| By Brian Coleman
Photo Credit: Fiona Hamilton/Tennis Australia

 

 

As fans and spectators, we look to sports not only for entertainment, but also as a source of inspiration. We attend elaborate venues to witness the greats, and turn on our television or cell phones to watch men and women compete at the highest level in their respective sports.

By simply watching, between the talent on display and the amount of effort put in, we can understand just how dedicated one must be to get to that point. And while athletes of all sports can be considered symbols of determination, few have ever embodied that as much as Spain’s Rafael Nadal.

There’s a famous Nike commercial from years ago featuring Nadal, and it is a montage of points he has played throughout his multiple decades on tour, with John McEnroe’s commentary serving as the audio. At the end, McEnroe says, “Is he going to play every point like that?” It was a fitting tribute to the amount of effort and fight Nadal has displayed throughout his career.

That spirit was no more evident than at the Australian Open, the event that kicked off Nadal’s 2022 season. He arrived in Melbourne under not so ideal circumstances. He had to recover from COVID-19, which he contracted while playing in an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi in late December, and his last competitive tournament before landing in Australia was at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. in early August.

But even at 35-years-old, Nadal delivered perhaps the signature performance of his career, as he came back from two-sets-to-love down to defeat the tournament’s favorite, second-seeded Russian Daniil Medvedev, to win the Australian Open. Nadal won 2-6, 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 in an historic championship match that resulted in the Spaniard earning his 21st major title, a new men’s singles record.

“It was one of the most emotional matches of my career. To share the court with Daniil was just an honor. It is amazing,” Nadal said while holding the Norman Brookes Trophy. “To be honest, one and a half months ago, I wasn’t sure if I was [going to] be able to be back on the Tour playing tennis again. But today, I am here in front of all of you with this trophy in front of me, You are just amazing, thank you so much. Having the huge support I received over the past three weeks is going to stay in my heart for the rest of my life, so thank you very much.”


Rafael Nadal celebrates a key point during the 2022 Australian Open Men's Singles final. (Photo Credit: Fiona Hamilton/Tennis Australia)

 

It was a magical performance that left his peers amazed, as tennis players and other athletes all across Twitter were praising Nadal’s efforts and incredible victory. Even his opponent, Medvedev, was enamored.

“It’s tough to talk after playing for five hours and 30 minutes and losing, but I want to congratulate Rafa because what he did today, I was amazed,” Medvedev told the Melbourne crowd. “After the match I asked him, ‘Are you tired?’ because it was insane. You raised your level after the first two sets for your 21st Grand Slam title. You are an amazing champion, it was unbelievable.”

Nadal now stands alone atop the men’s all-time Slam titles list, one above Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. Entering 2022, the general consensus was that a player would win their 21st major title at the Australian Open, but the thought was that it would be Djokovic. Of course, the saga of Djokovic’s lack of vaccination, his medical exemption and his detainment at the Australian airport prevented him from playing, which opened the door for Nadal.

But the Australian Open had been the one major where Nadal had the least success throughout his career. Prior to his win in January, only one of his career major titles came Down Under, that was in 2009. In between his 2009 and 2022 titles, Nadal did reach the finals four separate times, but came up short in each of them. Those final losses came in 2012, 2014, 2017 and 2019, and were present with Nadal during his championship match this year.

“I was repeating to myself during the whole match that I lose a lot of times here while having chances,” said Nadal. “Sometimes I was a little bit unlucky. I just wanted to keep believing till the end, no? I just wanted to give myself a chance.”

He seized that chance, and in doing so became only the second player, joining Djokovic, to have won each of the four majors at least twice, and has bolstered his case as the greatest men’s tennis player of all-time.

His illustrious career got its start all the way back in 2001, when Nadal turned pro at the spry age of 15. His debut at a major was at Wimbledon in 2003, shortly after his 17th birthday. A couple of years later, Nadal would secure the first of his 21 majors at the 2005 French Open. He first defeated Federer in the semifinals in stunning fashion, before coming from a set down to defeat Argentine Mariano Puerta in the finals.

“When I won, I thought at that time that it was the biggest thing I would achieve in my career,” he would recall in the years after that title. “Now, I’m going to play with peace of mind, I’m going to play more relaxed for the rest of my career. But I was completely mistaken. The years go by and you’re nervous for all of them. In all of them, you want to play well, you want to have a chance to keep on winning and, honestly, the peace of mind that I thought winning Roland Garros would give me was fleeting.”

That French Open title was the first of what would become an incredible 13 titles at Roland Garros for the Spaniard. The clay-court master, a notion he was stigmatized with early in his career, would break out from that stereotype to win multiple times at each of the other three venues, displaying his greatness on clay, hard and grass surfaces.

And Nadal is primed to add to his collection as we approach the spring, and prepare for Roland Garros, a tournament and venue he has dominated for the last 20 years. The opportunity to extend his lead over Djokovic and Federer is right in front of him, but both players should be ready to go by the time the French Open comes around. Djokovic will certainly be ready, and more motivated than ever, while hopefully Federer can be healthy enough to compete.

“If Novak does return, I think we’re talking about Rafa and Novak going into the French as the co-favorites,” said ESPN tennis analyst and coach Darren Cahill. “Obviously you’ve got to be able to beat Rafa over five sets on clay, and we’ve seen how difficult that’s been, but Novak has been pretty damn impressive there the last few years. I think what Rafa did can put a little fuel in Roger’s tank, too. Roger could say, ‘If Rafa is out there still doing it, why can’t I do it if I get healthy and still have that love of the game?’ So, I think this energizes the Big Three.”

Rafa’s unrelenting fighting spirit and determination has elevated him to the top of the Big Three, and provided a thrilling beginning to the 2022 tennis season in general. It was hard to watch the finals and not come away with an enormous amount of respect for the 21- time major champion, and be left inspired by his efforts.

It’s hard to forecast who will finish their career with the most major titles of all-time, and Nadal is okay with it; he has a humble and positive outlook on his life and career, and will continue to fight every second that he is out there on the tennis court, which is something that sports fans around the world are lucky for.

“I am super satisfied and feel like a very lucky person in general for all the things that happen to me in this life,” he said before playing Medvedev. “You can’t be always frustrated if your neighbor has a bigger house than you, or a better phone or a better thing, no? I’m not going to be frustrated if Novak or Roger finishes the career with more Grand Slams than me. Let’s enjoy the situation that every one of us has. We did very special things in our sport; let’s enjoy that. The other thing doesn’t matter.”


Nadal during his post-victory photo shoot with the Australian Open trophy. (Photo Credit: Fiona Hamilton/Tennis Australia)


This is the cover story for the March/April 2022 issue of New York Tennis Magazine. Click Here to see the full digital edition, or contact info@usptennis.com to sign-up for a home delivery subscription to New York Tennis Magazine.

 

Brian Coleman

 Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at brianc@usptennis.com