The year was 2009. The crème de la crème of men’s tennis had descended upon Abu Dhabi for the exhibition tournament in early January that everyone wanted to be a part of. So, you had six of the world’s top 10 players that included — hold your breath — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Andy Roddick, in the fray.
I was in search of exclusive stories as a journalist and was promised an interview with a top player, but had no idea who it would be. As I left the press conference room in a hurry for the exclusive interview, there he was, standing with his back against the wall in the hallway of the Abu Dhabi International Tennis Complex, waiting patiently.
There was simply no air about Rafael Nadal, the world No. 1 who had won his fourth title at Roland Garros along with his first at Wimbledon the previous year, and was a massive 1300 points ahead of Federer in the rankings.
I will always remember what he told me when I had asked him if his lead at the top meant he was the best of the current lot. “According to me, he [Federer] is the greatest player in history. Right now, he is playing great tennis and even though I am the No 1, I think he’s still the best player currently, with due respect to others,” Nadal had said.
Those words for me sum up the man — humble, respectful and always ready to give credit where it is due.
Greatest Of All Time
It’s been 13 long years since that day and at 22 Grand Slam titles, the Spaniard can rightfully claim to be the G.O.A.T (Greatest Of All Time) in men’s tennis. But ask him again and he will probably bring Novak Djokovic into the discussion this time and play down his own phenomenal achievements that have brought him 14 titles at just one Grand Slam event, the same number as the legendary Pete Sampras has in his entire career.
Born in Mallorca in 1986, Nadal went through the pain of seeing his parents separate, just when he had reached the pinnacle of tennis, in 2009. His uncle Toni Nadal took him under his wings when he was a precocious kid struggling to choose between tennis and football — uncle Miguel Angel Nadal, who had played for Barcelona and the Spanish national side, probably adding to the uncertainty of which sport to take up — before good sense prevailed.
Toni also advised the young Nadal to switch to being a left-hander after observing his double-handed forehand. It was a move that would pay rich dividends.
A professional at 15, Nadal soon began to turn heads, especially on the clay courts of Europe. Accolades came thick and first, but the feisty teenager had bigger goals in mind. He continued winning tournaments and then in 2015, at the age of 19, won his first Grand Slam title in Paris, after defeating Federer in the semi-final.
That signalled the start of a rivalry that tennis purists consider the greatest in terms of quality and intensity. The whole world came to a standstill when these two gladiators took to the court against each other, mostly in finals, given they were almost always ranked 1-2. Nadal has had the measure of Federer more often than not, his vicious forehand topspins to the weaker Federer backhand tilting the balance in his favour.
But then, Nadal has also had to pay the price for being such a physical player. His chronic foot problems have troubled him, hindered him, but never stopped him from tirelessly running around the back of the court, retrieving seemingly impossible shots, before unleashing one of his own, much like a boxer who soaks in the punches, before landing the knockout punch himself.
With his 22 Majors comprising 14 French Opens, 4 US Opens and 2 each at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, Nadal sits lonely at the top. Both Federer and Djokovic are at 20 and the way things are, you wouldn’t bet against the gritty Spaniard making it a Calendar Slam this year.
He is currently undergoing treatment in Spain for his foot issues and if reports are to be believed, also waiting to be a dad, as his longtime partner and wife of three years, Maria Francisca Perello, is reportedly pregnant with their child.
At 36, there is still so much to do for Nadal, be it with his sports centre in Spain that houses his academy, with branches in Greece, Kuwait and Mexico, or his foundation that reaches out to the needy and underserved, whether closer to home or in India.
History will remember him as one of the greatest to have played the game, someone who may not have been as gifted as Federer, but one who embodied the human qualities that we have always loved and admired: grit, determination and the never-say-die attitude on a tennis court.
But even history will have to wait its turn for this remarkable athlete, who somehow seems to rise up from the ashes every time injuries and critics pull him down.
The only trophy missing from Nadal’s cabinet is an ATP finals title, but that is more than compensated by his two Olympic gold medals. He has been the world No. 1 for 209 weeks and knowing him, will strive to get his crown back — he is currently No. 4 in the world.
With the mantle passing to the younger crop of players — the current top two being Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev — one would think it is almost time up for these ageing superheroes. But when you have Nadal winning the first two Grand Slams of the year, you can bet your last dime that the Spaniard isn’t going to walk off into the sunset without a fight.
Federer’s return is uncertain and Djokovic seems to have lost his mojo of late, so if you want someone to keep the flag flying for the old guard, there’s only one man you can count on, an unstoppable force who, fittingly, also has an asteroid named after him.
So, at this point, it is not really difficult to sit back and visualise him going on and on until another generation of tennis players comes along, marvelling at his longevity and his ability to keep unleashing those monstrous forehands on painkillers.