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The Rafa Renaissance


Nadal© Getty ImagesRafael Nadal completed a historic sweep of all three ATP World Tour Masters 1000 clay titles this season.

Following a year fraught with emotional and physical challenges, Rafael Nadal has emerged with renewed hunger and heads to Roland Garros stronger than ever.

For most young men the teens and early 20s are a time of trial-and-error. That’s even true for tennis players. No less a man than Roger Federer did not ripen into full tennis maturity until the summer he turned 22.

Rafael Nadal was a great exception. Nadal was wise beyond his years from the get-go. At 15, he turned pro. At 17, he beat Federer the first time they played and became the youngest man to reach the third round at Wimbledon since the great Boris Becker. At 18, he helped pace Spain to a Davis Cup victory.

And yet, all that was prologue to his epic. At 19, not only did Nadal win the French Open the first time he played it – a feat not accomplished in Paris for more than 20 years – he won it the first four times he played it.

“For Nadal, life was nothing but trial-and-success”

Forget trial-and-error. For Nadal, life was nothing but trial-and-success, aided by tons of hard work and an exquisite competitive temperament. One year ago, Nadal held the titles at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the Australian Open. Heading into last year’s French Open, to predict that anyone but Nadal would win Roland Garros was unthinkable, inspiring conjecture that he could earn a calendar year Grand Slam – and perhaps, better yet, remain immune to the laws of vocational and competitive gravity that inevitably affect even the greatest champions.

Then came the hiccup.

Gulp one: Robin Soderling ending Nadal’s 31-match French Open winning streak with a remarkable four-set victory.

Gulp two: tendonitis in his knee that forced Nadal to withdraw from Wimbledon.

And then, a cascade – pummeled in the semis of the US Open, forced to exit mid-match in the quarters of the Australian Open.

Weaving its way through Nadal’s on-court life were personal woes. Important as family is for anyone, in Nadal’s case, family was no mere component. Though Nadal’s father Sebastian and mother Ana Maria were often visible at his matches, their presence was minimal, showing none of the intrusive signs often shown by zealous parents of aspiring players. The tennis business of Rafa was left in the hands of another family member, his uncle Toni Nadal. Though a great many tennis players relocate, Nadal continues to base himself near his family in Mallorca. 

NadalBut last year, Sebastian and Ana Maria were divorced. For anyone, traumatic. For a kindly Catholic boy such as Nadal, the trauma was exceptionally painful. In most of his public comments, Nadal is usually as frugal about revealing his inner life as he is in making unforced errors. Certainly he’s a friendly speaker, as earnest in his desire to improve his English as his tennis game. But again, it’s Nadal’s tennis that speaks most eloquently on his behalf.

In the recent case of his family, though, Nadal speaks quite candidly. Says Nadal, “My parents’ divorce made an important change in my life. It affected me. After that, when I can’t play Wimbledon, it was tough. For one month, I was outside the world. I am OK now, but you need time to accept. And it’s more difficult to accept when you are outside home and don’t know what’s happening. At least the injury gave me time to be with my friends and family.” 

According to Allen Fox, an ex-pro and psychologist, “Going up is a lot of fun. Going down is not. So now we’ll see how well he can take it. But you can tell from how Nadal’s been his whole career that he’s a high quality kind of person and competitor.”

The poet T.S. Eliot once called April “the cruelest month.” Since Eliot died two decades before Nadal was born, he obviously had no idea that in the Spaniard’s case, the exact opposite is true. By early April of this year, Nadal had gone nearly a year without claiming a singles title. He’d taken off all of February while recovering from the persistent knee injury that had forced him to withdraw at the Australian Open. He’d lost in the semis of each of the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells and Miami, his attrition-based playing style vanquished by the more offensive-minded Ivan Ljubicic at Indian Wells and Andy Roddick in Miami.

“For one month, I was outside the world”

But even in defeat, Nadal’s innate optimism revealed much. Following the loss to Roddick, he said, “Yes, just keep working like this, keep improving. You know, two semi-finals in a row, first two Masters 1000 of the season for me is positive. If you are there, you gonna have your day. You're gonna win one day.”

