The average American responds to the question, “How was work today?” with an answer proportionate to the amount of additional work that they were forced to do.
Those hectic days when the phone is ringing off the hook, the emails are nonstop and the mountain of paperwork upon your desk grows taller and taller? They are rarely chalked up as pleasant.
Relentlessness is overwhelming. No matter how good you are at what you do, you feel self-doubt. Even if by some stretch of your imagination, you were the best who ever lived at your occupation.
You know, like Roger Federer.
There is not a single person I know, and not a single person whom anyone I know knows, who is as good at their job as Federer is at his. Yet even Federer has those kinds of days.
Not coincidentally, they always seem to occur when Rafael Nadal stands across the net. Sunday’s French Open Championship was just another one of those days.
Federer was Federer. As he does every match, he hit some of the most ridiculous shots; precise lasers from corner to corner with pinpoint accuracy.
But one by one, Rafa returned them—often times with ease. And the points would continue, until a frustrated Federer committed an unforced error while attempting an impossible kill.
In his heart, the greatest tennis player who ever lived believes that impossible kills are the only way to beat Rafael Nadal.
I have watched Nadal play on countless occasions. My reaction Sunday morning was no different than usual:
Unfortunately, Federer has the same reaction. Forget breaking Federer’s serve, Nadal breaks his spirit.
But against Nadal, his demeanor changes. The moment things go awry, Federer’s psyche is cracked. He is defeated before being defeated.
Nadal plays tennis with a skillful, reckless abandonment that is unprecedented in tennis, and unparalleled in all of sports. It is one thing to beat opponents; Nadal imposes his will and rips his opponents’ hearts from them.
I cannot think of a single athlete who does so as effectively.
He reminds me of Antonio Margarito during his classic knockout victory over Miguel Cotto in 2008. (I hate referencing this fight knowing now that Margarito likely used loaded gloves to defeat Cotto, but at the time, it was a spectacular demonstration of a competitor imposing his will on an opponent.)
Cotto spent the first six rounds outboxing Margarito, landing devastating punches flush on Margarito’s chin–shots that would have knocked anyone else out.
And not one affected the Tijuana Tornado. Margarito continued pressing forward and after Cotto realized that his best shots could not disrupt Margarito, he submitted to defeat.
Tennis pundits laud Federer for his tennis awareness—some attribute his greatness to this specific characteristic. However, his awareness destroys him against Nadal.
Federer knows when his remarkable shots should end in points. Nadal’s unrelenting ability to return them is an unfamiliar phenomenon that he cannot cope with. If Federer had the option to take a knee, as Cotto did, I imagine he would.
If you wrote a movie about a fictional tennis superstar, he would mirror Federer’s every characteristic. Between his physical tools, skills, and grace, Federer is the perfect player.
And this makes Nadal the ideal foil.
He is the create-a-player that only a video game would conceive: a longhaired, grunting, chiseled southpaw, whose every forehead, wrist and calf is covered by some sort of Nike sweatband.
He is a relentless warrior who has cracked the great Federer’s invincibility.
And that saddens me. Federer is the greatest of all time, yet he might not be the greatest of his own time.
Sure, their head-to-head numbers (Nadal is 7-2 in Majors against Federer but 5-0 on clay) are skewed by Federer’s dominance on all surfaces. If Nadal had reached as many hard court finals as Federer did French Open finals, their record would likely be even.
But looking beyond the numbers, Nadal exposed a vulnerability in Federer that I have never witnessed in an all-time great.
Even when Federer beats Nadal, Nadal never looked as discouraged. You never sense that Nadal knows he cannot win.
The same cannot be said for Federer.
Federer’s greatness attracted me to tennis; Nadal’s greatness frightens me.
But I am grateful that I have witnessed each of their primes. When Nadal could not beat Federer, he improved his hard court and grass play to become the No. 1 player in the world. Since falling behind Nadal, Federer has fought Father Time valiantly to try to do the same.
Their competitive spirit is a blessing in today’s sporting landscape. If the going got tough, you can be sure that neither of these kings of the court would ever choose to team up as doubles partners.
Well, of course not. Only a chump would do that—these men are all-time greats.