That’s not because he doesn’t play any scintillating strokes (he plays some outrageously brilliant ones, almost as a matter of routine), but because the mental image I have of Nadal is from looking at him after a match ends, specifically one that he wins. There is nothing in the world more electrifying than a Nadal exult after he emerges victorious in a tennis match, his every muscle stretched, every sinew working overtime. It is a magnificent sight because it comes from somewhere deep within the player and the fundamental force that shapes him – the will to keep going.
Watching a young Nadal pound away with a bruising array of groundstrokes (on all sorts of surfaces, not just clay; his current grand slam finals tally is 23, 13 of them on non clay surfaces), I had always imagined that the toil would take terrible toll on his body. And it did. Nadal, over the last decade, has had layoffs totaling almost 2 years because of injuries, particularly his knees that have required major attention. Imagine having to take 20% of your time off at work because of sick leaves. It would not just take a toll on opportunities but on your own self belief. But while chronic injuries like these may have broken a mere mortal, Nadal’s willpower and sheer tenacity is not that of an ordinary mortal.
The injuries actually define him. He is a surreal mix of the proclivity of Mr. Glass to injure himself and the superhuman strength of David Dunn in fighting back. Or, as Chumbawamba so elegantly put it – I get knocked down, I get up again. He had said after his win at the 2017 French Open (a scarcely believable 10th title at Roland Garros) that the doubts injuries plant in him become the motivation he uses to climb back up. “I have doubts every day but that’s good as it makes me work hard with more intensity.”
But being a fighter who never gives up is not an easy defining quality to have. As he puts it:
“You have to be humble and accept that you have to work to improve things. I have doubts today, I had doubts in the last three years, I will have doubts in a few days. Life is never clear. If you have no doubts, then you are very arrogant. I am not an arrogant person.”
In my early days of watching him on court, I had always thought the intensity and the Rock You Like A Hurricane game he brought to it welled from a deep desire to be the best. It only dawned on me after watching him for about a decade that this is a man who purely and unconditionally loves this sport and is willing to put everything on the line because he loves the competition so much. That journey for him is the destination; the 16 Grand Slams are incidental, although richly deserved. Consider this – despite his injuries he has never fallen out of the World Top 10 since he entered it over 12 years ago. In the brutal world of professional tennis that is a ridiculous statistic, one highlighting staying power that comes from a source more powerful than Adamantium & Vibranium combined.
So what is Rafael Nadal’s superpower? It is, as all of his fans will point out to you, the tenacity of his mind. Mental strength has been reduced to a cliche in most sports discussions but you need to take only one look at his post match exult to see the physical manifestation of what that means. And that is why, even for me, a card carrying Roger Federer fan, it remains the most electrifying sight on a tennis court.