Once he arrived 10 days later in Monte-Carlo, his attitude translated into action. For all Nadal has accomplished on other surfaces, put him on clay and it’s a whole other ballgame. On hard courts, on indoor, on grass, he must take more risk – and his opponents are rewarded for their aggression. But the tables turn on clay. As Tennis Channel commentator Justin Gimelstob says, “It’s all in Rafa’s favour. To beat him on clay you have to take chances – and for him it’s all about high-margin tennis.” Indeed, everything from Nadal’s superb movement to massive lefty topspin forehand and penetrating backhand makes him extremely effective on clay.

It was vintage Nadal in Monte-Carlo. Over the course of five matches he gave up a scant 14 games. His last three wins took him through the heart of his homeland. In the quarters he took out resurgent 2003 French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero, 6-4, 6-2. In the semis versus the formidable grinder, David Ferrer, Nadal raced to a 6-2, 6-3 victory in 75 brisk minutes. In the final he came up against Spain’s other notable left-hander, Fernando Verdasco. Off the heels of an impressive 6-2, 6-2 thumping of World No. 2 Novak Djokovic, Verdasco’s confidence was high. Nadal pounded Verdasco into dust, 6-0, 6-1. Said Verdasco, “If Nadal plays like this, no one will beat him.” 

Having won Monte-Carlo for a record-setting sixth straight time – in the Open Era, no man had ever won any title six straight years – and earned his first singles title in 351 days, Nadal was elated. “When you win a tournament, very emotional tournament for me like Monte-Carlo, is a dream for me. Win sixth time for me is unbelievable. I never expect something like that.”

NadalTwo weeks later came another win at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event in Rome. Once again Nadal was thoroughly in command, only challenged by a three-set semi versus Ernests Gulbis. If Nadal had any pain, it certainly never revealed itself as he made his fifth run through Rome in the past six years.

The Rafa Renaissance continued at the spring’s third Masters 1000 tournament, this time in Madrid. A year ago, Madrid had commenced his undoing, most notably in the wake of Nadal’s four hour and three-minute long semi-final victory over Novak Djokovic. A depleted Nadal lost the next day’s final to Federer. But this time, the two playing each other for the first time since then, Nadal emerged the victor, 6-4, 7-6 to earn a record-setting 18th ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title – amazingly by the age of 23 (Andre Agassi won his 17th at 34).

In taking a 14-7 career lead versus Federer, Nadal displayed all the skills that make him so great on clay – not just speed and his spin, but also his ability to come up with great shots at big moments, be it an angled reply to a drop shot, a firm volley and yes, luckily, at match point a service return that took such an odd bounce that Federer wiffed the response. Said Nadal following the match, "Beating Roger is always a special occasion. It’s always a very difficult match. And of course winning at home is very special against anyone. So beating him at home is amazing; it’s a dream for me. For me it’s a dream to have won the three [tournaments] before Roland Garros. I want to enjoy that now and we’ll see what happens in two weeks.”

The word international TV commentator Robbie Koenig created to describe what the Spaniard does on clay is, “Phenomi-Nadal.” As Nadal sees it, “I think is more important than the surface is the tactic on court. You have more chances. You can attack, you can defend. Is important to be very regular. Is very important don’t have a lot of mistakes. No mistakes when you are offensive and no mistakes when you are defensive.”

“People say he was so great two years ago… I think he is playing better now”

According to Ferrer, his victim in the Rome finals, “What happens depends on Rafa, not me. He never seems to miss, he never gives you free points. People say he was so great two years ago… But I have played him twice in the past few weeks and I think he is playing better now.”

And now, Nadal’s confidence boosted once again by a flawless spring on the clay courts, he arrives at Roland Garros primed for a first: the hunger for redemption, to recapture a throne he held – and lost to a man with whom he has a history of competitive tennis and emotional rancor. Says Nadal of last year’s Roland Garros loss, “I played with less calm. One of the reasons was the pain in the knees. And I was down because of the divorce. Soderling played really well and he beat me. But I wasn’t ready, mentally or physically.”

This year it’s quite different. Nadal has come through the most challenging period not just of his career but of his life. There has been the pain in his body and even deeper, the pain in his heart. But once again he has drawn on a vast resource – his work ethic, the drive of his Uncle Toni and most of all, his distinctive positive energy – to redirect himself back into the thick of things.

The philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “If you strike a king, you must kill him.” Having been struck – but not killed – in 2009, the king of clay is more ravenous than ever.  

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