Friday, July 19, 2024

Spanish lessons coated in Parisian dust

Now he is simply called the Old Bull. But there was a time, 22 grand slams ago, he used to be young: long-haired, white bandana and pirate pants. But when the world was introduced to a 19-year-old Rafael Nadal at the Roland Garros in 2005 ~ which he won by defeating his (now) great rival Roger Federer in the final ~ seasoned tennis watchers and sportswriters alike were convinced that the Spanish kid wouldn’t last past his 20s. We were yet a few years away from anointing him as the saint of suffering but the early signs were clearly visible. Among tennis’ titanic trinity of today, the Swiss Roger Federer has a style that is classic, elegant and effortless. Novak Djokovic, the Serb, is all elasticity and athleticism; and after some early waywardness, he has machined his game until it became indestructible. But the Spaniard’s game, though powerful, was and is strenuous. Like no other tennis player before him, the kid in the white bandana could revive points that seemed dead because he could somehow reach balls that were played too far. While this made for exciting and stunning spectacle, it also led to the conclusion that among the trio, Nadal’s body parts would be the first to run out of warranty. To some extent, the observation was not incorrect because the Spaniard has forever been picking up injuries: knee, foot, wrist, hip, abdomen, ribs. His brutal game, it seemed, was shaking his body apart. And yet, on June 5, the Old Bull showed the world that there is still fight left in him and extended his men’s all-time grand slam title record to 22, building a gap between himself and his two greatest rivals, Djokovic and Federer, who both have 20 major titles. The wear and tear caused by his brutal game always made him the least likely of the titanic trio to emerge leader in their race to the summit. But now he sits two rungs above them. Remarkably (as though 22 grand slam titles do not qualify for such description), the triumph on June 5 was the 36-year-old Nadal’s 14th at the French Open alone. To give it context, Pete Sampras ~ who had legitimate claims to the greatest of all time tag before the emergence of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic ~ won 14 grand slams in his entire career. It is on the clay of Paris that Nadal has given us lessons after lessons. Twenty-two grand slams since the 19-year-old Spaniard in pirate pants marked his territory on the clay of Paris, we have come to learn that Nadal is whom you want to present to your son and daughter, or school team, as proof of the simple, durable qualities of sport. About honesty, work ethic, patience, wearing defeat but not wilting. The Spaniard also teaches us that champions who last through the years offer two distinct versions of themselves and it’s hard to say which one is more intriguing: the young, invincible boy in white bandana or the stitched, resurrected Old Bull. With his 14th title in Paris, he has also taught us that his creaky body parts are more resilient than we once feared. Rafa, as he is lovingly called, has always said that it is about how much you enjoy doing what you are doing. After his latest grand slam, he had this to offer: “I’ve said it a million times but it doesn’t tire me to say it. The best satisfaction is always the personal, more than a medal or anything else. To know that you strive to achieve your objectives. At times you succeed, at times no. But you have the inner peace to return at home with the certainty that you have tried everything”. And after throwing everything he has at the opponent, at the moment of triumph, Rafa always falls on his back in relief. An act many consider appropriate because when he rises, he is coated in the red dust of Parisian clay that defines him.