Perfection is a cherished human goal. It is what drives us. The urge to be the best. The urge to be utterly completely flawless. But more than anything else, it is sport which fulfils that ideal the most. Across genres, across different types of games, we see flawless, immaculate athletes, god-like in ability, untouchable in skill-set, lords and masters of what they surveyed.
Rafael Nadal is a genius alright, but few will say that he was flawless.
In 2015, I was tired. I couldn’t help it. I was tired, simply, of Rafael Nadal. Tired of him losing. Of watching him in hope and expectation and then having to watch him slowly go down. On his favourite clay to Novak Djokovic. In the second round of Wimbledon to qualifier Dustin Brown. In the third round of the US Open to Fabio Fognini.
A part of me knew I was being childish. He was my hero and he was declining. Every day would see think-pieces pop up on the internet talking about the end of his era. I even wrote one myself. It was all too heart-breaking to get up every day and read speculation on when he would retire.
As the New Year crept in, the only consolation was numbness as Nadal crashed out in the first round of the Australian Open in 2016 to Fernando Verdasco. To accept that my hero would not get the farewell, which I fiercely believed he deserved was a thought too devastating. There would be no “Vamos” at the end, no fist-bump, no gleaming trophy, no measured, gracious speech, thanking his opponent and his crowd . No, there would only be expectation, hopes, losses and tame endings.
Like a spurned lover hoping to find logic in madness, I tried to make sense of it all. Of course, we had already knew. Nadal was not like his peers. His entire game revolved around his fight. On physical exertion. On bull-dog tenacity. Of course, it was never going to last forever. It had to die out soon. Right?
Somehow, there were never any easy points with Nadal. Whoever the opponent, whatever his form, he just had to win every point through sweat, blood and tears. Going to the left to return, going to the right to return. Retrieving, returning... and point won. Even at his peak, you never felt Nadal could just show up to win a game. He had to earn each and every one. Every match, whether it was the first round or a final, he had to give 120%. That was his game. That was his style.
And we loved him. In our regular lives tinged with imperfection, where perfection taunts from different corners, where life becomes a relentless pursuit of flawlessness, he stood out. Showing us that you can win by the sheer force of will. That you may not have the most eye-catching skills or “work-of-beauty” shots, but you can still pick up a trophy. That you can still be kicked about, beaten, hammered and laughed at and still get up and win.
Watching Nadal is exhausting and yet exhilarating. You know what you’ve signed up for: a lot of rallies, deep baseline returns and a lot of attrition. Even on the easiest of days, it takes a lot out of you. And on the bad days?
The Djokovic-Nadal final at the Australian Open in 2012 took place for a tortured five hour and 53 minutes. And you couldn’t keep your eye off it for one second. You watched and watched as the afternoon turned into evening and the evening turned into night.
You saw one man climb up the trenches only for the other to drag him down by a foot. This went for so long that at the end, you wondered, why? What did he have? Why did he have to chase down everything? Couldn’t he just give it up? Let it be.
Nadal lost that final, considered one of the greatest matches in modern tennis. But then, if you’re a fan of him, you become used to trench warfare after a while. You soon learn that he has no magic trick. Sure, there’s that magic forehand but you soon understand that his greatest strength is his unshakeable stubborness. His refusal to accept defeat even when it comes up to him, pokes him in the eye, puts him in a vice grip and tells him that he’s going home.
Federer-Nadal matches have been epic. Their rivalry has been storied. Nadal fans generally have great respect for Federer, but I won’t lie to you: it did make me happy when our hero had a bit of an edge over the man widely considered as the GOAT. But, hey, even that has been stripped away recently. And again, due to another round of trench warfare. When it went to the fifth set at the Australian Open final this year, we prayed and thought: certainly, this must be it? Fifth set has to be Rafa’s charm. Surely, this is the start of the best comeback of our hero ever?
It wasn’t. But you know what? It’s ok. It’s alright. To watch Nadal this year has reminded us again of why we adore him. The man we had written off as gone forever is back. He just doesn’t know defeat. He mastered clay just like how we remembered. He put us through trench warfare again in Wimbledon. And here, at an US Open final against Kevin Anderson…well.
It was hopelessly one-sided. After one Nadal winner at the end, the commentator shrieked, “He’s got him everywhere”. This has been a tournament which he dominated from start to beginning.
But we don’t care. There have been plenty of deep, dark moments where he’s fought and fought and fought…only to go back the loser. Sweet 16 is here for a man who has won it through the sheer incredible power of his mind.
Rafael Nadal, you are not flawless. You are not perfect. But that’s exactly why you are Rafa, the man millions of fans love and adore. In 2017, you’ve taught us to never give up, to keep fighting and if we keep at it long enough, we will find light at the end of the tunnel.