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.