Rafael Nadal is my favorite tennis player on tour. I adore him for many reasons, but one reason that stands for me towering over anything else is the immense love he has in just playing the game—forget the result.
I daresay the reason why you and I pick up the racket on a summer afternoon is for the same reason—for the joy of the hitting the ball and the hope of finding that elusive swinging ace painting the outside of the line down the T, that magical forehand pass on the run or the magical touch volley, and the ability talk and brag about it at our work place till the cows come home!
I love watching him play and get goose bumps every time he runs down to retrieve the ball when the rest of the world thinks the point is over. For that reason, I call him "Mr. Energizer." I had written this after he beat David Nalbandian in Indian Wells earlier this year. I hope you enjoy it.
18 March 2009, Indian Wells, CA
It is quite incredible that something in your subconscious is awakened by certain things you see. This happened while I was watching Rafael Nadal face David Nalbandian in the Indian Wells pre-quarterfinals match on Wednesday night.
Nadal was chasing down everything Nalbandian threw at him, and my mind drifted to a very popular ad from the '90s: Energizer batteries.
Remember Mr. Energizer (the everyday battery) taking on Michael Chang in a tennis match and beating him with a score something like 6-0, 6-1, 6-0, 6-0, 6-1, 6-1...? The ad would end with Michael Chang, lying flat on his backside, asking Mr. Energizer “Don’t you ever give up?”
Mr. Energizer promptly replies with a “Nope” and carries on belting out the words "NEVER SAY DIE" on the wall.
Certainly if the ad were to be remade today, you wouldn’t look beyond Nadal to say the words "NEVER SAY DIE." Surely!
Back to the match, and he was struggling. He was facing a guy whom he had never defeated in a match before (0-2 head-to-head) in his pro career. He surely looked, as he admitted later, scared.
Agreed that he had lost both his matches, but that was in 2007. He had come a long way since then. He had more, in John McEnroe’s words, pop in his serve. He has flattened out his ground strokes so as to be effective on the U.S. hard courts. He even volleys well, thanks to his doubles and Wimbledon interest. He has become the world No. 1.
He is the reigning French, Wimbledon, and Australian Open champion, and the first ever player to hold Slams on three different surfaces at the same time. He had reduced Roger Federer to tears after defeating him in the Australian Open finals. And yet, he was scared of the
Nalbandian backhand? Come on, what was he thinking? He kept feeding the Nalbandian forehand and Nalbandian kept churning out winners and hardly broke a sweat in winning the first set, 6-3, even while the "NEVER SAY DIE" Nadal kept chasing down ball after ball. Somebody had to tell him that he was the boss out there.
The second set started and the same story repeats. He runs down everything that is hit at him, but still can’t beat Nalbandian. The match was slipping away and he had to do something to change the trend.
Maybe, he had to rip the sleeves off his shirt and his bulging biceps would surely intimidate Nalbandian. Anything.
It’s the mind that separates a champion from the rest. And when Nalbandian reaches match points in the ninth and 10th games, Nadal’s incredible grit and determination ensured that he saved them all—he saved four of the five match points with winners including a 130 mph service winner—and pushed the set into a tie-break which he won, 7-5.
With that he finally broke Nalbandian’s resolve, and the pain on his face as he walked to the chair at the end of the tie-break told you what he was thinking—that he should have been walking to the locker having closed away that match.
Nadal then seemed every inch the champion he has become by screaming winners off both flanks and was not scared to attack his back-hand. He had turned the tables on Nalbandian and now it was his turn to put the foot on the throat. That he did and closed out the match with a 6-0 hiding in the third and brought up his first career victory against Nalbandian.
At 22, he is at the prime of his career, and injuries aside he should achieve most things in his sport. He already has four French, one Wimbledon, and one Australian titles. Add an Olympic gold to that list and it is already a spectacular career.
Roger Federer has all but surpassed Mt. Sampras. Whether he will be able to achieve that has a lot to do with how he improves his head-to-head against Nadal in the Slam finals (he trails 1-5 in the finals as of now).
Nadal has shown that he has the game and the mind to be among the greatest in history. It shouldn’t be a surprise if he conquers a higher peak that Mt. Sampras and Mt. Federer by the time he is finished with tennis.
After all, he never says die!
P.S.: As it turned out, Federer didn't need to improve his head-to-head against Nadal in Slam finals to equal and subsequently better Sampras' record.
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