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Nadal – God must’ve had a plan

Updated Sep 12, 2013 07:41pm


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Uncle Toni’s gift of the ‘reverse forehand’ meant that Nadal could hit the ball with an insane 53 RPS on it. -Photo by AFP
Uncle Toni’s gift of the ‘reverse forehand’ meant that Nadal could hit the ball with an insane 53 RPS on it. -Photo by AFP

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.

Comments (26) Closed

sami Sep 12, 2013 07:52pm

Nadal, a tennis legend. The one who shows us all that everything can be achieved through hard work, persistence and endurance against the pains of life. A true legend.

Ripon Sep 12, 2013 08:24pm

Simply Wow!

Deepak Sep 12, 2013 08:54pm

Beautiful article. Hard to chose the divine play in either form. When nobody could challenge the smooth art of Federer, the divine intervened (Nadal comes) to make it interesting and exciting and also create the universal balance.

Abhishek Pant Sep 12, 2013 08:55pm

Wonderful article !! For too long Rafa has not got the praise he deserves. Great to see him finally getting his due. When I think if 'inspiration', I think of Rafa. Vamos !!

jamie Sep 12, 2013 09:56pm

love the article. I love Rafael, but I also admire Roger. FEDAL - just amazing. I totally agree that Rafael's brand of tennis is just out of this world, just as much as Roger's is. I think though, one aspect of Rafael that doesn't get mentioned much is his childlike-ness, even when he has his warrior face on. He seems like a kid on and off court. It may be just me - but his enthusiasm for the whole competition when he plays, and his shy-boy-with-manners attitude off court make him all the more adorable, and interesting, and simply worth admiring.

Batool Rizvi Sep 12, 2013 10:16pm

Excellent article. Just a clearification, Nadal in his book mentioned, that his coach has not suggest for him to play with his left hand.

Salman Elahi Sep 12, 2013 11:27pm

A brilliant piece. "..... a whiplash like forehand " ..supreme depiction of what is Nadal and how this rivalry has enchanted a generation of mere mortals witnessing a battle of gods.

Its conceivable that Nadal will retain the French open for the next 3 years. I think Federer has a slam left in him before he retires, perhaps the winning moment would be the ideal moment to call it quits , ala Sampras.. and well deserved for a True Champion. Nadal would catch Federer regardless and we would be left arguing who is the greatest of all time ...

syed ashraf agha Sep 12, 2013 11:58pm

To truly compliment Nedal, one must mention the feats of this great Tennis Player. His record in the 9 year old rivalry against Federer in 31 meetings, stands at 21/10. Nadal won 13 out of 15 encounters on Clay, 20 of their 31 matches have been Tournament finals, including 8 times Grand Slam Finals, an all time record. Against Djokovic. In 37 meetings, Nadal stands tall at 22/15. The only rivalry to take place in all 4 Grand Slam finals. The Australian open finals being one of the greatest matches of all times. How he demolished the world # 1 at the US open is incredible, the 4th Set score being 6 - 1. His record speaks volumes of the great player he is. When Sampres got to 14 GS titles, it was thought no one would ever get there. Then came Federer with 17, a legendary record. Now with Nadal only 4 behind, at this form, he will smash all records. Vamoos Rafa

Bobby Sep 13, 2013 12:05am

Great article. I agree to most of it except portrayal of Nadals game as totally rough and in other words talentless and totally dependent of hard work.I agree that hard work plays a great role in Rafas game,but we should not ignore his immense talent,intelligent observation of the opponents game and construction of the points accordingly,great physical gifts,supreme tenacity as well as great touch and precision.He has immense array of shots which are sometimes out of the world and unbelievable.I agree that he is an inspiration for many around the world.i also would like to correct the fact that it was not Nadal`s uncle who forced him to play with left hand.Initially he was playing both forehand and backhand with both hands.So,his uncle told him that he should better use one hand only for forehand and asked him to select his forehand side. Nadal selected left hand as forehand and the rest is history.

abdul wahab sheikh Sep 13, 2013 12:09am

very well written....

alamgirian Sep 13, 2013 12:29am

being a fan of Nadal, i guess the script couldn't have been written better, thumbs up to the writer.

