In a pre-match interview before the US open final, Rafael Nadal said, “My backhand has completely changed from what it was two years ago, no? I now transfer weight onto my right leg to protect my left knee.” Mats Wilander took a second to imagine a racquet in his hand and animatedly checked the impact it would have on back swing, he seemed unsure. He was interviewing a man who was on a 21-match winning streak on apparently his least favourite surface, a man perhaps at the peak of his powers. Given that it was Nadal, perhaps not yet.
In 2001, a 19-year-old Swiss caught the attention of every tennis fan in the world; he had hunted down the lion in his own den. Pete Sampras was en route to a 5th consecutive Wimbledon title when Roger Federer showed a glimpse of the range, the courage and the absolute brilliance he was capable of bringing to a tennis court.
The years between 2004 and 2007 were arguably the least competitive years of men’s tennis. Not because of the lack of quality, but too much of it from one man. Federer had transcended and altered the level of professional tennis being played at the time; he won 11 out 16 Grand Slams in that period. But, it was not his numbers that had everyone in awe; it was the wizardry that had never been seen on a court before. It was said;
“He's the most gifted player I've ever seen in my life and I've seen a lot of people play. I’ve seen the Lavers, I played against some of the great players – the Samprases, Beckers, Connors, Borgs; you name it.” - John McEnroe
“We have a guy from Switzerland who is just playing the game in a way I haven't seen anyone – and I mean anyone – play before.” - Boris Becker
“He's the best I've ever played against.” - Andre Agassi
“I would be honoured to even be compared to Roger.” - Rod Laver
These were extremely generous words by people who knew a thing or two about the sport. Federer was still a few Grand Slams shy of Sampras’ record of 14, but eclipsing the summit seemed inevitable. Sampras said that Federer would reach 20. The murmurs of the Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T) had begun much before he had officially gotten there. In 2006, The New York Times printed the classic piece “Federer as Religious Experience.”
Federer appeared to have perfected the technical skills and fulfilled the potential of aesthetic art in tennis. It seemed that God himself was in motion and He had raised the bar to a level of immortality.
However, in retrospect, God had other plans.
By 2007, Nadal had already established dominance on clay by becoming a triple French Open champion and earning the title “The King of Clay”. Surprisingly he had also reached two consecutive Wimbledon finals but had expectedly lost to Federer. Common notion was that it was as far as he could go on grass, at least while Federer was around. Intoxicated by Federer’s magic, many refused to read the writing on the wall when Nadal stretched the 2007 Wimbledon final to five sets.
The Nadal story is an extra ordinary one and perhaps of no coincidence. Naturally a right hander, he was forcefully made to play tennis with his left hand by his coach and mentor, Toni Nadal. He changed Rafael’s double-handed forehand into a single-handed whiplash. Uncle Toni himself was a table tennis champion which allowed him to further change Nadal’s natural flat game into a top-spinning extravaganza.
Uncle Toni’s gift of the ‘reverse forehand’ meant that Nadal could hit the ball with an insane 53 RPS (Revolutions per Second) on it. The ball did not just unexpectedly curl inside the line but also bounce like jack in a box. The high, cross court ball on the single-handed back hand of Federer reduced the Swiss to a mere mortal, game play custom made to slaughter the G.O.A.T.
Federer would come out with new tactics every time but it was the Spaniard that would usually come good. He kept pecking at the otherwise spotless career of Federer until the day he smashed the demigod into pieces. In 2008, Nadal was crowned champion at the All England Lawn Tennis Club. In the Mecca of tennis, idol worshiping was deemed forbidden thereafter.
Reverence hit an all time low half a year later in Melbourne when teary-eyed Federer infamously cried out loud, “God, it’s killing me.”
Nadal achieved beyond the predictions of many writers, fans and critics. They said his serve was weak, his volley not good enough and he played too far behind the base line, but, most of all, his knees would never be able to withstand his relentless style of play. Nadal simply stepped up to the baseline, added zeal to his serve and reach to his volleys.
