When Rafael Nadal won his first two French Open titles in 2005 and 2006, people said he was a typical Spanish clay court grinder who would fail to win a Grand Slam outside Paris, just like the Spaniards of the 90s. He reached the finals in ’06 and ’07, and won arguably the greatest match of all time by beating Roger Federer, the best grass court player of the era, in the ’08 Wimbledon final.
After that, it was widely believed that hard courts will always remain his Achilles Heel, due to the movement and the stress it puts on his knees. He promptly shattered the myth and won in Melbourne next year. After struggling with his knees, and Juan Martin del Potro's demolition of him in New York last year, it was again established that he would never win the U.S. Open—i.e. the fast hard courts. The prediction strengthened further at Melbourne next year when he lost to Andy Murray in straight sets.
In short, Nadal has always been doubted, and it is obvious in some ways. He always downplays himself, calls Roger Federer the GOAT, says he does not care about records or the No. 1 ranking, and that his only goal is to constantly improve his game. In the beginning, it was hard to believe what he said—after all, how can one be so politically correct and believe it all?—but it is established fact now.
For all the changes he has made to his demeanor—from the pirate attire and loud Vamoses to a more balanced look, his style of play, or the improvements in English—two things have remained constant with Rafa.
First is his continuous zest to improve. Second is the joy he gets by winning every match, no matter at what stage of the tournament. He has displayed by falling to the ground after winning against Fernando Verdasco in Australia, against Andy Murray in Wimbledon, against Novak Djokovic in Madrid, or even against Mikhail Youzhny—not comparable to the Top Five by any means—to reach his first U.S. Open final. None of these matches were tournament finals (one was not even a Grand Slam).
And 2010 has been the year where we have seen a new Rafael Nadal, one who has not only improved himself in every facet of the game—most notably his serve and the half volley forehands from the baseline—but also taken over the mantle as the world’s best player.
In the past, even though he held the No. 1 ranking, he was not comfortable with it. It was obvious with his body language, demeanor, and shyness with the media. It is different now.
His English—although still less than satisfactory—has improved, he has a Facebook account to connect with his fans which he updates regularly, and he has become a strong presence in the media, with his presence in the Hits of Haiti exhibition matches, the Federer-Nadal commercials, the Nike exhibition matches, etc.
More importantly, he connects with his fans better than before. After winning at the French Open, the first thing he said to John McEnroe was that his next goal is New York. After winning against Murray at Wimbledon, he first thanked the crowd for their support to him even after he defeated the local favorite, and made it a point to thank them again after he won Wimbledon. And throughout the Open, all we could hear was, “I love New York. You people are amazing.”
And it is not just the way he connects with the fans. He is asserting his authority as the world No. 1. It was apparent by the way he pointed his finger to the umpire—something we never associated with him—when he was accused of taking on court coaching. Or the way he subtly conveyed his point about the quickness of the grass courts at Wimbledon by saying, “Everybody talks about Wimbledon is very slow. Maybe because I won two times, no?”
In fact, much of his success this year should be attributed to the improvements he has made on the social front. Federer is a perfect example of how your off-court presence can immensely help to increase your aura on court, and this is exactly what Nadal has set out to do, finding the right balance between being authoritative and humble.
Just like Federer was—and still is—the face of tennis since his dominance began at Wimbledon, Nadal is advancing from just being a fierce competitor on court to becoming the face of tennis. And what better way to be the poster boy of the sport than by bombing 130 mph serves with your wrong hand, and at the same time winning three consecutive Grand Slams with a hand worth half-a-million dollars?