15 November 2015

Rooting for Rafa

It is a sports storyline that turns casual spectators into invested fans. New tennis talent comes in to shock everyone by winning a grand slam on his first attempt at age 19, then proves the feat is no fluke by bagging the title for four consecutive years. This is of course Spain’s Rafael Nadal, who practically owns the French Open and is hailed “King of Clay” for being almost unbeatable in the court.

But a sports superstar shines brightest against a rival. And every sporting event yearns for a rivalry. On grass court, the most prestigious one among them no less, Switzerland’s Roger Federer rules. His skills and discipline are somehow overshadowed by his poetic grace: Federer is not the Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T.) — he is a god.

When the two clashed at the Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Singles Finals in 2008, they wrote a tale that bears repeating. Nadal pushed the reigning champion into five sets, into tie-breaks, into over four hours of playing before finally taking match point and the trophy.

Prior to that, Nadal failed to win the Wimbledon twice, with Federer in his way. Though each time they met, the former made the latter work harder to earn the next point, staying so close that supporters of both players believed things would go Nadal’s way. “He’s the perfect foil to Roger Federer, the brash yet flawless machine that Roger is not,” notes a friend. “He’s infuriating to a Roger fan.”

In the same year that he won his first Wimbledon title, Nadal also snagged the Olympic Gold in Men’s Singles, and was ranked World No. 1. Since then, he’s had 14 grand slams under his belt and is now chasing French Open championship number ten.

We can talk all day about records, histories and techniques to find out who the real G.O.A.T. is, but once fans become devotees of an athlete, they can no longer be convinced otherwise. They could only cheer their idol on. It’s not the win or the numbers, after all, that make someone fall for an athlete, it’s that winning attitude — knowing they can still take game, no matter what the odds are.

In 2012, back on the clay court, Nadal played the finals against Serbia’s Novak Djokovic — a not-so-new kid in tennis town. He, along with UK’s Andy Murray, have joined Nadal and Federer as this generation’s tennis elite. Relentless, clinical, with the endurance (and humor) of a teenager, Djokovic is an infuriating character to fans of any player on the other side of the court.

Down to two sets against Nadal, it should be easy to write off the King of Clay’s challenger. But this was Djokovic. If anyone could mount a comeback, he’s the guy. And he did win the third set, 6 – 2 and went on to tie the fourth set. Not wanting to risk a heart attack, or worse, a long- lasting heartbreak, I switched channels. In other words I did something Nadal didn’t know how to do: give up.

The following day I learned Nadal had won his 7th and 3rd consecutive French Open title. Watching the replay, there it was, the fighting spirit people often speak of. Eric Hoffer says desire creates talent, and you could see this with Nadal’s every awkward (some pundits blatantly call it “ugly”) shot. If Federer’s elegance is awe-inspiring, Nadal’s sheer willpower is encouraging.

This year, Nadal and Djokovic (with their own fresh rivalry) met again at the French Open quarter finals and however scary it got, I stayed with Nadal for the entire game, which turned out to be a short one. Djokovic put him away in three sets. Heartbreak.

A photo posted by Razel Estrella (@fishpeep) on

Talks of an era ending reverberated, especially with this season, which many have touted as his worst, with Nadal not winning any major. It’s getting tougher and tougher to watch post-game interviews. As in all losses, though, he would simply say, “He played better than me” and congratulate his opponent.

This humility, and to some extent vulnerability, outside the court is as endearing as what goes on inside, where, despite his dominance he acts like the underdog going after every ball. It also helps that he has a boyish charm about him, as well as quirks (last time we checked he has 19 distinct tics) that inspire fondness — if you were rooting for him. All these things set him apart from the other machines on court.

But for now, difficult as it is to ponder, he may be the underdog — after all the injuries, other players getting stronger by the day, and new blood like Stan Wawrinka (another Swiss) joining the fray. In an interview with Sky News, Nadal confessed to feeling tired at the start of the season. “I suffered this year, but the last couple of months I am enjoying the game,” he said.

During the US Open third round interview (last September), Nadal already accepted that 2015 wasn’t his year, but, quite predictably, he continued on a positive note: “(I have to) keep fighting till the end of the season to finish in a positive way for me. Finish the season with the feeling that I improved something from the beginning of the season.”

Not a sign of giving up. Does he think he can win another slam? Of course he does, and this fan vows to stay with him up until the last ball.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

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