This is a column I never expected to write. Even as recently as a few months ago, the chances of me saying a single nice thing about Rafael Nadal were about the same as me writing a two-part WNBA Finals preview. It wasn’t happening.
You see, I’m a Roger Federer guy. He’s the one who brought me back to tennis after I stopped paying attention about a decade ago, and the one who has kept me watching since. I owe my livelihood as a tennis fan to him.
And for all the number of reasons I've grown to love Federer these last couple years, there are the same number of reasons to loathe Nadal.
Federer is quiet. Nadal is loud. Federer is calm. Nadal is emotional. Federer is graceful. Nadal is big, bulky and powerful. Simply put, Nadal is everything Federer is not. So to me, rooting for Nadal these last couple years would've been like rooting for the Joker to overtake Batman in the Dark Knight: Not only would it never happen, I’d just feel wrong doing it.
Which was why Monday night was so strange.
Because after spending the last two weeks watching Nadal dominate the U.S. Open like an oversized Little Leaguer, I couldn’t help but have a newfound appreciation for the guy. He might still be everything that Federer's not, but they do have one big thing in common. They're both phenomenal tennis players. And as crazy as it sounds, I’ve kinda grown to like him.
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Of course like any other tennis fan, I was still hoping that Nadal would have to go through Federer to get his U.S. Open title. It was nothing personal against Novak Djokovic, but there was something symbolic about a Federer-Nadal final.
For one, it’s never happened in the U.S. Open. Sure we’ve seen it in Australia, Paris and at Wimbledon, not to mention a million other tour stops worldwide. But there was something special about the thought of it happening to end the season, in New York, at the U.S. Open.
More importantly though, it was about history.
Nadal may have already supplanted Federer as No. 1 in the world a few months ago, but it seemed only right that he have to go through his biggest rival to get the career Grand Slam. If Nadal won, it would have been a literal passing of the torch, almost like tennis' organic way of saying, "Rafael Nadal is the best player alive. Period."
And of course if Roger could’ve somehow pulled off a win, well there wouldn't be a better story in recent tennis history. Yes Federer is the greatest player of the modern era (and maybe any era), but there's no doubt his biological tennis clock is ticking. Because of that, how cool would it have been to see Federer beat Nadal to claim maybe his last Grand Slam title? Disney could’ve even started production on the movie tomorrow.
Instead, we were left with a Novak Djokovic-Nadal final that was nice, but was still a little bit of a buzz kill. Not terrible, but not what we were expecting. Almost like when you go on a really awesome date with a girl, and think you’ll be going upstairs at the end of the night, only to be stopped by her at the front door. Yes the date was nice, but you were this close to something even better. That's how Monday night felt.
In the end though, we were still lucky enough to see something special. Djokovic-Nadal may not have had the name cache that Federer-Nadal would have had. But I doubt that the match could have been any better regardless of who was playing.
For Djokovic, this was a coming out party of his own. To the casual fan, Djokovic has always good, occasionally great, and definitely the third best player in the world. But he's never been quite done enough to get mentioned in the same breath as Federer and Nadal. His reputation was that of a phyically strong, but mentally weak player, a guy melted down when conditions (weather, injuries, whatever), weren’t ideal. After all, there’s a reason that Andy Roddick once said of Novak, “He’s either quick to call the trainer, or the most courageous man of all-time. I think it’s up to you guys to decide.”
Well whatever Novak was, he isn’t now.
It started in his opening round match, when he was down two sets to one, and playing in conditions that could best be described as “hotter than the core of the Earth.” I don’t think I’m the only one who thought he’d lose that day. Instead he battled back, won the final two sets, and it seemed like he was on a free roll since.
Saturday’s semifinal win over Federer shut up the doubters for good. Believe me, I turned off football Saturday afternoon to watch the whole thing, and that never happens. But Djokovic-Federer demanded it, as Novak came back from down 5-4 in the fifth set for the stunning win. All these days later, I’m still not sure exactly how it happened, but it was incredible to watch. Nobody handed Novak a spot in Monday’s final. He earned it.
