress because he trains a lot. He puts in a lot of hours, plays a lot of games and always at 100%. He has to learn how to take care of himself to be able to carry on for many years."
Unlike Borg and McEnroe who burned out in their mid-20s, Nadal's passion for training and competition burns brightly, as does his quest for perfection. After the U.S. Open final, Djokovic acknowledged, "Nadal is proving each day, each year that he's getting better. That's what's so frustrating. He's getting better each time you play him. He's so mentally strong and dedicated to this sport. He has all the capabilities, everything he needs, in order to be the biggest ever. He has the game now for each surface and he has won each major."
While Nadal is pleased that he rebounded from an injury-riddled, melancholy 2009 that included his parents' divorce, he's more self-critical than self-satisfied about his game. He confided that he can improve his slice backhand, volleys (though he won 72 percent of his net approaches at the Open), his serve (though he held it 106 of 111 service games) and court positioning as well as hit more backhand and forehand winners.
Humble and Hungry
In an individual sport known for oversized egos, has there ever been a more humble and hungry champion? Ever since his Uncle Toni started coaching Rafa at age 4, he has instilled a code of conduct as well as built a winning game. Rafa always shows up for practice on time and has never broken a racket in anger. He is unfailingly polite and typically says "Thank you" to the media after post-match news conferences. Rafa says the only problem with having so many fans at tournaments is he'd like to sign autographs for everyone, but he cannot.
"I am happy when Rafael plays good tennis, but I take more pleasure when people say Rafael is a very good person," Toni told the New York Times. "For me, it is so much more important to be a good person…. I tell him you must be always grateful of the life. I think one of the most important things I say always to Rafael is to have a good face. Because in this life, the ball going out is not a very big problem."
After 19-year-old Nadal won the 2005 Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart, Toni did not allow him to drive the $50,000 Mercedes SLK 200 Kompressor he received because "I never wanted him to be incorrect or have a showoff attitude."
During his U.S. Open quarterfinal against compatriot Fernando Verdasco, Nadal apologized after hitting a trick shot winner and even after an incorrect challenge of a line call. That sporting gesture prompted McEnroe to say, "Nadal is the only guy I've seen apologize when there is a bad Chase Review [rejecting his Player Challenge]. That's how nice a guy he is."
While not politically outspoken, Nadal has an endearing social consciousness. Each time he's come to New York since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he visits the site of the World Trade Center to pay his respects. And during his on-court interview with CBS's Mary Joe Fernandez to celebrate making his first U.S. Open final on Sept. 11, he called it "a special day" and expressed his wishes for the families of the victims. "That [event] was the most impact [I experienced] in my life. Just the minimum thing I can say: all the support for the victims."
Although close friendships between the top two men have been rare since the rollicking Aussie champions of the 1950s and '60s − remember McEnroe and Connors snarling at each other − it's not surprising that Nadal and Federer, another mensch, genuinely like and admire each other. After Federer beat Nadal in the 2007 Hamburg final to end the Spaniard's record 81-match winning streak on clay, instead of being angry or despondent in the locker room, Nadal asked Federer to autograph his sweat-soaked shirt and give it to him. And who can forget Nadal comforting the sobbing Federer after he outlasted Federer in the 2009 Australian final to temporarily thwart his quest to tie Sampras's record of 14 Grand Slam titles. Interestingly, Nadal doesn't play as himself when he plays the electronic tennis game in which he is featured; instead, he plays as Federer because his computerized self stays at the baseline too much.
When Federer, who served as President of the ATP Player Council during the 2008-2010 term and Nadal, who served as Vice President, were both re-elected in June for another two-year term, Federer said, "We are opponents on court but we work well in a room setting, and I hope this dedication trickles down to the other players and the next generation."
Nadal is not without flaws, however. He sometimes receives illegal coaching from Uncle Toni and was fined $2,000 for the rule violation during his third-round match at Wimbledon. He also notoriously stalls between points, and often exceeds the time limit (25 seconds at Tour events and 20 seconds at Grand Slam tournaments), though exhausted opponents often welcome the extra rest rather than complain.
Nadal fans can overlook those sins, but not all women could forgive his abandonment of sleeveless shirts. In 2009 they set up a special discussion − titled "Official Mourning Thread" − devoted to his new short-sleeved shirts and more conventional shorts on the Vamos Brigade, an international Nadal-watching Web site. Their purpose: to lament not being able to see his bulging biceps anymore.
Whatever you think about Nadal's attire, it's easy to agree with Djokovic's view: "You just have to put a hat down for this guy, everything he does on and off the court. Great champion, great person, and great example of an athlete."
Paul Fein has received more than 30 writing awards and authored three books, Tennis Confidential: Today's Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies, You Can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers, and Tennis Confidential II: More of Today's Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies. Fein is also a USPTA-certified teaching pro and coach with a Pro-1 rating, former director of the Springfield (Mass.) Satellite Tournament, a former top 10-ranked men's open New England tournament player, and currently a No. 1-ranked Super Senior player in New England.
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