If there is any tennis superstar out there right now who has never taken his talent for granted, it is Rafael Nadal. Of the three players, namely Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Nadal himself who still belong to hegemonic class in men’s tennis since the last one decade or so, it is the latter that has proven to be the humblest. It is Nadal’s hard-fought, edge-of-the-seat glory against the resilient Daniil Medvedev that proved to everyone that he has the will to continue and is hungry for more success.
However, make no mistake, it is Nadal’s tryst with the hard court, that has challenged him the most throughout his career. While he has proven himself to be the king of clay and equally adept on grass, the hard court has been unforgiving to him and has resulted in some serious injuries. From his knee and back to hips, all have suffered significant wear and tear while playing on the hard court. In fact, twelve months ago, at the same US Open, Nadal was forced to retire in the semi-finals against Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro with a knee injury.
Yet, none of this stopped him from clinching his fourth U.S. Open crown, his 19th Grand Slam overall, and now, he is one short of equalling his arch-rival Roger Federer’s record (20). To put things into perspective, in the season of 2017-18, Nadal withdrew or retired from 11 of the 12 events and all of them were played on the acrylic. He also pulled out of the Cincinnati Masters just ahead of the US Open this year citing extra rest. “No other reason than personally taking care of my body and trying to keep as healthy as I feel now,” he wrote on Twitter.
The latest triumph at the Flushing Meadows showed a different version of Nadal, as he was not only supremely efficient but also mentally sharp. At the age of 33, Nadal is undoubtedly playing some of the best tennis of his career. As he focused more on his fitness regime, it rewarded him by helping him win more Grand Slams in the last decade than any of the other Big 3.
Now, as he has proved to be the best example of tennis longevity after Federer, it is just a matter of time before he overtakes the Swiss maestro.
While, over the years, sports science and medicine have significantly evolved in addressing the injuries of an athlete, it is Nadal’s tenacity and strength of will that have enabled him to give greatness a new meaning.
As he stands on the cusp of equalling an all-time record, it seems he will just live to tell the tale, and quite effortlessly.
Jump cut to just four years ago in 2015. It was a time which even the biggest Nadal fan would like to forget.
The then 29-year-old Rafael Nadal was going through a rough patch in his playing career. The year 2014 saw him injure his back and it all happened during the Australian Open final when he lost to Canada’s Stan Wawrinka.
“It hurts me more losing this final instead of the 2012’s one against Djokovic,” Nadal famously said in a press conference after the match.
The back injury meant Nadal failed to defend his titles at Indian Wells, Barcelona and Rome. Although he rebounded by winning his 9th French Open title that year, an injury side-lined him again; this time it was a wrist injury which forced him to withdraw from The Rogers Cup and also the US Open, where he was the defending champion. However, despite an injury-plagued season, Nadal still ended the year at being no. 3 with four titles.
Following two injury-riddled seasons of 2015 and 2016, there were rumours all around that Nadal would now call it day. No matter where he went, he was hounded with questions from the press regarding his retirement. The rumours definitely aggravated when he lost in the 2015 US Open to his old foe Fabio Fognini. Yet Nadal, despite being exhausted in body and spirit, never really gave up. He staged his comeback and rightfully hogged all the limelight that he truly deserves.
With this U.S. Open victory, Nadal has put to rest the tennis world’s myopic worldview about him. There were judgements made and comparisons drawn between him and other tennis legends, but he chose to perform silently.
The year 2019, too, didn’t see Nadal at his best. He started the season injured and was blown away by the relentless Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final. To add more woes, the Spaniard crumbled against the mercurial Nick Kyrgios in the round of 16 at the Mexican Open, his second assignment of this year. There were reasons more than one to believe that it might take some more time before he closes in to Federer, in terms of the all-time record. But therein lies the Nadal’s greatness. The way he battled against Medvedev for over five hours it truly displayed the spirit of a warrior. The Arthur Ashe stadium, packed to the rafters that day, saw a master tactician taking on a 6’6’’ tall Medvedev.
Tennis lovers at large not only witnessed one of the greatest athletes to have graced the court, but also, saw Nadal, through his U.S. Open triumph, reinvent himself in style.
Here is a man who, despite achieving so much of success, has always stayed in Roger Federer’s shadow but it is his endless reserve of self-belief that has redefined greatness in the tennis world.
It’s time to celebrate the journey of a remarkable champion. Vamos Rafa!
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