By 2009, he had won a Grand Slam on all three surfaces, reached the No.1 ranking, had an Olympic Gold and was playing the best tennis of his life. In 2010, he got better. In fact, it was to be the most fruitful year of his illustrious career. When the last fort at the US open was overrun, he had completed a career Golden Grand Slam, something Federer had never been able to achieve.
When asked if he was better than Federer, he replied, “If someone says I am better than Roger, I think this person don’t know nothing about tennis.” Nadal had not just surpassed Federer in game play but also exceeded the extremely high standards of humility set by his predecessor. It was now Nadal who was raising the bar to unprecedented levels in men’s tennis, both, on and off the court. But he was not done, not yet.
Like Federer, it was not Nadal’s trophies that held the tennis world in a trance; it was the legacy that he was creating. He showed that hard work, perseverance and grit were as important as a good serve. He built biceps that a boxer would be proud of and muscled his way through his opponents who presumably had greater skill. He embodied physical toughness and personified mental tenacity. Virtues that defined his game were also changing the very fabric of the sport itself. In modern day power play tennis on the men’s tour, Nadal is not just the most powerful but is also its symbol of strength.
There is no tennis academy or coach in the world that would advise its pupil to follow the technique and style of Nadal. It shall remain unique to him and him only. However, he will time immemorially be an inspiration to all those who are faced with challenges in their lives. Those who are fighting against the odds, those who have career threatening injuries; anyone looking for a sportsman who defied his own destiny, to succeed, shall look no further.
The real world is an unforgiving place and it will always diminish the aura of its heroes by stacking them in a list of ranking. Inescapably, it boils down to numbers, like Michael Schumacher’s seven world championships and Jahangir Khan’s ten consecutive British Open wins, the magic number in tennis stands at 17 Grand Slam titles. It is now said:
“Nadal has performed at an unbelievably consistent level throughout the year; every match he has played he’s been close to perfection. If he stays healthy until he’s 30, he’s going to get to 17.” - Boris Becker
“If the Spaniard stays healthy, he can easily win four or five more slams. Rafael Nadal can surpass Roger Federer’s record. No question about it. To me, he's better than ever. It's amazing how badly he wants it.” -John McEnroe.
Having undoubtedly transformed into an all-court player, Nadal currently stands at 13 Grand Slam titles at the age of 27 and can potentially play 10 more before he turns 30. Only time can measure how many he will bag but one thing is certain, he is not done yet.
After Federer won his 17th Slam in 2012 at Wimbledon, Rod Laver said “Roger Federer certainly is my claim to be the best of all time if there is such a thing.”
Tennis fans around the world have long been split in two halves with debates and arguments invariably ending in a Federer and Nadal verbal. It depends on the brand of tennis you subscribe to; class and elegance or grit and perseverance, tranquility or a turbulent storm, Beethoven symphony or Heavy Metal Rock.
Their direct match up offers such different attributes that they do not seem to be competing in variables they personally excel at most. For a pure tennis fan it should be very easy to admire and appreciate both, just like apples and oranges. But, love needs little rationale and a sports fan needs even lesser, it is what makes the relationship so special and personal.
There is a belief that states, “Then He fashioned him in due proportions, and breathed into him out of His Spirit.” Federer and Nadal seemed to have crossed dimensions and tapped into the Spirit that is conceived to be Holy and omnipresent in all human beings. By exhibiting the infinite potential of the human body and mind they have galvanized thousands of aspiring sportsmen to find their own element of immortality.
When you have hit infinite backhands in your life by transferring your weight on one leg, it is no mean task to suddenly start hitting it off the other leg; changing your stance is a fundamental alteration. From the boy with a double-handed forehand to the man who is now the King of Tennis, the journey of modifying, adapting and reinventing Rafael Nadal has been nothing short of divine.