Roddick had the thunderous serve and blistering forehand. Well, at least he had it in the early days. Hewitt had the speed, court brilliance and defensive skills. Safin had everything but a certain mental screw… yet the sheer lethality and power of his game was stagnating. At this time, in the prime of the Fed era, Roger Federer had it all. He was synonymous with the game and it appeared nobody could stop him, including the previously mentioned players. They had everything in their tool set to defeat him, but Federer seemed to have all of their tool sets, including his and then some.
So when Rafael Nadal of Mallorca, Spain, appeared on the scene with his buggy whip forehand, less than serviceable backhand, vulnerable serve and defensive mentality, no one could have predicted the power of impact he would have had on the legacy of ‘perfection’ or to a greater extent, the impact he would have had on tennis. However, beyond the determined grunt when he finished up on one of those patented follow throughs, beyond the ridiculous speed and coverage around the court, there was one thing he had which few others possessed… A heart without fear.
In his prime, Federer ripped and sliced his way through draws as a knife easily breaks the resistance of butter. His reputation went before him and it was a well-known fact that just about every opponent was defeated before they took to the court to do battle against him. The greatest. Against Nadal that statement became more of a question. The greatest? People would ask while they watched in awe as this Mallorcan repeatedly pummeled perfection point after point until it finally broke – rather imperfectly – on the red sands of the Terre Battue. Nadal’s domain. It was the one place the empire of Federer could not encroach. The one safe haven that slowed the march of the Swiss towards history. It was and will always be rather befitting of Nadal’s game. Rough, unpolished, unpredictable and yet consistently expected. You knew what was coming, but you could do little to stop it. And just when you thought you could see a pattern, Nadal would do something different. Yet it was and always will be consistent with his game… the shifting dusts of the clay look predictably the same from afar, but as you drill in, you discover that each grain has its own nature entirely. It was a discovery Federer made time and time again, at his expense.
However, every mortal has his weakness. Where Federer held fans in awe with his other-worldly play, Nadal has always tugged and pulled at the hearts of many with his indomitable spirit and that spirit’s war with not just his opponents, but with his achilles knees. Like gladiators who did battle on the san ds in Rome, Nadal did not come out of all his battles unscathed, even if he came out victorious. There has always been a price to pay for his glory, and that price has always been a painful break away from the game, enforced by his body screaming in rebellion… fighting him just as vehemently as he has always fought his nigh immortal rival across the universal terrains of tennis’s grandest stages. We always wonder how many slams Federer would have if Nadal did not exist. One wonders the same for Nadal if he were to have taken the courts without such tender knees.
In the seventh month of his latest forced exile from the game – this being his longest – the weight of his absence is felt ever more. The balance of the big four has been tipped for as worthy a warrior as Ferrer is, he is not Rafael Nadal and that void left is too big for him to fill. If Federer is the image of the game, Nadal is it’s soul. Where one is the epitome of success, the other embodies the fight. The will to get up another day. The willingness to suffer and sweat for glory and to earn it no matter the cost or the foe. This is what it means to be Rafael Nadal. This is what tennis will miss when h e hangs up his racquet. But now, this is what I long to see once more from the bull of Mallorca.