When so many talented sportsmen seem so intent on walking in the gutter, Rafa Nadal continues to point us to the stars.
There is surely no more uplifting story in contemporary sport. It is not just that, despite problematic knees and a style guaranteed to apply maximum physical pressure, he marches so powerfully in the footsteps of Roger Federer. It is the spirit of Nadal, the unforced charm, the unquenchable determination to live exultantly in the moment that makes him so gloriously transcend the boundaries of his sport.
It was reasonable enough to assume Federer, with his 16 Grand Slam titles, sublime touch and impeccable temperament, had taken an unshakeable hold as the greatest tennis player of all time. But as Nadal performed so brilliantly under the glowering sky of New York in the small hours of yesterday morning, and became only the seventh player in history to complete a career slam – at 24, three years sooner than Federer – he brought another kind of force.
It was sheer implacability as Novak Djokovic was put down after reproducing in the rain-interrupted second set the menace which ambushed Federer in the semi-final.
More than anything, Nadal was fulfilling the promise he displayed on the Wimbledon Centre Court in 2008 when he beat Federer for the crown in a collision that was, according to John McEnroe and most everyone else caught up in the drama, arguably the best tennis match ever played. Some of us argued that it was also a candidate as the most beautifully realised example of sportsmanship and competitive character in the entire history of the games we play.
No one could have deprived Federer of his place at the pinnacle of his sport with more unbreakable determination – or grace.
Nadal said that there were some things no one would ever be able to take from Federer, on or off a tennis court. You could not obscure his virtuosity – and he may have had in his mind a backhand passing shot down the line which, the moment you saw it you knew you would never forget, no more than a flourish from Muhammad Ali or a run from Gareth Edwards from the base of the scrum or a finish by Lester Piggott or some unbreakable run by the young George Best.
Nadal was right about Federer, of course, but a less rounded character might have been a little more consumed by the extent of his achievement. This, though, is not the Nadal style. Or his breeding.
When his mentor, coach and uncle, Toni, a former professional tennis player, was told that the young Rafael should leave Mallorca and join the Spanish Tennis Federation in Barcelona, he brusquely refused. The boy had his talent and it could develop at home on the island, along with some education. His tennis would not suffer and nor would his understanding of the essentials of life, something that might have helped generations of tennis prodigies, including Andre Agassi, who wrote so chillingly of a loathing for the game provoked by the relentless demands of his ambitious father.
Maybe it is this background of tormented, emotionally over-stretched young players which gives the meaning of Nadal and his nine Grand Slam titles such a special glow.
Andy Murray's ill-tempered on-court behaviour when he slid out of the US Open last week was no doubt a reaction to another disappointment in a major tournament. But it did illuminate harshly a growing fear that he is simply subject to too much pressure, from both within and without. It is of course true that no one now competing in the shadow of Nadal could expect to fare too well in any psychological comparison with the man from Mallorca but the gap between him and Murray has recently never looked wider.
Already the Spaniard has been involved in three Spanish Davis Cup successes, which is another contrast to Murray's recent abandonment of the abject British cause. His relish for the performance of the Spanish World Cup winners in South Africa – and European Championship triumph in Vienna in 2008 – and pain at the erratic performance of his favourites Real Madrid, speak of a sports titan who can get outside of his own experience, and ambition, as easily as he unfurls a withering forehand laden with topspin.
With Federer finally besieged, it seems, by the tyranny of age and the years of single-minded achievement and Tiger Woods enveloped in the battle to prove that the heart of the talent that persuaded so many he was the best golfer of all time has not been broken, Rafa Nadal, for the moment at least, operates in a unique place at the top of the mountain.
Having reached the peak, he displays a consistency of spirit and technique that, in these days of all days, is more than the mere triumph of an exceptional sportsman. It is a victory for some of the best of life.Reuse content