It’s happened. It’s taken me eight years, eleven Grand Slams, one Olympic gold and a starring role in some of the most heart-stopping sporting encounters in history (including the latest one, another astonishing match against the lion-hearted Novak Djokovic that at time of writing finished mere hours ago), but it’s finally happened. I now love Rafael Nadal.
He hasn’t always made it easy for me. His initial incarnation as a grunting baseline thwacker with a lurid wife-beater vest and engorged left bicep was hard for anyone to love, especially when compared to the glory of Roger Federer effortlessly guiding his single-handed backhand down the line (still, to my mind, the most beautiful sight in modern sport, possibly second to his own balletic inside-out forehand).
When the two came together, as for a while seemed to happen in the final of every major, the contrast could not have been starker: Nadal endlessly fiddling with his hair and picking at his damned shorts, hitting the ball as though he had a personal vendetta against it (“Hello. My name is Rafael Nadal. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”) and bellowing like a wounded bull, and Federer…well, being Federer. It’s hard to find the words to do him justice even now in his recent more fallible guise, but to describe him in the peak years of his reign one is forced to consider and discard a whole thesaurus of descriptors: ‘artistry’ erroneously implies a flakiness and lack of application; ‘perfection’, while tempting, is patently nonsense; ‘gifted’ is frankly an insult to the thousands of hours and millions of balls that those at the top of the sport go through to bring you those legacy-defining few hours of drama and tension we call tennis matches. Put simply, Roger was, and for many still is, tennis.
Then came the brash Spaniard with the footballer uncle and the coach who sounded like a character from The Fast Show. At the start he was just another big hitter, elevated to curiosity status by virtue of his appearance and his being a lefty. Then in 2006 when he started winning, and the first chapter in the Lay of Roger and Rafa was written, he was just another clay-court specialist, a ‘dirt rat’ to borrow a phrase from Andre Agassi. We’d seen this before from the likes of Kuerten and Gaudio, and it was nothing to unduly worry us Federer devotees.
But then he kept on winning. And as his stature grew, and he kept grinding Roger into the red Parisian dust year after year, Nadal in my mind took on the kind of pantomime villain status hitherto reserved for Glenn McGrath or Sir Alex Ferguson. Or for those of a slightly older vintage, Tonya Harding. In these more enlightened days it fills me with shame to say so, but I hated him. Then came Sunday, July 6 2008: the Wimbledon men’s singles final.
For two years, Nadal’s role when it came to SW19 had been to embellish Federer’s legend. He had been tough, belligerent and increasingly harder to subdue, but this merely made the inevitable Roger victory all the sweeter. 2008 changed all that. Both players were trying to make history: Rafa was striving to complete the clay-grass double at the third time of asking, and Roger to outdo Björn Borg and win his sixth Wimbledon on the trot. Roger had been at his imperious best throughout the tournament, dispatching all-comers in straight sets with tennis that made one feel all was right with the world.
But as the first and then the second set went Nadal’s way, the spectre of the French Open shellacking of a few weeks ago began to loom large in the imagination. The rain break came, and finally Federer’s serve (his most reliable weapon, and the one area where even now he probably has the edge over Nadal) and aura began to assert themselves. Two tie-breaks; two sets apiece. The crowd eagerly awaited the impending coronation of King Roger VII. But after another shower, and in the gathering South London gloom, Nadal was asked to dig ever deeper just to hold serve, and was equal to the task. Roger squandered break point after break point. At last, shockingly, the famed Federer forehand cracked, and Nadal would not be so forgiving. As he lifted the trophy at the end of what was certainly the greatest tennis match of my lifetime, the hatred became respect.
And for the next few years, that’s as far as it got. One could not help respect his power, his whipcrack forehand, his athleticism and his sheer cojones. The shorts thing was still a source of irritation, but it could be overlooked as a mere quirk. But my love was still reserved for Roger, albeit with brief flirtations with the mercurial Tsonga, the ever-endearing Roddick and, for what felt like about a week, the exhausted shambling figures of Isner and Mahut. The rise of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray and the ensuing arms race between the top four elevated the whole sport, or at least the men’s side, to a level that frequently defied description. Murray in particular became a near-constant provider of viscerally gripping come-from-behind victories and achingly close defeats.
But Nadal’s most recent victim, the Serbian world number one, deserves a special mention in this story. For without his efforts to redefine what was physically possible from a tennis player, Rafa would never have made the transition from respected to loved in the weird, unrequited way only a sportsman can be. After Djokovic’s five-hour come from behind win against Murray in the semis of the 2012 Australian Open, which was draining merely to watch, we didn’t think we’d see it’s equal for some time. It took two days.
After Murray’s final despairing running forehand landed in the net, Djokovic had barely had the energy to walk off court. Andy Murray’s physicality and relentless shot-making ability had stretched him to what we thought was the absolute physical and mental limit. Novak himself confessed to having undergone a ‘physical crisis’ in the second set. And yet, with less than 48 hours recovery time, he was able to endure five sets of the most technically and physically exacting tennis imaginable lasting almost six hours, he overcame the fittest player the game had ever seen and sealed his place in the sporting pantheon forever. But that’s not all he sealed.
It was the first time Nadal had really had a taste of the lactic acid laced medicine he had been dishing out for so long. He could have been forgiven for being monosyllabic or even bitter afterwards. But instead, he seemed to recognise the significance of what he had just been part of. He said, “…I really understand that was a really special match, and probably a match that’s going to be in my mind not because I lost, no, because of the way that we played.” And thus was a sporting love kindled.
That night in Melbourne, Rafael Nadal proved himself a man well aware of the glorious sweeping narrative of his sport, and the crucial role he plays in it. Those sportsmen who inspire genuine, non-partisan love – Muhammad Ali, Sir Viv Richards, Roger Federer, Usain Bolt – all share this sense of history. Rafa’s enforced absence from the tennis world through much of 2012 impoverished it greatly, and should he go on to conquer his hard-running countryman David Ferrer on Sunday and become the first man to win the same major eight times, he will cap his return by sealing his place forever as the one true King of Clay.
¡Vamos Rafa! You deserve it. Oh – and I love you.
PS – but please, please, stop messing around with your shorts.