All the talk in the sporting world right now is about Roger Federer. And rightly, for he has accomplished so much in such a short period of time. His numbers are impressive but more importantly, for those of us who love tennis, Federer playing tennis is a thing of beauty. He moves like a ballet dancer, glides across the court, flicks shots at improbable angles, and never ever breaks a sweat. Watching him from courtside, and I had the good fortune to do so at the US Open a few years ago, is like going to the ballet or the opera. It’s an aesthetic experience. He has elevated tennis from a sport to an art, much like John McEnroe had done in the early eighties, except that he has won more than Mac. A lot more. So it is no wonder that so many tennis fans across the world gush about Federer, and are delighted when he wins again, and again, and again.
You might be wondering by now if the title of this piece is a typo. No, it’s not. I admire and like Federer. But I adore Rafa Nadal. His absence from Wimbledon and his subsequent concession of the number one ranking broke my heart. And here’s why. Federer is about tennis. Nadal is about life. Federer is beautiful. Nadal is inspirational. Federer is something we can wish we were, or hope to be in another lifetime. Nadal is what we can aspire to be in this one.
When Rafa first burst on the scene, winning his first French Open title in 2005, Federer was already firmly entrenched as the number one player. He was so dominant in those days that people were already talking about him possibly being the greatest player of all time. Even though Nadal won the French, it was not such a disaster for the Fedex because most great players in the past had one Slam missing from their resumes and it was usually the French, which was often dominated by one-dimensional clay court specialists who never won anything else. That was what Rafa was too. Yet another great Spanish clay courter who would, perhaps, go on to dominate the European clay court season for a few years until the next Spaniard or Argentine or Ecuadorian or Brazilian came along. Let’s face it. For most tennis fans around the world, outside of some countries in Europe and Latin America, Wimbledon and the US Open are considered the bigger prizes. And Rafa was not a contender there. Nor would he ever be, commentators, players, fans and sportswriters muttered to each other. The question was whether Federer could ever break the French Open jinx, not the other way around.
I must admit that I didn’t take to the Spaniard at first. He was too muscly, played too far behind the baseline. His game comprised of long, slow, boring rallies, he never came to the net to volley. It was not an all-court game, there was little touch or feel. He grunted too much. He was the Beast from Mallorca. There was nothing pretty about him. I like pretty. I like elegant. Even though in those months I rooted for the underdog, i.e. Federer’s opponents, I didn’t root for Rafa. In any case, I knew he was a one-surface wonder so it would have been pointless to root for him.
At the time Rafa was nineteen. Over the next few years, he changed. Not just sport, not just Federer’s trajectory. He changed himself. He evolved. He mastered himself. He adapted. I’m not going to bother chronicling his achievements here, because most readers know those, and frankly, they seem to pale in comparison with Federer’s.
Today as people everywhere celebrate the greatness of the Swiss player, I have been thinking about what it is that made me become such an ardent Nadal fan. He’s not even very good looking!
This also is what Nadal is not: he’s not beautiful to watch, he’s not graceful. Unlike the ever cool Federer, Nadal makes every shot look like it might be his last. And it’s precisely these qualities that have led Federer fans to dismiss him as ugly to watch, susceptible to – and therefore deserving of – injuries. Rafa in recent weeks has been derided for playing too much and too hard, for wanting too much. And it is possible that when he comes back – because someone like him will come back – he will be forced to take something off, to relax a little, to slow things down. But that would mean he will not be the same player he was. This may or may not affect his results but one thing’s for sure. He would not be the same man he was.
Rafa was a fighter. Not only did he fight for every point on court as if it were for his life, coming back from the brink to win against everyone, and I mean everyone. He also fought off the court. He fought for his fitness, forcing his aching knees to go on and on, playing through pain. He fought his own style of play, making himself learn new techniques, becoming a player for all surfaces, mastering first the grass of Wimbledon and then the hard courts of Melbourne.
Many of his detractors suggest that he lacks the natural talent of Federer and is therefore, like Jim Courier, likely to burn out, and that maybe he already has.
