Rafael Nadal typically bursts onto a tennis court like a bull down a chute—leaping and snorting, ready to destroy the man across the net.
The Spaniard leaves nothing to chance once the match gets under way. Sporting a covert snarl, Nadal attacks every point as if an opponent’s ability to return a ball is an insult. He becomes the master of controlled aggression yet exhibits a countenance of pure innocence and joy once the match concludes.
This Jekyll and Hyde personality bent pinpoints the brilliance of the Nadal psyche. His opponent becomes the enemy as long as the match lasts—but not a second longer. While other players have used hostility to motivate them, they often let the emotion control them. Nadal turns it off and on impeccably.
Think back to the first signal of greatness. In 2004, an unseeded Nadal upset world No. 1 Roger Federer on the hard courts of Miami. Federer had just ascended to the No. 1 spot, taking it from Andy Roddick in February of that year.
Still, most figured Nadal’s unexpected victory was a fluke. Federer was not up to par, suffering from an injury. The lefty Spaniard had his day in the sun and would most likely retreat to the clay courts where most Spanish players dwelled. The win was soon forgotten.
The following year, however, Federer and Nadal faced each other again in Miami—but this time it was in the final.
Although Federer won in Miami in 2005, victory came only after mounting a fierce comeback after dropping the first two sets. Luckily for the Swiss, those were days when a five-set final at Masters Events was still the rule; otherwise, Federer would have lost to the Spaniard again.
To add insult to injury, the two would meet once more in 2005 at Roland Garros in the semifinals of the French Open. Nadal would defeat the world No. 1 again, going on to win his first Grand Slam title and climb to world No. 2.
Nadal was no fluke—not by a long shot.
The rivalry between Federer and Nadal from 2005 through 2008 became more than just a traditional No. 1 vs. No. 2 confrontation.
Federer and Nadal seemed polar opposites when it came to tennis.
Nadal rose, molded from the clay courts he loved, dressed in tight muscle shirts and pirate pants (as they were called). Nadal pounded and paced, stalking his prey and never relenting on even one point.
Federer, on the other hand, appeared to descend from the snowy Alps, pristine, elegant and lighter than air. The Swiss floated across the courts in whisper mode, making his deep cuts with pinpoint precision. The Swiss imposed defeat with a thousand cuts on his opponents—or so it seemed to them.
While Nadal played with power and aggression, Federer played with finesse and consistent, deft pressure.
Nadal reigned on clay while Federer ruled on grass and hard courts—in the beginning.
After those first few anomalies on hard courts, Federer and Nadal settled down, meeting mainly on clay, where Nadal consistently threw red dust in Federer’s eyes.
In their 14 meetings on clay, Federer won twice—Hamburg in 2007 and Madrid in 2009. The clay wins have shifted the balance of their head-to-head contests to Nadal, who holds a 18-10 lead over the Swiss.
Without clay, the two would be dead even.
But then, clay is part of tennis, and no one in the history of the game has played clay-court tennis as well as Nadal. Hands down.
While Federer exemplifies tradition, Nadal personifies exception.
There is no one else quite like Nadal on tour with the ability to dominate the opposition in such obvious physical fashion. You can feel his power just by watching him as his muscles swell and contract while the sweat rolls off.
What is more, most of Nadal's power comes from his legs. They become the pinion of his game.
This success makes Nadal appealing to fans newly drawn to tennis. They realize that true athletes play this game—not just stereotypical dressed-in-white, fastidious day-trippers. These fans appreciate and admire the raw power of the game as it is played by Nadal.
Since Nadal withdrew from tennis after being upset by Czech Lukas Rosol during the second round at Wimbledon in 2012, tennis has missed his presence. No one can truly replace Nadal—even though Andy Murray has surpassed him as the new world No. 3.
Nadal has been playing professional tennis since 2001 and is now age 26. There appears to be plenty of time left for him to reestablish himself.
His knees, however, continue to haunt him. Their condition is serious—very serious, as the world became aware when Nadal withdrew from the 2012 Summer Olympics and then the 2012 U.S. Open. Nadal undoubtedly will not return to action until 2013—although it appears he will definitely return.
Nadal remains on a relatively precipitous slope at this juncture. If he comes back to the game still wounded, he will do more damage. But if he stays out too long, he senses the danger of becoming irrelevant.
Driven hard, Nadal has become like a new car with a ton of mileage. He dares not go as far or as fast because of the danger of breaking down again. This will become Nadal's Achilles' heel going forward.
Nadal will probably never be the player he once was. But he still has a future in tennis if he wants it. Let’s face it: Nadal does not need the money. Like all the players at the top, Nadal plays for the love of the game and to cement his place in tennis history.
When he returns, Nadal should be able to continue to win on clay. That is one probability.
Further, his return will be marked by reduced time on tour. Going forward, in all probability, Nadal will appear at the four majors and select Masters events, but he must cut back on the amount of time spent battling on hard courts.
Early in his career, Nadal played constantly in that relentless, pounding, aggressive style, improving his game while he worked his way slowly to the top. Constant play became the foundation for winning. He ground opponents down.
With a reduced schedule, however, Nadal will have to find another way to win. Such constant play may not be possible.
In the meantime, Nadal will not become No. 1 again, and his ranking, like that of Serena Williams, will fall. Ranking can no longer be important.
Nadal will concentrate on clay-court tennis and Wimbledon grass, curtailing time spent on hard courts, both indoor and outdoor.
Tennis without Nadal made tournaments seem incomplete. The "Big Four" have become the "Big Three," and it may stay that way for a while.
The tennis landscape will surely alter significantly without the steady presence of Nadal, whose formidable style of play and sheer will to win stirred the hearts of his fans everywhere.
Regardless, less of Nadal is still better than none at all. If sheer will and determination got him to the top once before, it will earn him a spot in the future.
In the meantime, we all await the coming changes when Nadal returns to tennis in 2013.