In my first article on this topic, I argued that slams won and performance in slams are the key criteria for being the modern-era tennis GOAT.
As the tennis season undergoes its one-month hiatus from the world of sport, the game’s top players will have one eye on a fast start at the 2015 Australian Open.
‘Off-season’ is an ill assigned term for the precious few weeks players have between resting their bodies from this year’s battles.
It is well known that the Australian Open gives no handouts. Players coming in underprepared will be weeded out one by one, withering under the brutal Australian sun.
Grand slam tennis requires a player to fight alone through seven rounds of best-of-five set matches over two weeks.
One off day is one too many.
On the Spanish island of Mallorca you can be sure that one man will be suffering through long training sessions, murdering the felt off the ball in a bid to be in top shape heading into January.
Rafael Nadal is no stranger to pain.
Throughout a career initially forged on the unforgiving clay courts of Europe, ‘Rafa’ has learned to embrace the suffering that comes hand in hand with his brutal style.
Only a brief inspection of Nadal’s game is required to see that there is nothing easy about it. His hulking figure and game face snarl are hallmarks of a life spent hunting and murdering the yellow fuzzy ball.
His whipping uppercut forehands provide an uncomfortable feeling to the shoulder just watching him.
He is every bit the modern day gladiator, weapon clutched firmly in his left hand as he sweats and bounces across the net from his rival, marching back and forth at his own pace between points.
Upon winning a crucial point, as he so often does, his trademark “Vamos!” and fist-pump send crowds into rapture. Are you not entertained?
Tennis has had its fair share of fighters over the years, our own Lleyton Hewitt springs to mind, but not like this. Not like Rafa.
Where Lleyton is David with the heart of a lion, Rafa is Goliath with a heart of a raging bull and every bit as ferocious.
His unbending will to win has won him countless matches and a loyal army of fans that yell louder and louder with each slam victory, hauling himself up to Federer’s mythical numbers.
Numerous injuries have plagued Nadal’s career, but where most come back a shadow of themselves, Nadal returns looking every bit the conditioned prize fighter.
Despite his success, within this titan of tennis lies his greatest asset, his humility. For all his bulging bravado and powerful groundstrokes, the man from Mallorca maintains an awfully modest outlook on his tennis.
This perspective has given him a psychological edge in many of his career’s biggest battles. Indeed if you’ve ever heard Nadal speak of Federer, you would think he has never beaten the bloke.
From the very beginning, back as a fearless teenager in 2004, Nadal was humble in his approach. Together with his uncle Toni, his lifelong coach, they have continuously chipped away at his game like an eternal apprentice despite reaching the pinnacle of the sport at the tender age of 18 with victory at Roland Garros.
Throughout the years Nadal has constantly played the underdog card prior to big tournaments and matches. He even displays caution with first round minnows; unknown journeymen get Rafa’s utmost respect before facing off.
It is a psychological tactic that a player uses to reduce pressure on themselves, and thus perform freely on the day. Rafa has played it to perfection.
Only it’s not a tactic. He genuinely believes it.
It’s not a lack of confidence as much as it is an acute awareness that tennis is a game of inches, as they all are, and that any bloke in the top 100 of men’s tennis has spent years at his craft to pose a threat to anyone if he happens to zone that day.
You can see the importance of it all to Nadal. Whether he’s in the final of Wimbledon or half way through demoralising another poor journeyman, you can see the significance.
Every match, game, and point is sacred, and he has the rituals to show it.
In between points, nervous tics shed light on his focus to the task at hand: socks adjusted, hair combed, baselines swept of disheveled clay from the point before. Not to mention that touching a line on the court after a point is blasphemy.
These are the hints we can see that give us a glimpse into the inner workings of one of the most mentally formidable athletes of all-time. Little quirks, tics, and rituals that put him in the best state of mind before a point.
He has done it every match of his career I have ever seen, no matter the score, no matter the occasion.
Where we see a titan figure with unbreakable defence and a forehand from hell, he sees the rust on his blade and the small chinks in his armour. He feels the pebble in his shoe. He knows he is human.
Vulnerable, scared, unsure. He leaves no stone unturned. Every point is important. Every. Damn. Point.
Chance has played only a cameo in the unfolding narrative of Nadal’s career.
When he no longer feels he can invest this draining effort into his game, he will hang up the bats and retire into a quiet life on the Mediterranean.
He is far too humble to assume he could compete with anything less, and that is what makes him the best.