When most tennis players win Grand Slams, it often seems from their initial reaction that they can’t quite comprehend their achievement. Their shocked expressions represent the tiniest chinks in the armour of self-belief that is required to win one of these tournaments, especially in the era of ‘Big Three’ domination. An image that will always stick in my mind is Andy Murray, almost crumpled in disbelief on the Wimbledon turf after his victory in the 2013 final. Indeed, the surly Scot has spoken about how the first title came in such a whirlwind that he did not fully enjoy the celebrations. But Rafael Nadal is not like most tennis players. He is – quite literally, by virtue of his unparalleled 21 Grand Slam titles – in a league of his own.
The world’s most robust field of scientific inquiry (divination via tarot cards, obviously) informs me that the number 21 is associated with the tarot card for ‘The World’. This symbolises “the fulfilment of what is willed”. Normally I would reject this superstitious nonsense out-of-hand, but when applied to Rafael Nadal’s superhuman effort in Rod Laver Arena last weekend, it makes perfect sense.
Rafa looked dead and buried at two sets down, with Medvedev’s serve causing him all sorts of problems. To come back and win the next three sets on the trot, to make him the most successful male player of the Open Era, was bordering on the miraculous. Whilst all around him doubted that the comeback was even possible, Rafa ‘vamos-ed’ his way through a brutal marathon of a tennis match, 5 hours and 24 minutes. At no point was there any sense that this man, the ultimate professional, was going to crack under the pressure or consider the possibility of defeat. In terms of mentality, Nadal was light years beyond his opponent, who admittedly was treated with scandalous disrespect at times during the final. Both players were confronted by an atmosphere which could be politely described as uncouth and distracting. Nadal clad himself with an iron resilience, whilst Medvedev stood on the other side of the net, twitching at every minor irritation.
Of course, tempestuous behaviour on court is hardly a collector’s item in tennis. One need look no further than the winning pair in the men’s doubles at Melbourne for two men who raise bad sportsmanship to an art form. Andy Murray is a famously stroppy presence on court, constantly chuntering in the general direction of his box. John McEnroe’s expletive filled rant towards the umpire at the 1980 Wimbledon Championships is so well known that he used its most famous line as the title of his autobiography. Even Roger Federer, perennial darling of crowds on account of his elegance, poise, and general charisma, had a ‘bad boy’ phase. Back when he hadn’t yet discovered the joys of hair conditioner and took to the court sporting a greasy ponytail, even Roger was prone to receiving code violations. Not so for Nadal. This is a man who has famously never smashed a racquet in his professional tennis career. This, I think, is the true measure of the man. Tennis, as I am reliably informed by Brasenose’s finest Italian aficionado of the sport, Francesco Coppola, is “above all a game of respect, a game of honour”. It takes a stratospheric level of mental resilience and discipline to remember this in the heat of the moment. From the perspective of a purist such as Francesco, this unwavering respect for both his opponent and the umpire makes Rafa the finest to ever play the game.
And it’s hard to disagree with him. But last weekend, there was another ingredient in Nadal’s potion of greatness: the fact that by generally accepted medical standards he should not have taken the court at all in Melbourne. The sports editorial team of the Blue were asked in our ‘Meet the Team’ article what the greatest sporting comeback story was. After what happened in the final last weekend I am tempted to alter my choice. At the time I opted for the story of Vinny Pazienza’s comeback to heavyweight boxing, and there is a particular scene from the film adaptation of Pazienza’s story that I think is universally applicable to comeback stories of this sort. Pazienza, played by Miles Teller, is asked about the biggest lie he’s ever been told by a reporter. Teller replies, “It’s not that simple. Because it is. It really is that simple. That’s just the lie people tell you to make you give up.” Majorca and Rhode Island have little in common, not least their respective climates, but, in Nadal and Pazienza, these two islands have produced two incredibly strong sporting attitudes.
Tennis is a brutal sport and injuries can take unimaginable tolls on athletes’ bodies. The stories of retirement after years of chronic pain, of endless injections and massages are multitudinous. One wonders if this is the fate of Andy Murray and his metal hip. Despite an almost miraculous return to the top level of his own, there was a sense of finality surrounding his second round exit in Melbourne. The same could be said for Federer as he waved forlornly to the crowd after his quarter final defeat by Hubert Hurkacz at last year’s Wimbledon. He has not played competitively since.
In an alternate reality, Nadal would be a third story in this list of glittering careers ended in their twilight years by injuries. He came into the Australian Open having not played for six months due to a persistent foot problem. A bout of Covid hampered his preparations in December. Throughout his career he has been plagued by trouble with his left shoulder and by tendonitis in both knees. Yet last weekend he gritted his teeth and continued to whip outrageous forehands down the line on his way to winning his 21st major title.
The ‘Big Three’ who have dominated the modern era of men’s tennis are respected in different ways. It is understandable that tennis fans appreciate the elegance and poise of the endlessly suave Roger Federer. He is the undisputed darling of the crowd at every event in which he appears. Before his self-inflicted torpedoing of his reputation as a human being, Novak Djokovic was beginning to win the respect – if not adulation – of the sport’s following. His post-Wimbledon speech in 2021 was a rare glimpse of the tenderness and extraordinary sacrifice that shimmer beneath his pugnacious exterior.
I think that this landmark victory ought to allow the tennis community to pay Nadal the homage that he deserves. Nobody disputes the fact that he is one of the finest ever to play the sport, but what is often overlooked by simply grouping him alongside the other titans of the game is his revolutionary technique. Nobody, before or since his first Roland Garros title at the age of 18, has done it quite like Rafa. And he has been reinventing himself and optimising his body for high performance essentially since he could walk. Born right-handed, he has always played with his left. Unlike others from his generation of Spanish clay court aficionados, he took the challenge of the grass court in his stride. His generational performance to defeat Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final was a symbolic two fingers to the naysayers who had labelled him a one-trick pony, who lacked the service game and finesse at the net to dominate on grass. He made them all look foolish.
His hair may be thinning behind that famous bandana. His bronzed face may be considerably lined with age. And he may have required the aid of a plastic chair to conduct his interview following his Melbourne heroics. Yet be in no doubt: the warrior spirit which propelled Nadal’s burst onto the stage in 2005 has not been lost to the sands of time. And even when he does eventually retire, his highlights compilations will continue to glitter on YouTube. The collective memory of his 2008 defeat of Federer on Centre Court encourages a rare moment of consensus within the tennis community: it is the greatest match ever played in men’s tennis.
And as tennis enthusiasts watch these videos over and over again, the Federer-Nadal debate will rumble on. It is tempting to invoke Rio Ferdinand and hold my hands up and say “just enjoy them both”. But I’m venturing off the fence for once. Roger is probably the silkier of the two, with a backhand that practically melts in the mouth, but to watch the whip which Rafa imparts on the ball when it sits up on his forehand is to scarcely believe that he is mortal. And yet it is more what that topspin represents. Contained within every swing of his racquet are years of dedication, decades of sweat, and almost twenty years of excellence at the top level. Yet, on a more fundamental level, it is his respect for the game as a cultural phenomenon and his understanding of the principles that sit at its core that make Rafa – for my money – the greatest of all time.
Image Credits: Yan Caradec, New York Tennis Magazine