I agree that he is not perhaps as naturally gifted as Federer. Then it dawns on me that that’s it! I too can be like Rafa Nadal. How many of us are blessed with natural gifts? How many of us are born with the destiny of genius looming large? Of course Nadal’s talented. No one wins as much as he has done without talent. But what he lacked in natural ability, he made up for in effort. He resolved. He delivered. He fought the odds. Again and again. When he went from winning the French to winning Queens and Wimbledon and the Olympics last summer, he rose above everyone’s expectations including his own. He made the impossible possible. When he had to stop playing towards the ends of the season because of tendonitis, a lot of people whispered that it might soon be over. How long can Rafa keep this up? they asked. In reply, Nadal came back and won the Australian Open, again thrashing Federer in the final, and then went on to win four more titles. It was not just Barack Obama last year whose mantra seemed to be Yes You Can.
But Nadal didn’t say so. He was young, he could have been brash. He was beating the great Federer over and over, he could have been smug. But Rafael Nadal is the epitome of humility, to the point where sometimes even I’ve wondered if it’s an act. But of course, it is not. We all know how hard it is to be gracious in defeat and modest in victory. It’s impossible to keep that up consistently for an extended period of time. Once again, the guy has gone and done the impossible. Every tournament he played, he insisted he wasn’t the favourite. Every time he lost, he refused to make excuses. Even at the French Open this year, after his shock defeat by Robin Soderling, Rafa did not once mention his knees. Maybe they weren’t really a factor, although in the light of what followed that seems highly unlikely. But if you’ve followed other players like Serena Williams who whine after every loss, you know that had he wanted to suggest a little injury at the post-match conference, most of us would have believed him. But he didn’t do it. He was the most philosophical about his loss that I remember a player ever being.
Some Federer fans have even suggested that Nadal’s humility is a product of his lack of fluency in English. I’m afraid these fans probably missed out on all the self-glorifying comments made by another Spaniard, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, in the mid nineties.
There are times when Federer sounds a little bit conceited these days. His interviews and comments readily acknowledge his own greatness. When he was losing to a lot of players last year, he sounded grumpy. He has gone on record being critical of other players like Andy Murray who is not very happy with him right now. While that doesn’t take away from what he has accomplished, when you compare his sound bites carefully to Nadal’s, the difference is clear.
Let me cite one case in point: Before that amazing match at Wimbledon last year between the two of them, Nadal was asked if the rain delays were a problem. He said, “It’s the same for both players.” When Federer lost in near darkness, his first impulse was to blame it on the lack of light. He went into the press room and said, “It’s sad that it had to come down to a bit of light.” This is not about who speaks better English, it’s about how you wish to perceive the world. Little wonder then that you see so many TV commercials featuring Federer (for NetJet, Rolex, Nike), and none for Nadal, even when he was the World No. 1. Little wonder that unlike most other players who’ve been Number One, Nadal still flies commercial.
I want to perceive the world like Rafa Nadal. To take what talent you might have and then to wring it till the last drop has fallen, to fight your competitors, your body and your mind, to defy all odds, to go beyond what was destined for you, and to do it all without a harsh word or an arrogant glance. It may not be possible for me to ever be a Roger Federer in life. But it’s possible to be a Rafa Nadal. What will parents teach their kids to do like Federer? To be born great? To be gifted beyond most people’s wildest dreams? To be naturally graceful and beautiful? How can the kids achieve these goals?
But this is what you can tell your kids when they watch Nadal, whether it’s tapes of last year or the live matches when he comes back. To be brave and to never give up. To be humble and generous in victory and defeat. To let will overcome deficit and adversity. To try. To keep trying. These are qualities we can actually control. These are qualities that have nothing to do with sport and everything to do with life. You cannot be Godlike. But you can be an exemplary human.
If there is any justice in the world, Rafa’s injuries will be ones he will be able to overcome. If they were not, I would begin to doubt the point of goodness, effort and sacrifice. Because I am not an athlete, I do not watch sport to learn how to play them. When I watch sport, I look for life lessons. Sport inspires me. But never in the twenty odd years that I’ve been watching it, has any individual inspired me this much. Hopefully he will be back in a month or so and we can watch him pursue his next dream, that of winning the US Open and the career Grand Slam at the impossibly young age of 23. One thing by now you know for sure. With Rafa anything’s possible. That is his gift. To us.