2013 US Open Champion Rafael Nadal of Spain poses with the US Open Championship trophy, following his victory in the men’s singles final match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia, in Central Park on September 10, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
The last three weeks have been an absolute whirlwind for Rafael Nadal and his brigade of admirers. From experiencing the surge of emotions while capturing his 13th Grand Slam to selflessly dedicating himself to his country’s cause – an indefatigable Rafa exuded all the qualities that endeared him to us, reminding us what a valuable gem he is to the tennis world.
From wielding his forehand like a sledgehammer to running around the court like a hare retrieving all the balls, Rafa surely adds a new dimension and zing to men’s tennis – something that we deeply missed when he had his seven month injury-induced sabbatical. And through every little moment of his awe-inspiring comeback, he kept on reminding us how indispensable and precious he is.
Last year New York had missed his ebullience and charm and he couldn’t deny them this year. His exuberance and energy fuse so well with the city that is known for its own rich, throbbing vibrancy; no wonder fans resonated with his tremendous spirit, and he was loved and embraced by all in the Big Apple once again.
Isn’t it enigmatic how time and again he manages to cast a spell through his vivacity and innocent smile, and the very next moment transforms himself into an unrelenting warrior who will hold you by the scruff of the neck and make you submit? That was how Rafa was in New York, evoking fear in his opponents and grasping on them tightly, making them look as helpless as ever.
Ask Rogerio Dutra Silva, the hapless Brazilian who was spared just three games in the second round encounter, the fewest games that the Spaniard had ever conceded in a hard court major. Or look at the ordeal of Tommy Robredo, Rafa’s senior compatriot who himself is an inspiration, treading his way back to the elite at 31.
No compassion, no clemency, Rafa simply kept on filling his rivals’ faces with ineffable terror. He has perhaps been doing this forever, since the time he started hitting balls even before he could walk as claimed by his grandmother Isabel Homar. It’s this unprecedented way of hypnotizing his opponents into complete submission that makes him who he is.
He will run you ragged and pierce through your burgeoning self-belief and ultimately find his way out. Against Philipp Kohlschreiber, that is exactly what he implemented. The German troubles him on the faster courts and Nadal initially let him have his way. He wasn’t super sharp from the beginning, missing hordes of break points, but he knows how to manoeuvre a match his way even when he isn’t enjoying a comfortable lead. Haven’t we seen countless times before how unremitting he is, piling on the pressure and knowing his opponent will fumble and then he will only need to cajole him gently to hand him over the match?
That’s what is so synonymous with the name Rafael Nadal. The steely determination never leaves him even when he is being pummelled, the insatiable hunger never deserts him even when he is being feasted upon on the court. And that’s what has made his rivalry with Novak Djokovic so special as well. Even after being subjected to agonizing pain seven times in a row by the World No. 1, Rafa, the ardent student of the game that he always was, worked out swiftly on how to counter Novak’s aggression.
Rafael Nadal of Spain stands next to Novak Djokovic of Serbia during the trophy presentation after winning the men’s singles final on Day Fifteen of the 2013 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 9, 2013 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Without a Rafa, would there be the current most intense men’s rivalry? Without a Rafa, would Novak have to consistently elevate his game and compel his opponent to elevate his till the very end?
There wouldn’t be the heart-stopping drama of a fifth set in the French Open semi-finals or the mind-boggling turnaround of a third set in the US Open final if Rafa hadn’t been there. His being a part of it all was what made it all the more pulsating.
Never one to give up, he demonstrated all those traits that bewitched the tennis world when he made his Grand Slam breakthrough eight years back. He might trail, but his dogged persistence will tire you out and he will catch up with you.
As the legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi once commented, ‘’The real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back”, Rafa’s brilliant resilience and tenacity made him snatch the third set in the final even after going down 0-2 and then 0-40 in the ninth game. Perhaps that set was a microcosm of the southpaw’s entire career – never a frontrunner, always playing catch up!
And that is exactly why we need him – to make us believe that it is never a shame to lose if you always have your self-belief intact, it is never a crime to go down if you have the courage to fight back. Today, if he is sitting on the cusp of being crowned the World No. 1 again after climbing his way back from outside the top four, it is a reward for his tireless perseverance and diligence and because he never lost faith in himself.
Always true to his commitment, less than two days after his momentous achievement, he was back in Madrid sharing fun moments with his compatriots, helping them enter the Davis Cup World Group and in the process showing us how important it is to remain grounded. He brought an extra verve and zest into the team and his passion and selflessness were for all to see. The tireless Rafa invested himself in the singles as well as the doubles competition for two days in a row that ultimately sealed the deal for his country.
Through the years, Rafa has grown up from the forehand brandishing, fist-pumping, long-haired, pirate pants and sleeveless tee-clad boy to the much more poised and mature man devoid of the raw boyishness or the boyish outfits. But his ability to endure never changed. That pain is not a deterrent; rather it makes you battle-hardy for the greater duels in life, and that’s what he keeps on validating time and again.
And that is the essence of being Rafael Nadal.