Rafael Nadal: A Most Unique Combination of Competitiveness and Humility

Matt GoldbergCorrespondent IJune 6, 2011

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 05:  Champion Rafael Nadal of Spain clutches the trophy as the Spanish national anthem is played during the men's singles final match between Rafael Nadal of Spain and Roger Federer of Switzerland on day fifteen of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 5, 2011 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

As all tennis fans know by now, Rafael Nadal won the 2011 French Open final 7-5, 7-6 (3), 5-7, 6-1 over longtime rival Roger Federer on the red clay of Roland Garros. If you are reading this column, you also know that this was Rafa’s 10th major victory, and record-tying (with Bjorn Borg) sixth French Open title.

Match recaps abound on Bleacher Report and elsewhere, but my initial focus is this: Can you name any athlete, other than Rafa—current or retired—who has the same combination of all-out, fiery, take-no-prisoners determination and a disarming graciousness and humility?

I have been following tennis (and many other sports) for 40 years or so, and find Rafa to be uniquely compelling for this apparent duality. Over the years, my favorite tennis players have included the late Arthur Ashe (the consummate gentleman and noble, scholarly man off the court as well), Ilie Nastate (frankly, a flamboyant and brilliant train wreck on the court), Boris Becker, Patrick Rafter, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Nadal.

To me, the closest tennis player who exhibited similar elements of the fire-breathing warrior and the modest mensch was Rafter. Ashe? Not a fire-breathing dragon. Borg? His style of play was also too cool. Jimmy Connors? He had the fire-breathing part down pat, but he was not exactly modest, or anything but a self-centered jerk on and off the court. Yes, I enjoyed his elder statesman phase, too, but I’m just being honest. McEnroe? Are you kidding me?!

How about Federer? His style is also too effortless, and as polished (and admirable) as he is, he can be borderline arrogant. He can even cross that border at times when he embraces and pays tribute to his own greatness.

Perhaps, what I am trying to describe here is difficult. There are many athletes who are “killers” on the field and nice guys off it. It’s just that Rafael Nadal is among the most competitive athletes I have ever seen, and also just about the most humble.

If Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis were as soft-spoken as Tony Dungy, he’d rival Rafa in this category. But, of course, Ray Lewis is pretty much Ray Lewis off the field as well.

Two football players better fit the bill for me. The late, great Walter Payton and, currently, Saints star quarterback Drew Brees.

Still, Rafa heads this hard-to-define list for me. Readers: Perhaps, you can find other, and better, examples.


Gold Notes: Five Quick Passing Shots

1. Much was made of the drop shot that Federer just missed when he had a set point in the first at 5-2. Was it a turning point? Maybe, but let’s not go crazy here. Nadal pulled up when he saw the ball land wide—if just inches wide. Rafa was in perfect position to not only cover it, but to (as he can uniquely pull off) produce a winner off of it.


2. Too much, in my opinion, was also made of Federer choking to blow that 5-2 first-set lead, and others pointed to his 56 (supposed) unforced errors. I’m sorry, but that’s utterly disrespectful to both Fed and Rafa.

When you have to consistently hit three to four winners against Nadal just to win a point, many of your errors are not really unforced. Federer played a more aggressive game yesterday against Nadal, and that strategy inherently involved more risk. For instance, he was moving in much more on Nadal’s second serve, and at times it paid off.

I suspect that if one re-watches (I have not yet had the opportunity to do so), the five consecutive games Nadal won from 2-5 down, he/she would be quite impressed with the high quality of play by both players.


3. Nadal is often, and rightfully, given lots of credit for his speed, power and mental toughness. How much credit is he given for his touch? Not nearly enough.

Rafa can not only pound balls into submission, but he can also shape them when needed. He’ll never (although, should I ever put anything past him?) become a serve-and-volleyer, but he has great reflexes and soft hands when at net.

One of my favorite points of the tourney happened in the fascinating, and pivotal, 5-5 game of the first set—the game where Nadal would break Federer again to have the opportunity to serve for the set. After a long rally, Fed was in perfect position to pass Nadal. He loaded up on a topspin backhand—right at Nadal—who countered with an extraordinary lob volley.

Fed did a brilliant job of chasing it down, but Nadal was able to put away the crucial point. A boatload of greatness was displayed on that point, with Rafa’s amazing reflexes and touch volley at the head of the list.


4. The question was posed by NBC analyst Mary Carillo and others: “Can Roger Federer be considered to be the greatest of all time when he is not even the greatest of his own era?

Most of the premise of this question was based on the fact that Rafa dominates Roger head to head (17-8 overall, and 6-2 in major finals).

My take? The premise is faulty. Just because you dominate someone head to head does not mean that you are the top player of your era. Right now, Federer has achieved too much to not be considered the top player of his era, even with that 8-17 head-to-head record versus Nadal.

Pundits need to wait till both of their careers are over to determine this, and even then, there are no real objective metrics of which to adhere.


5. For that matter, I could not resist doing my own ranking of the top 32 players last September, after Nadal won the U.S. Open to achieve the (rare) career Grand Slam. In that ranking I ended up placing Federer, Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras and Rafa Nadal (for now) in my top four.

I personally ranked the players of the last 40 years, which excluded the great Rod Laver from garnering this mythical title. If I included Laver, I’d have to put him at No. 1. He is one of only two male players to win the true (calendar year) Grand Slam, and the only one to do so twice, in 1962 and 1969. He was, essentially, barred from playing in majors from 1963-68; how many more would he have won?

If he only took half of them, he’d have added 12 more, for a grand total of 23. Since he went 4-for-4 in both 1962 and 1969, that almost seems like a conservative projection!