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By Chris Oddo | Monday September 11, 2017

What’s most remarkable about Rafael Nadal’s latest coronation? It’s a question that I have asked myself often in the eight hours since Nadal ran roughshod over Kevin Anderson in the U.S. Open final to claim his 16th major title. There so much to unpack that it’s difficult to pin it on just one thing.

More: Nadal Dominates Anderson, Claims 16th Major Title

There are the constants. His lust for battle, which has been legendary, and boiling over ever since he hit the tour as a 17-year-old kid in pirate pants. There was a moment last weekend, when Nadal found himself down by a set and a break to Argentina’s Leonardo Mayer in the third round, where everything seemed to crystallize. He had failed to convert on his first 13 break points of the match. It could have had disastrous implications. It could have festered, drove him a little batty, made him prone to surrendering another service break, or even worse, another early exit from the U.S. Open, a tournament that he had not won since 2013.

Nah.

Not this year.

There’s something about Nadal in 2017, something different. And no, it’s not the lust for battle or the willingness to get in the trenches and sweat out a hard-fought win for the love of the sport. Those are the constants. They’ve always been a part of Nadal’s unflappable core; his eminent psyche is who he is and what he has been coached to be by his Uncle Toni. A humble soul who honors his family – honors the sport – by conducting a thorough gut check every time he finds himself in trouble on a tennis court.


It’s one of the most reliable and reliably moving things in tennis, but I digress.

Circling back to that moment of fallibility against Mayer. Nadal circled his proverbial wagons, kept probing Mayer’s wall of defense, and when the opportunity arose, crashed through to turn a disconcerting struggle into a bloodbath. He won easily, in four, and would only drop one set the rest of the tournament.

Speaking of that *other* set that Nadal dropped, there’s a story behind that one as well. Facing an inspired Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals, Nadal was outhit and outplayed in a physical first set against the Tower of Tandil. Could it be that Del Potro was about to jettison Nadal from the draw the same way he had done to Roger Federer two days prior?

Nah.

Showing his tactical nuance, Nadal switched up his game plan and started to take his forehand down the line to ensure that Del Potro didn’t get too comfortable camping out in his backhand corner where he could pepper Nadal, alternating between backhands and inside-out forehands. It was an impressive display of wherewithal—tennis IQ—from the Spaniard. Nadal began the contest with a strategy to badger Del Potro’s backhand with his crosscourt forehand, but even when he executed the plan the way he wanted and it didn’t reap benefits. So he astutely pivoted to a plan B, won the next three sets, and the rest is history.

It was world-class problem solving, and he may not have won the title without it.

We’ve covered a few of the remarkable characteristics of Rafael Nadal’s 16th major title, but not the one that characterized the triumph more than anything else: Longevity.

The one category where Nadal has been chronically underestimated, but perhaps no longer.


How many times over the past five to seven years have we been told that Rafael Nadal would be done winning majors before he turned 30? That his revolutionary brand of tennis was simply too physical for his body to withstand? Unlike Roger Federer, who danced on air and had built a tennis game that could withstand the rigors of time and the demands of gravity, Nadal was destined to die a slow death while younger, talented players with faster twitches and bigger serves usurped his place in the game.

And that is the true beauty of Nadal’s 2017 and in particular his 2017 U.S. Open title, which marked his first title on a hardcourt since January of 2014. The past three seasons have seen Nadal endure a massive crisis of confidence and a puzzling loss of potency. His once legendary forehand lost its snarl (and length); the injuries came and went and came again; He was not the same player, and it was easy to see.

And yet, inside, Nadal was that same player. He just needed to put out myriad fires at once. Get healthy and find a way to stay healthy. Rediscover the forehand and the mojo that went away with it. Learn how to play and win matches in a more holistic manner.

A monumental task, yes, but clearly one that he was game for handling.

If Nadal was a Tasmanian Devil in his 20s he would need to be a chameleon in his 30s. A player that could slip into different skins over the course of a season. Not live and die with every loss like that kid in the pirate pants in 2005, but move more cautiously, with the ebbs and flows of the big picture in mind.

There were many doubters, ones that thought Nadal would forever be doomed by his own stubbornness, ones that believed the physical nature of his game would sabotage his hopes for a return to dominance after 30. That he was already doomed to live out the rest of his tennis career meekly, playing matches as a shell of his former, more visceral self.

So Nadal changed the way he plays, his tactics, even his coach (prior to this season), but he kept the constants. The battle lust that has been ingrained in him ever since he was a child, and the will to perservere. Last season those changes began to pay off in the form of victories. He tore through the clay season and appeared to be on the cusp of winning Roland Garros for the tenth time when tragedy struck in the form of a badly damaged wrist tendon that would need the rest of the season to heal.

Tonight in press Nadal revealed just how frustrating that episode was for him. “I was ready to win Roland Garros last year,” he said. “That's the real thing. I don't say if I don't get injury, I will win Roland Garros, because is something that is impossible to predict, but I really and honestly can tell you that I felt myself ready to win Roland Garros.”

It was a heartbreaker, and who knew at the time if he’d ever be as ready to win it again.

But as it turned out, a lot of the heavy lifting had been done last season. And the hiring of Carlos Moya this winter helped advance the momentum further. The confidence had been restored. The mojo had returned. He wasn’t the same tour de force that he was when he was younger, but as a 30-year-old Nadal was new and improved. He was a more intelligent, cerebral tennis player that knew his aura would never be the same. He would have to craft victories, craft fitness and—most of all—craft the ability to tie them all together in a meaningful way that could leave him with momentum in the second week of a major.

Nadal got that opportunity twice this season, and naturally made the most of it. That was the easy part. The hard part was the waiting. The stops and starts. But Nadal is that rarest of champion that can keep a vision percolating for years, in spite of devastating roadblocks, deflating losses, injuries and age.

There’s a pilot light that guides the Spaniard, a flame that flickers but does not go out. Now 31, he’s revitalized. All the years of handling adversity have made him a more cunning, more resilient tennis player. He’s a lot like the player he used to be, and yet he’s a world apart from what he once was.

There are the constants, and the constant change. And propping it all up is the heart of a champion, the humility and the fire that will not go out. Nadal himself may not believe that he’s invincible, at least not anymore. But he does believe that with patience and persistence come victories.

“I think I always accepted all the challenges that my career present to me,” he said. “The good news and the negative news, I accepted in some way in a very natural way, and I am a person that I don't have much up-and-downs. I am a very normal person, and when I am in a negative moment, I don't go very down. When I am in a positive moment, probably like now, I don't believe that I am that good, no?"

Now that the dust has settled and the trophy has been chomped, we can reflect on what it took for Nadal to become the seventh ATP to win multiple majors beyond the age of 30. So many doubted that he'd ever be one of them, but there was one true believer, one that mattered most.

 

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