The sporting obituary of Rafael Nadal has been written more than once during the course of his long and illustrious career. It started early and occurred often as Nadal battled through one debilitating injury after another, each potentially career-ending and collectively representing a lifetime of fruitful engagement for an entire college of orthopaedics. Every time he was written off and consigned to the sporting crematorium, he rose from the ashes like the mythical phoenix.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic. Together the three have dominated men’s tennis like no other troika in the history of the game, winning an incredible 51 Grand Slam singles titles, including the Serb’s triumph at the US Open on Sunday. For good measure they have also added 91 singles Masters 1000 titles to their trophy cupboards. And in the process have banked approximately $339 million in prize money. Attractive as it may seem at first glance, before you rush off to enrol your four-year-old Junior Federer at the local tennis academy to swing his racquet for your retirement benefit, it’s worth considering a few facts about the business of tennis.
Nadal is Nadal because mentally he has already decided he can and will win every match, and every moment of every game of every set of every match he is exploiting either the weaknesses he has already noted or ones he has just identified from the corner of his eye as he goes up for a smash or stretches to return a cross-court shot at an impossible angle. Roger Federer is no different. Unhurried, sublime, smooth as silk in his returns, he is the dangerous silent executioner. If he cannot outplay you at first, he will out-think you, then he will outplay you. In the end he will prevail, not necessarily because he was better on the day, but because he had decided he would and had determined exactly how to do so. The brain, in short, will always find the path the body cannot.
The phenomenal achievements of two men who six months before the Australian Open were barely able to walk and uncertain about playing top level tennis again, begs the question about what happens when they lay down their racquets. At 31, both injury plagued Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, notwithstanding their talent and achievements, are no spring chickens even if they have a few Grand Slams left in them. So is there a future for men’s tennis in the coming years? Will 18% of a country’s population ever again switch on their TV sets to watch a game of tennis once these men have retired?
Rafa didn’t know it yet, but I was in love. It didn’t matter that I was only one of 100 million who fell in love all over again that night; it didn’t matter that for the first time in our wedded life my wife and I were in love with the same man; it didn’t matter that the object of my affection would remain on the wrong side of a television screen for the length of our romance. All that mattered was that Rafa Nadal had walked into the lives of a hundred million besotted humans like me and tennis would never be the same again.
Nick is a changed man. He doesn’t tell umpires what kind of calisthenics they should indulge in beyond the tennis courts (Fognini does that now). He has been playing unbelievable tennis and almost took out Roger Federer in the Laver Cup and seemed to be finally truly enjoying the sport. He played tennis like I have been waiting to see from the next generation for the past few years, on his way to the runners-up position at the China Open. I had started the move past the centre to the right of the ‘Hate-Love Continuum’. My wife warned me against the danger. She said not to fall into the trap his mind-numbing talent lays for me every few months. She pointed out the signs when in the finals of the China Open glimpses of the Old Nick began to emerge on court. She said he would betray my trust, again. I told her the quality of linesmen in the tournament was abysmal so he is entitled to a little angst. Wives are always right. I should have listened to her.
From a year ago, when there did not seem to be a strong new group of players coming up who could give us the same pleasure as the current Big 4, today, suddenly, there is hope. As we look to the future, there appears to be reason to be optimistic that Alexander (Zverev), Borna (Coric) and Dennis (Shapopalov) may well be the ABD of tennis that gives us reason to continue watching and enjoying a supremely high quality of tennis.
The eyes of the nearly 10,000 members of the Jewish faith in India (and cricket-lovers like you and me) will, however, be on the cricket team which is determined to put up a good show and try their best to climb the peak that holds the medals of Gold, something that has eluded them thus far.
As the media meet ended at Monte Carlo, Nadal was asked one last question about what ten titles at Roland Garros would mean to him. He answered in three words before walking off with a smile. “I want it.”
26 years as a professional tennis player. 140 different doubles partners. 18 Grand Slam doubles titles. Five Asian Games gold medals, and one Olympics bronze. He is Leander Adrian Paes.