Monday, June 6, 2011

The Toughest Man in Sports

On the third match point of his excellent semifinal win against Novak Djokovic on Friday, Roger Federer delivered an ace that was nearly as scorching as his reaction.

Djokovic, a thoroughly unlikable rubber-band-man who will probably take over the world #1 ranking this summer, was riding a 41-match victory streak to start the year, second in history only to John McEnroe’s 42. Before the final point, he motioned to the line judge to quiet the excitable crowd. His rigid face betrayed the awful tension.

But Federer looked calm. When he served his ace, he didn't leap in celebration or crumple to the ground. Instead, he stalked toward the net, a tight smile on his face, and spun his finger in the air. Then, looking straight across the court, he nodded defiantly before unleashing a primal scream and swatting a ball into the stands. It was the inner badass revealed.

(Skip to the 0:20 mark of the video below.)

The rare outburst showed the intense competitive drive of the man many consider the greatest player in tennis history. When everything clicked, in 2003, he went on a seven-year tear that would net him an all-time best 16 grand slam singles titles. Many of those came under conditions of intense pressure, and his excellence was never in doubt.


Which makes it so incredible, and so unbelievable, that Rafael Nadal routinely batters him into submission on the grand slam stage.

Yesterday’s championship was just the latest example of Nadal’s dominance. The Spaniard is now 17-8 against Federer in his career, and 7-2 in grand slams (for perspective, Federer is 14-1 in grand slam finals against everyone else). The clay surface, of course, makes up the bulk of the difference- the two are dead even at 4-4 on hard courts, and Federer leads 2-1 on the Wimbledon grass- but in recent non-clay majors, Nadal has still been the better man.

During the match, the sportswriter Joe Posnanski tweeted this: “If the scariest thing in sports is an opponent who never stops coming, the scariest player in sports might be Rafa Nadal.”

His relentlessness is certainly a virtue; he pounded Federer’s backhand all match, using heavy topspin to jam his opponent and expose a very slight weakness. That unceasing quality stems from his toughness- the primary reason for Nadal’s supremacy.

Consider this: at the end of the third set, Federer had won 117 points to Nadal’s 116. He had long stretches of brilliance where it looked like he wouldn’t lose a point, much less a game. Yet he dropped the first two sets, and came dangerously close to losing the third. As usual in these matches, the points of highest tension told the story; Nadal’s sense of momentum, as well as his preternatural ability to steel himself and raise his game when backed against a wall, gave him the edge.

Three moments in particular stand out.

1 – First set, Nadal down 2-5 and facing a set point on his serve. After a short rally, Federer attempted a drop shot. It landed an inch wide, and Nadal held serve.

To that point, Federer had played with a unusual looseness. McEnroe wondered if the pressure of facing Nadal on clay had vanished now that he’d won a French Open (in 2009). But after the hold, when Nadal pressed Federer and forced a break, it became clear that the nerves persisted. For the first time, we saw that peculiar look that Federer only gets against Nadal- his face goes stern, he sets his jaw, and he retreats into himself as though his pride has been hurt and he’d sooner die than admit it. Nadal won the next four games and took the set.

2 – Second set, tiebreaker. Federer had played a beautiful stretch to even the set after an early break. By the skin of his teeth, Nadal managed to avoid a second break and eke into the tiebreaker. But despite the backslide, he recovered to cut Roger off at the knees, taking the first four points on the way to winning the breaker 7-3.

3 – Fourth set, 0-0, Nadal serving down 0-40. Federer was riding another impressive stretch that earned him the third set. Now, in the fourth, Rafa looked lost and hopeless on his own serve. He was on the cusp of a match-altering reversal until he dug deep, saved all three break points, and managed an unlikely hold in the face of the Federer tidal wave.

These moments, small in the grand scheme, broadcast a crucial signal to the opponent – no matter how great you play, I cannot be broken. The missed opportunity clearly weighed on Federer. He won just one more game on the way to dropping the final set 6-1.


And even this record of tested mettle doesn’t tell Nadal's full story. There’s also the Paris crowd. McEnroe and Mary Carillo generously attributed their overwhelming support of Federer to his fluency in French, but the truth is that the Roland-Garros partisans have always been against Nadal.

He’s lost just once in his career in Paris, to Robin Soderling in 2009, and during that match the French threw their full support behind the Swede. Nadal’s coach, his uncle Toni, was so infuriated that he called the French ‘conceited’ and said they hated it when a Spaniard won. In fact, the record of the fans' dislike goes back to Rafa's first year, when play was actually stopped while the crowd booed an umpire who made a call favoring the teenager. Sunday, he earned only scattered applause on most of his points while Federer was cheered with throaty roars. Essentially, he won a road match.

There’s also the fact of his humility. It’s easy to call him a ‘warrior,’ with the aggressive style and the muscular frame, but the truth is he’s saddled by very human doubts. Earlier in the tournament, he told reporters frankly that he didn’t think he could win the tournament. In 2009, in the 5th-set of an epic Australian Open semifinal against Fernando Verdasco, the pressure was so intense that Nadal began to quietly cry on the court.

Unlike a stereotypical warrior, Nadal's success comes without an ironclad self-belief. He's never putting on a show- simplicity is the only display.


The odd paradox of Roger Federer is that although he’s widely considered the greatest tennis player of all time, it’s also true that he’s not the greatest player of his own time. That title belongs to Nadal, and it’s already too late in the game for the order to change.

Facing a hostile crowd, riddled with doubts, and flailing at times against the sporadic genius of Federer, Rafa still managed to win the points that mattered and raise his sixth Coupe de Mosquetaires. He’s carved his legacy from a toughness exceeding anything of its kind in the modern sports landscape.

But it’s a fortitude built on humanity. In 2009, crying to himself in the fifth against Verdasco, he ignored the nerves to win a five hour epic. The next day, he topped Federer in the final, and when that incredible performer cried his own tears on center court, Nadal put one arm around the shaking shoulders of his rival and spoke words of consolation.

When Rafa is gone- and in tennis, that day could come too soon- it's worth remembering the grace that went with the grit.

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