Rafael Nadal: Why the 2011 French Open Will Forever Define His Career
Rafael Nadal has scaled many an Everest in his glittering career so far. After making his foray into the world of tennis in the Roger Federer era, Nadal has had to produce and maintain his "A" game from the word "go," year-after-year without any respite.
The Majorcan has done that superbly over the last six years, ever since he shocked Federer in that 2005 French Open semifinal on his way to becoming one of the youngest champions (aged 19) Roland Garros has ever produced—and that too in his debut Grand Slam!
Four more Coupe des Mousquetaires later, Rafael Nadal had become Paris' own son and was one of the favourites, if not the out-and-out favourite, to win the trophy and defend his title this year.
So when the Spaniard entered the tournament doubting himself and his ability to reproduce that empowering "A" game, Paris looked set to brace itself for the worst.
Nadal was coming into the tournament on the back of four consecutive defeats to Novak Djokovic, including two on his favourite clay. His confidence was low, his body language poor and he even verbally surrendered his mantle of World No. 1 to Djokovic. But if there was one thing that Rafa promised, it was that he would fight till the very end.
And that is exactly what he did.
The first half of the tournament was not a breeze for Rafa, like it usually is. American John Isner, who played that 11-hour marathon at Wimbledon last year, looked all set to test Nadal's will-power and resilience in the very first round itself.
Nadal came through that encounter in five sets—the first time he'd been stretched so far in the first round. If that wasn't enough, fellow countryman Pablo Andujar put up an almighty struggle in the second round before finally succumbing 5-7, 3-6, 6-7 (4).
The next two rounds were a bit of a breather for Rafa, with no major complications. But that "A" game just wasn't there yet. In fact, Rafa could be graded a solid "C" at the time.
All it needed was a matchup against the only man to beat him at Roland Garros two years ago to get his top game back. Any hopes Robin Soderling had of repeating that feat were quashed as Nadal teased the big Swede to a 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 victory.
World No. 4 Andy Murray was next in line to face a resurgent Nadal in the semifinals. Not even the best performance put forward by the Scotsman on clay was enough to stop Nadal from powering his way to his sixth French Open final in seven years.
So when old nemesis Roger Federer came up against the Majorcan in the final, after having put an end to Djokovic's 43-match unbeaten run and thereby preventing the Serbian from taking the top spot in the ATP rankings, Rafael Nadal knew that this was it.
Sure, he had already done it five times, but never had he faced such a stiff challenge for the title. Rafa knew that a win here would probably be his greatest and most fulfilling ever.
Federer, expectedly, didn't make it easy. The Swiss maestro raced to a 5-2 lead in the first set and had a set point when his famed drop shot fell millimeters wide.
Rafa knew he had his chance and he grabbed it like he was at a Christmas clearance sale. He held his serve and then went on to break Federer twice to take the first set 7-5.
Nothing would come in the way of the Spaniard after that—not even the rain gods. A brief 13-minute intervention in the second set led to a mini-fightback from the Swiss and took the set into a tie-breaker—clearly Federer territory.
But Federer ended up forfeiting his unblemished tie-break record to a resilient Rafa who wasn't about to let slip a whole set's worth of hard work in a matter of minutes, like Federer had done earlier.
So at 0-2 down in the match and staring down the barrel of the Spanish galleon, Federer had to dig deep into his talent reservoir to avoid another straight-sets defeat. His ploy, since the beginning of the match, was to rely on his big serve and try to catch Nadal on the hop in the return game. With his steam and legs running out, that's exactly what he did in the third set. The imperative break came eventually and Federer took the set 7-5.
Federer then raced on to a 0-40 lead in the opening game of the fourth and the Parisian crowd began to brace themselves for a five-setter. But Nadal clearly had other plans.
He fought off the three break points and held his serve. This turned out to be the final nail in the coffin and it hit Federer so hard that he served his first double fault and went on to lose two consecutive service games.
As Nadal sank to his knees after Federer's shot went long at championship point, one can only imagine the kaleidoscope of emotions running through his mind.
Not only had be picked himself up from the brink of a shock first round exit, he had beaten three of the world's top five players on the way to a record-equaling sixth French Open trophy.
This was, without a doubt, the tallest Everest (if I may say so) he's scaled. The record and comparison with the great Bjorn Borg can take a backseat. It's the tournament and its darling clay that matters.
Rafa, speaking to the Roland Garros website, reflected, "For me, it's something very special to equal the six titles of Bjorn, for sure. But, the most important thing is to win Roland Garros."
He added, "I'm going to keep working to be here next year and try to play well another time. But today is a day to enjoy this title, because it is very difficult win this title."
Difficult it was, and it may get even more difficult in the years to come. But Rafa thrives on such challenges and it's going to take...something...to wrestle the Coupe des Mousquetaires from those shining white teeth.
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