And in that final, he was outstanding.
Even though his energy was still tapped from Saturday afternoon, he played his heart out. He broke Nadal’s serve more times than the rest of the field had combined over the last two weeks, and even became the only player all tournament to take a set off him. Djokovic may not have won on Monday night, but he played as well- if not better- than anyone expected him to. Even when accepting the runner-up trophy, it was almost like Novak was at peace with himself. He seemed to have a confidence that I've never seen from him, like he knew that he'd played his absolute best tennis and just ran into a better player. I'm convinced that if Djokovic had played anyone but Nadal Monday night, he would’ve won.
As for Nadal, well it was hard not to fall for his game these last two weeks. And if not fall for it, at least grow to appreciate it.
Everybody talks about his serve being the big difference in New York, and with good reason, he’s never hit it harder. But truthfully, it wasn’t just a big serve. You don’t drop one set over the course of seven matches because of a big serve.
Beyond just his pure tennis skill, my newfound appreciation for Nadal lies in his spirit. I know that sounds like a cheesy line out of a bad sports movie, but I’m being serious. I watched more tennis these last two weeks than I have in a long time, and Nadal didn’t win just because he was the best player, but because he just wanted it more than everyone else. Nobody plays harder. Nobody kills themselves on every single point like he does. Nadal is like Kobe Bryant in the sense that his will to win overrides everything else. He only wants to beat you. That's it. And at the very least, he gives the fans their money’s worth every time he steps on the court. What more can you ask for from an athlete than that?
Yet beyond that skill and spirit, it seemed like to me, Nadal’s biggest stride was in his off the court demeanor. Maybe it’s because he’s never won this tournament before. Or that he entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed. Or that New Yorkers just came to appreciate him this year like they hadn't previously. Or that he's more comfortable in front of the cameras. Or something as simple as that he just speaks English better. I don’t know. Whatever it was, Nadal just seemed more likeable this year than he ever has been in the past.
(After his semifinal win on Saturday, Nadal made a comment about remembering and respecting those lost in the September 11 tragedy. That's what put it over the top for me. It was totally unexpected, and seemed totally from the heart. I don't care what he acts like on the court. The guy is a class act.)
Going forward, it’s no doubt that tennis is Nadal’s sport now.
He’s done it in all four majors, and on all three court surfaces. On Monday, he became the first male since Rod Laver in 1969 to win three straight Grand Slam tournaments in a calendar year. Not too shabby.
(Granted, I still stand by the fact that Federer's 2006 and 2007 season's, when he won three majors and lost in the final of the French to Nadal- maybe the greatest clay court player ever- were better than what Nadal accomplished this year.
What? I’m a homer, what can I say. Still, that’s another conversation for another day.)
Most importantly though, Rafa has wised up. He doesn't kill himself for 12 straight months now, but instead has limited his schedule to stay healthy, and focus on the Grand Slam's. To his credit, Nadal finally figured out that he’ll be judged by how he performs in four tournaments a year, and while it’s nice to win others, they ultimately don’t matter. That’s as a big a reason as any why he won his U.S. Open this year. He just wasn't broken down like he usually is by the end of August. And it’s as big a reason as any, why I think he’ll get pretty close to Federer’s mark of 16 Grand Slam titles eventually.
Regardless, I said this on Twitter after Wimbledon, and I’ll say it again now: These next 2-3 years are Rafael Nadal’s time in tennis. Djokovic will be there, and so will Andy Murray. Federer might still steal a match at times. And if Juan Martin Del Potro can come back healthy, he might be the only guy on tour that'll be able to out-power the powerful Nadal.
But for the time being, Rafael Nadal is at the top of the game, and nobody is close to catching him. Monday night was just the beginning.
Personally, I'm just glad I wised up, and decided to sit back and actually enjoy it.
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