He was just a teenager in 2005, but Nadal’s swashbuckling stoicism defied pressure. It wasn’t that he was impervious to Federer’s dominance, but that he could rise above the star-struck tour’s collective fatalism.
Nadal’s Capri pants, flowing hair and determined sneer were symbols of his inner expression to play tennis his own way. He jumped on his toes at the coin toss as if expecting to come out of his corner at the sound of a bell. He dictated his own methodical pace and rhythm between points, pushing the time constraints, toweling off and leaving his changeover chair with brash tardiness.
His clay-court prowess was constructed through his self-created gifts of timing and talent, footwork and ferocity. The longer the match, the more he thrived. He was tough, rugged and half-eccentric, like the bicyclist who loves pedaling up mountains on The Tour de France.
For his victories, he was cheered. For his mental strength, he was respected. For his stylish bravado, he was lionized.
Nadal was the dark knight to Federer’s Superman. Almost everyone loves milk, but black coffee is a specialized taste.
You either loved Nadal or you feared him.
The Plains of Troy
The timing of Nadal’s rise coincided poetically with the tennis world looking for a rival to stand up to Federer’s beautiful destruction of the ATP.
Nadal’s success provided a technical blueprint the other players could enact in their own games. His forehand topspin was his own gift, but players like Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and David Ferrer could build on their own strengths through tough, defensive tennis.
Their confidence was bolstered in the power of scampering for each point and counter-punching for offensive precision.
Nadal showed the way.
Conditioning and fitness have greatly increased, and players are prepared, even expected, to battle for five or more hours at Grand Slam tournaments. Credit Nadal’s ironman approach.
Above all, belief and mental toughness have led to several epic matches over the past five years. Even Andy Murray’s recent rise was a culmination of the warrior mentality Nadal brought to the tour.
Grantland-ESPN columnist Brian Phillips, an avowed Federer fan, wrote that it is Nadal's intensity that drives the ATP tour.
“…Nadal sets the tone for this state of affairs more than anyone else, certainly more than Federer. Roger is so cool and frictionless that, most of the time, he seems less like a prism of epic intensity than a dispassionate analyst of it.”
The tour has learned that relentlessness and spirit, the qualities Nadal patented, have produced championship results. Djokovic’s masterful 2011 season was crowned with his epic performance in the 2012 Australian Open, in which he defeated Nadal by emulating his spiritual qualities. Of this performance, Phillips' article further credited Nadal's influence.
“Djokovic had to tap into the same well of inspiration that Nadal was already drawing from. You could say that all these guys have learned what it means to fight on the plains of Troy because Nadal does it in every match. And we see him do it, so we know what it means, too.”
Even now, the ATP tour with Nadal on the sidelines is the heritage of the fiery Spaniard. He bequeathed his relentlessness to Djokovic and his fire to Murray. Their methods differ, but their mettle is a reincarnation of Mallorca’s indomitable champion.
Quiet, Genius at Work
Why not Federer? Surely the most prolific Grand Slam champion in history would have changed the tour the most? Perhaps, but his astonishing genius is not replicable. There are no Federer clones in sight, and likely never again.
Federer’s all-court talents have so many dimensions that to emulate them is simply not attainable for other talented tennis players. There are no second acts on certain kinds of genius, even through attempted mastery.
It’s more feasible for players to adapt Nadal qualities for the purpose of defeating Federer. The Swiss champion’s effect on the tour has therefore produced more rivals than copycats.
It also suggests why Federer fans even now pine for more players to play the all-court games. They may bristle at the grinding play more common on the tour in 2012, which is closer to the Nadal-style of play.
Of course it would be shortsighted to suggest that Nadal did not also rely on his unique abilities. He is a savant on clay just as Federer works exceptionally hard on his game.
But tennis style, like fashion, can have unpredictable effects on those who choose from its influence. For varieties of reasons, the ATP tour has followed Nadal’s lead more than any other player over the past decade.
Even Federer’s greatness has improved from his battles with Nadal. He is a quick study who has become more composed under pressure, more willing to grind if the need arises and more able to bounce back from adversity.
Federer is an original, but like the rest of the ATP tour he has learned to fight more like Nadal.