Rafael Nadal won his 19th Grand Slam title at this year’s US Open, staving off a spirited challenge from the young Russian Daniil Medvedev.
Relentless is a word which is often used to describe Rafael Nadal. It is no misnomer since he always fights for every point as if it was his last – as if the fate of not just the match but the entire human race depended on it. It is this relentless attitude that has now put him just one behind Federer’s all-time singles slam record of 20.
Almost at the top
Closing in on Federer’s tally has been in the making for a while now. When Federer won his 17th slam in 2012, Nadal was at 11. By the end of 2016, Nadal had increased his tally to 14 while Federer’s had remained the same. During 2017 and 2018, Federer thrice increased the gap to four slams, but every time Nadal responded by reducing it to three. Since then, the Spaniard had been chipping away at the gap, one slam at a time.
Unlike Serbian Novak Djokovic, who has always been quite upfront about catching up with Federer, Rafael Nadal has always tried to downplay such suggestions. Even after winning his 19th slam Sunday, when Rafa was asked about the possibility of winning the maximum number of grand slams, he shrugged off the suggestion saying, “I would love to be the one who have more, yes. But I really believe that I will not be happier or less happy if that happens or not happen. What gives you the satisfaction is that you give your best.”
It is difficult to take Rafael’s words at face value, though. As he himself recalls in his memoir Rafa written with John Carlin, he hates to lose. “One thing I do seem to have in common with everyone I’ve ever heard about who has succeeded in sports is a fanatical competitive edge. As a little boy I’d hate losing at anything… sweet as I supposedly was, I became transformed into a little demon whenever there was a game on.”
It is this continuous desire to succeed that has probably resulted in Nadal turning around his 2019 season. After Djokovic handed him an ignominious straight set defeat at this year’s Australian Open final, Nadal had looked a bit out of touch. He even admitted that he was contemplating a break.
A few months later, however, he seems to be having the best season among all top players. While both he and Djokovic have won two slams each, Nadal has also won two Masters 1000 (Rome and Montreal) compared to Djokovic’s one (Madrid).
Courting wins beyond clay
For someone who has always been bracketed as just a clay-court player, Rafael Nadal has managed to win more slams outside the surface than many other all-time greats have won on all surfaces combined. And seven non-clay slams cannot be a fluke.
It suggests that Nadal has managed to transform his game to a great extent, something that few in sporting history have achieved. I know many will object to my statement, and argue that the variability across surfaces has reduced considerably in the last two decades. They will call Rafael Nadal’s all-court success a result of this uniformity.
And while it is indeed true that surfaces have become more similar, it doesn’t mean that Rafa couldn’t have adapted his game if the grass at Wimbledon had allowed for even greater pace.
Also, such arguments, instead of diminishing Nadal’s stature, actually enhance it further. Since all surfaces have slowed down, it should have been easier for others to break Nadal’s hegemony on clay as well. Yet, it hasn’t happened and defeating him on a clay-court remains one of the most difficult tasks across all sports.
It’s Rafa time
Coupled with this adaptability, what also stands out is Rafael Nadal’s ability to make comebacks despite repeated injuries. Agreed, not all injuries are equal, and some like Andy Murray’s hip ‘impingement’ are really difficult to recover from. But no matter the nature, repeated injuries can break the morale of the strongest of sportsmen (and women). Not Nadal though, who seems to have perfected the psychological art of recovery.
This highlighting of Nadal’s attributes should not be seen as undermining Federer or Djokovic’s. They both have their own virtues and records, which make them stand-out performers.
It also doesn’t mean that I consider Nadal a better player than the other two. But what makes him stand out is probably the love and respect he garners from his opponents. “Tennis is a tough sport, there are no draws but if there was going to be one, I would have been very happy to accept a draw tonight and share it with Rafa,” Federer had said after winning the Australian Open in 2017.
For now, let’s just celebrate Nadal’s US Open victory.
The author is a journalist. Views are personal.