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Chris Oddo/ Tuesday, September 10, 2013

 

Rafael Nadal's New York Masterpiece was a testament to his spirit and faith, as well as his incredible competitive fire.

Photo Source: AP

He speaks of sensations and illusions like a new age poet or mystical healer, but when Rafael Nadal slips into character on a tennis court, he is cutthroat and concise, shrewd and relentless. No loose thoughts, no run-on sentences, only the vision and the quest, the heart and the focus. In conversation he is philosophical; in competition, he is an assassin.

Watch: Nadal and Djokovic Play a 54-Stroke Rally in U.S. Open Final

But to be the cold-blooded assassin who shoots down break points as if they were trespassers behind enemy lines, Nadal first has had to be balanced, pure in his motives, and happy on the inside. Because more than his superhuman topspin drives, his ferocious footwork or his revolutionary three-dimensional game, Nadal’s spirituality is the pillar that supports him, props him up when things are tough, and guides him through the grey and into the blissful spotlight of winning that he seems to be perpetually basking in.

After his 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory over Novak Djokovic in Monday’s U.S. Open final, Nadal is all aglow again, riding a 22-match hard court winning streak, and sitting only one Grand Slam title away from being the second most decorated tennis player of all time. All this after seven months of heavy fog threw his career so badly out of focus that most of us considered it plausible that he’d never win another Grand Slam title again.

It’s a testament, more than anything, to Nadal’s mental fortitude.

Unlike so many who feared the worst, Nadal never dared doubt that his passion for the game he loves wouldn’t guide him back to form. Did he ever think he’d never return to the game? “I am a positive guy, so I never thought about that,” he told the press in New York on Monday, just hours after capping off one of the most scintillating stretches of his remarkable career and passing Roy Emerson on the all-time Grand Slam titles list with 13. As for his ability to thoroughly dominate the sport on the hard courts that have long been considered both detrimental to his success and hazardous to his health, Nadal points to emotions--not tactics--as the driving force. “Talking about a big change, I don't see it. I really cannot see a big change in my game,” he said. “Just confident, you know, playing with big passion, fighting for every ball, emotionally good, so that makes that success.”

More Rafa: The King of All Surfaces

It’d be easy to write those words off as the posturing of a player who would prefer not to give away his trade secrets, but Nadal, more than any player on tour, and perhaps more than any other athlete in sport, seems to have tapped into a spiritual vein in himself that provides him with sustenance and fortifies his legendary will to win.

In Nadal’s case, the egg has definitely come before the chicken: He wins because of his will to win. The buggy-whip forehand, the curling, banana-shaped lefty slice serve, the bullet-proof overhead--they are all products of Nadal’s desire, crafted on the practice court during sessions that are every bit as spirited and relentless as his matches, where his visions of championships are hatched.

Rewind: Nadal defeats Djokovic in Four Sets in U.S. Open Final

During Monday’s U.S. Open final, the sixth Grand Slam final played between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal (they have split them, three apiece), the evidence of Nadal’s irrepressible fortitude was undeniable. While Djokovic wavered, starting slow then ramping up his energy to dizzying heights (Nadal’s words: “When Novak plays that level, I am not sure if nobody can stop him.”), Nadal didn’t vacillate emotionally, didn’t tire mentally, nor did he ever seem to be in danger of losing the belief that he took into the match. “The normal thing is I will have my chance,” he later said, matter of factly. “Then you can convert or not”

He did have his chance, but it wasn’t handed to him. He worked like a mule to quell Djokovic’s momentum, and like a knife-wielding ninja in the dark of the night, Nadal carved open a tiny little window to wiggle through.

How easy would it have been for Nadal to fall off course during Monday’s third set, with Djokovic closing in on a fourth consecutive break against him and threatening to run away with the match? How easy would it have been for Nadal to fall into a mental abyss when Djokovic had taken seven straight matches from him beginning in 2011? How easy would it have been for Nadal to slip after dropping the Monte Carlo final to Djokovic earlier this spring, or during the fifth set of his Roland Garros semifinal with the Serb, when once again Nadal looked to be in dire straits?

Very easy. But not when you have the strongest, most spiritually grounded mindset in all of tennis. Not when you have trained yourself for the things that so many lesser players tend to overlook and even ignore. When you have prepared not just to hit your dizzying array of shots to the right places on the court at the right times, but also to remain calm under duress, to remain focused whether things are going well or atrociously, to believe that victory is achievable no matter the circumstances, to play passionately regardless of score or fatigue. It seems so simple, but it isn’t. In fact, it’s impossible--unless you are Rafael Nadal.

Nadal was down triple-break point at 4-4 in the third set against Djokovic during last night’s final. He could have easily lost the set, the match and the title.

But there is something inside Nadal, something in his core that makes him so superior mentally that he rarely does lose, especially in Grand Slam finals, where his record now stands at 13-5. Call it focus, belief, determination, mettle. Whatever it is, it has nothing to do with X’s and O’s, and everything to do with wins and losses.

“Is not a strategy to play break points,” Nadal would later say. “It's a feeling of that moment. It's a little bit of intuition of that situation, and is play with right determination and choose the right option.”

More than anything, these kinds of philosophical leaps of faith are the reason that Nadal is winning Grand Slams at such an extraordinary pace. Feeling the moment, reading the tea leaves, and trusting the process. It is why, at 27 years old, Nadal has a legitimate chance to claim more Grand Slam titles than any other player in the history of the game and go down in history as the greatest player who ever lived.

Nadal has taught himself to sustain an elevated sense of concentration and awareness (to be fair, his longtime coach and Uncle, Toni Nadal deserves much credit for facilitating his mental evolution, too), but he is also mature enough to know that the sense of awareness he wishes to achieve is not always possible. Rather than lament a lull (see: everyone else on tour), Nadal reboots his focus, dials it in again, and redoubles his efforts, so emotionally and mentally he can be as close to perfect as he is capable of being. “I think on court I am a positive player,” he surmised on Monday. “I am not a negative player. I try my best in every moment. Even the things are not going well or are going well, I am never very sad or doing a negative attitude on court.”

Nadal doesn’t seek perfection, he seeks aggression. He doesn’t seek euphoria, he seeks a slow cathartic chase, the quest for victory as an emblem of his pride in his work. “If you don't feel the sport,” he says, “it’s impossible to be regular, to be there all the time for so many years fighting and keep fighting and keep working hard, keep having chances to win. If you don't have these special feeling and this passion, this love for the game, that's impossible.”

And if you do have that special feeling, as Nadal clearly does, then impossible--as the saying goes--is nothing. A year ago, we feared Nadal may never sink his teeth into another Grand Slam trophy. After his romp in New York, the only question is: How many more?



 

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