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In June 2005, playing in his first French Open final, a 19-year-old Rafael Nadal found himself in a spot of bother. Deep into the fourth set, his opponent, the unseeded Mariano Puerta, had two set points on his serve to take the match into a decider. But Nadal wouldn’t allow it. He produced drop shots of unerring accuracy and struck his ground-strokes with a ferocity that belied his age. It was clear that a new star was born, that the genius of Roger Federer had found itself a worthy rival. But how long was Nadal going to be able to last? Unlike Federer, Nadal — for all his preternatural abilities — seemed to invest every ounce of his energies into every point he played. Each match, to him, was a final reckoning.
Yet, here we are, in the most turbulent of years, when almost everything seems to have gone awry, and Nadal has done what he almost always does: win the French Open. He is now a champion at Roland Garros for the thirteenth time, having lost just twice in the 102 matches that he’s played at the venue — a dominance so unfathomable that until the middle of 2009, Pete Sampras, who won 14 major titles, held the record for most grand slams by a men’s tennis player.
The score-line in the final against Novak Djokovic suggests this came easy, but it was anything but. Just as he did all those years ago, Nadal played like his life depended on the match. He chased every ball down, from one wing to another, ran down Djokovic’s drop shots, and turned defence into attack with infallible poise — he created, to borrow Simon Barnes’s words, an “illusion of complicity”. No other tennis player lives the moment like Nadal does; he brings to each rally an intensity so severe that we can feel it searing on our television screens thousands of miles away.
It wasn’t all that long ago, though, that Nadal was written off by critics. In 2015, after he lost in five sets to Fabio Fognini in the third round of the U.S Open, his physical shape seemed to have waned; the unrelenting style of his tennis, many believed, had taken an irreversible toll. For the first time, Nadal ended a calendar year without winning a single major. It wasn’t that he was merely being toppled by his rivals, but he was losing to — and being outclassed by — all manners of journeymen. In Wimbledon the same year, when he lost to the 102-ranked Dustin Brown, it was hard to tell who the champion was.
Tennis players, unlike footballers, do not have teammates to prop them up. Competing can be a lonely pursuit and, with injuries mounting, Nadal looked more and more a spent force. But 2017 brought with it a revival — he won two majors, including, impressively, on the hard courts at the U.S. Open. To what did Nadal owe this metamorphosis?
To present the best version of himself, to bring to every match, to every training session, the same level of dedication that he brought to the final at Roland Garros, is, to Nadal, the most basic ask. In this distilled philosophy, there is perhaps a learning for all of us: to take seriously our ethical responsibility to become the best versions of ourselves.
There were unquestionably minor tweaks that he made to his game. His first serve was now an improved weapon, and he shortened points by attacking sooner into rallies than he might have earlier in his career. But his resurgence emanated out of a renewed dedication to the foundations on which his game is built. When commentators implore players to treat every point equally it can sound like a cliché. But, for Nadal, this has been a career’s motif: a willingness to chase down every ball and to commit himself wholly to every point.
Remarkably, before the French Open final this year, many believed that Djokovic had the edge, on account chiefly of the cooler weather, with the tournament being staged in October, and the closed roof above the court. Writing off Nadal though is a fool’s errand. The final showed us that even at 34 he is capable of being an implacable force, of summoning greatness at will.
Is there anything, though, that we can absorb from Nadal’s endeavours? To be sure, there are qualities in his late-career excellence for other sportspersons to study: his grit and his determination; his integrity on and off the court; his devotion to practice and training; and his willingness to think through strategies to combat specific opponents, Indeed, the women’s singles champion at the French Open, the talented teenager Iga Swiatek, said Nadal is the only player that she looked up to. But what about the rest of us, outside the world of sport?
There are good reasons to think of sport as a metaphor for life. Unlike Nadal, not all of us has a competitor staring at us from the other side of a net, but we still seek meaning in sport. Following Nadal makes sense for many reasons. For one, watching him play tennis gives us a sense of what greatness in motion can look like. But there is also something compelling in his approach to life that transcends the sport in some ways — the “Tao of Rafa” as the New York Times ’ Karen Crouse recently described it.
In his interview after the final, Nadal was clearly delighted, but he didn’t see the manner of his victory as a particular cause for revelry. He pointed instead to the Australian Open last year when Djokovic had beaten him in similar fashion, in a match that barely lasted two hours. It is Nadal’s perspective on his majors’ tally, though, that is especially telling. As always, he brushed aside the tedious debate on who — between him, Federer, and Djokovic — was the greatest of all time. To him, spending time thinking about what others around him had achieved was futile. “You have to live your personal life,” he said. “Personally, that’s the thing I did during all my career, try my best every single day. In terms of these records, of course that I care [about]. I am a big fan of sport in general. I respect a lot that.”
To present the best version of himself, to bring to every match, to every training session, the same level of dedication that he brought to the final at Roland Garros, is, to Nadal, the most basic ask. It is a mantra that he has often repeated, both in triumph and in adversity. In this distilled philosophy, there is perhaps a learning for all of us: to take seriously our ethical responsibility to become the best versions of ourselves. To treat our lives as a challenge, as Nadal does, as one where we take our private responsibilities seriously, ought to strike us as an example worth emulating.