What I realized during this Australian Open is that Nadal sets the tone for this state of affairs more than anyone else, certainly more than Federer. Roger is so cool and frictionless that, most of the time, he seems less like a prism of epic intensity than a dispassionate analyst of it.6 Djokovic, since his ascent, has been so much better than everyone else that he’s largely been able to act like a careful clinician, the administrator of his own talent. And Murray has lost to the other guys so often that his anger and frustration seem basically inconsequential. In other words, the game may be epic for the fans, but you won’t always catch that ground note of holy-shit intensity if you only watch the other three players. Left to themselves, they don’t exactly project deep contact with the secret fires of time.
Nadal, though? He plays like he’s fighting giants. It’s not just the sneer, or the muscles, or the hair, or that forehand — you know, the one where he swoops the racket all the way around his head like he’s whipping the team pulling his chariot. It’s also that frantic tenacity that used to drive me so nuts. Federer seems devastated when he loses but he also seems to sense losses coming and accept them before they arrive. When Nadal falls behind, he turns the match into life and death. He gets mad. He hesitates less. He hits the ball harder. He doesn’t look sad or scared. He looks defiant, and he plays like he’s possessed.
As a result, he carries matches to a higher plane than they have any business reaching. Djokovic could and should have won the Australian final in four sets, but Nadal refused to surrender, played lethal tennis, and took Djokovic to a place he’d never been. Instead of notching a routine victory, Djokovic had to tap into the same well of inspiration that Nadal was already drawing from. You could say that all these guys have learned what it means to fight on the plains of Troy because Nadal does it in every match. And we see him do it, so we know what it means, too.
These three paragraphs totally explain what it is about tennis and Rafael Nadal that have gripped me in the past five-ish years. His intensity makes every one of these epic matches physically exhausting in the best way.
How does it feel to die at the end of the book, this many times in a row? I mean, think about it. You spend years in the shadow of your rival. You never stop working or believing. Finally it all comes together: you surpass him. For a year, maybe two, you win everything. You turn the game upside down, and your bottomless reserve of will makes you seem unstoppable. All the records are going to fall. Then, more or less suddenly, a guy you used to beat comfortably surpasses you. Long before your reign was supposed to end, you find yourself overshadowed again. You lose five straight, six straight, seven straight to the new champion, all in finals, three of them in majors. You’re 25, in what should be the peak of your prime as an athlete, and you’re right back where you started. It turns out that your relentlessness isn’t an unstoppable force. But — precisely because you have it — you keep going as if it is.
“I’ll keep fighting,” Nadal told the crowd in Melbourne. It’s a marvelous thing to watch.
But how does it feel?
And this explains the overwhelming pain I’ve felt for Rafa in the losses to Djokavic over the past year. This one was the worst, because in that fifth set you felt as if he had it won. He had taken Djoker’s best shot, survived the match and stretched it into Rafa territory. A fifth set is where no one wants to be against Rafa. He seems to get stronger. But somehow Djokavic did too. It was amazing. And depressing.