Long Sep 13, 2013 12:39am

what a great and articulate post!!!

Wasif Shamim Sep 13, 2013 04:58am

i agree with everything the writer has said...i have been a rafa fan my whole life but above all a tennis fan...and the djokovic rafa rivalry like the fedal rivalry is taking the game to a whole new hopefully these players will keep entertaining us(hopefully rafa will win most of those matches,fingers crossed)

MUhammad Iftikhar Sep 13, 2013 11:52am

Reading this piece was as mesmerising as watching roger and rafa play.

Irony Sep 13, 2013 02:37pm

Ironic. Nadal is an agnostic. I think he would credit his own hard work and determination.

sam Sep 13, 2013 04:07pm

excellent article, one of the best writeups ive seen after nadals 13th slam win. i think when this era is finished, after roger and rafa have retired, it will go down as legendary. there's no doubt nadal will get at LEAST reach roger's 17 slam (maybe 18 before he hangs up the bandanna) record. he's got 2 more roland garros crowns in him, probably three. i think he will win wimbledon and australia at least once more too. the most extraordinary part is that roger and rafa were rivals for so long and they are the pair who will end up with the most grand slam championships - probably about 35 together. a true testament to their dominance. i feel lucky & privileged to be able to watch them play for the last decade.

Omer Sep 13, 2013 06:37pm

" The years between 2004 and 2007 were arguably the least competitive years of men

illawarrior Sep 13, 2013 09:04pm

If there was a god, I do not think he or she would care about sport. Surely there would be much more serious issues to be addressed.

Zinnia Sep 14, 2013 01:45am

Rafael Nadal is arguably history's best. I admire this guy for his self belief and determination. Every time he's been out due to injury...he just keeps on coming back stronger. Hope he remains fit and healthy because watching this champion play is a treat for every genuine tennis fan. Vamos Rafa!

Vic Sep 14, 2013 01:45am

Beautifully written article. I am big tennis fan and enjoyed reading this article.

s.khan Sep 14, 2013 06:52am

Beautiful piece. Rafa has been in great form and topped it with a great win at US Open. I watched his interview with Charlie Rose, very good interviewer. One of the things that Rafa said is his passion for the game. He suggested that the hard work, long hours of practice and fitness exercises are possible only with the passion for the game and love for the competition. The other important point was his constant efforts to improve his game. These characteristics make him very successful. These are transferable to other field of endeavor. Choose the field you have passion for that would make hard work a fun. Always keep improving. No stopping at any point. Nadal has yet to reach his peak.

SGA Sep 14, 2013 09:53am

Extremely well written! Dawn has in you one of the finest sports writers in the country..

Irfan Chaudhry Sep 14, 2013 10:17am

No doubt the debate about the best player will continue long after Roger and Rafa walk off the court. It is conceivable that Rafa will have achieved the distinction of winning all grand slams multiple times by the time it is all said and done. Novak is a super competitor but Rafa sure made him look ordinary towards the end of US open. One thing is for sure if you are a tennis fan that we are all in for a bit of treat for next few years.

ubed Sep 14, 2013 10:19am

Brilliant article. Rafa is the very definition of power and humility; a combination you hardly see in anyone. been a fan of Rafa all my life, hard to imagine tennis without him. Love him to pieces a great champion he is indeed.

evan Sep 15, 2013 02:42pm

Nadal's style is not only about grit and power. If anybody thinks Nadal lacks in technical excellency he is certainly fooled.

Rafael fan Sep 15, 2013 03:26pm

@evan: Technical excellency? Seems like you have never held a racquet in your life. Please check the grip he holds his racquet with and try hitting one ball. Rafa uses his own technique which has never been used in tennis before or will be used again. Get on a court and you'll know.