The King of Parisian Clay
There is no question who is the Greatest Clay Court Player of All Time - but there is a couple of years to determine who will be the Greatest Tennis Player of All Time
As Rafael Nadal pumps his arms into the air for the 11th time at a French Open Final, his success is becoming more than a historic triumph or even the journey that eventually may have him pegged at the greatest tennis player of all time, rather than the storied career of Roger Federer - it is whoever writes the the greatest chapter in the next five years that will determine the lasting legacy of what definitely are the two greatest tennis players of all time, if not of all time to come.
Yet it is not his tennis success or prowess that has me personally fascinated with Rafael Nadal. I am not typically a star fucker, I don't invest in celebrity the way many people do, but because many people do, it is what brings in the big bucks in this sport. So there is nothing good or bad about being a fan (no matter how fanatical) but there is this alternative space of looking at this man from what is IMHO his most significant strength - his strength of will and work rate.
Maybe in the past he worked himself too hard rather than work smarter on and off the court. Off the court in the past he simply has not relaxed enough, pushing his body to breaking point and breaking his body as a result. Now with Carlos Moya as his coach, he has entered a new renaissance in his game - ensuring that his natural ability is coupled with sports science and today's win at Roland Garross is interesting because it is now 20 years ago when Carlos Moya himself won his one and only French Open title.
So this buzz is about the work that Rafa puts in - not just to be a winner but personifying who he is as a human being and the underlying character and strength of will that is the real value of studying this supreme athlete. Ironically the demons that inhabit Rafael Nadal's mind were in the past driven by deep driven insecurities. Perhaps the straight set win today that represents his second straight sets French Open win - speaks to a strengthening of mind, together with the legendary strength of physical will he always has had. He has only won in straight sets in five of the eleven French Open finals, and to see him win two straight sets games this year and last year - is in itself a remarkable story - but it is also for me, a story of overcoming insecurities that have dogged his career.
If he did not possess a remarkable strength of will, perhaps Rafael Nadal may never have won anything much and may possibly be a victim of being his own worst enemy. There are people in this world who were blessed with talent but not the will or mindset to shape that talent. Nadal then is equally representative of the doubts we mere mortals (in comparison) face in our own lives. It is a self-defeating cycle to focus on these inner demons within us, because thoughts have the capacity to eat away at our talent and potential, creating if we are particularly weak willed self-fullfilling prophesies that eventually serve to waste or severely hamper or under use our capabilities.
Instead in celebrating the will of Rafa and the psychological overcoming of thoughts that may help us in the short-term but whose impact is far different over the long-term, this is my own personal takeaway - to know that those we consider to be the best, or most supreme expression of human excellence are subject to the same limitations we all face. To see him drive those demons away and in turn create the second coming of Rafa Nadael, is amazing. What makes it even more pertinent is that he is now as a tennis player - an elder statesman of the sport - and we live in a time where the young are venerated and the old are subject to ageist prejudice - there is a certain rooting also for the "older guyer" who now faces off against the young guns.
There are some very talented young guns emerging on the tennis scene and in players like Alexander Zverev, these are young guns who already pushing the top players to their maximum performance. Yet Zverev himself was physically injured - sufficiently to let today's runner-up (Thiem) reach the semifinal and then today's final - otherwise this French Open Final would have been a classic between the old legend and the young gun who aims to be recorded as the next generation of greats. Another great of the game Djokovic was meant to be the King of the court - and while his star shone greatly a few years ago, injury also has got the better of him and he is no where near being the player at the height of his game, which makes Federer and Nadal's ability to stay consistently at the top level of the game for a couple of decades even that more remarkable. In the end what I celebrate today is not actually the win by Nadal, but the meaning of work and how Nadal's ability to transform his work into what was frightening dominance today - make him an inspiration for the workable mortals we are.