#HIS7ORY he tweeted.. The King of Clay

#HIS7ORY he tweeted.

Rafael Nadal Makes History at French Open

In an age where getting the best facilities for sport influences an athlete’s performance,  a dear uncle tells his nephew “I do not want to believe that you have to go to America, or other places to be a good athlete. You can do it from home”.  This family’s lineage lies in sport. One coach cum uncle was a failed professional tennis player and another, a Spanish first division footballer, but none would have thought of the volume of success that would bestow on this family. A right handed by birth, Rafael Nadal, was asked to play tennis with his left hand by Toni (Left hander’s have a natural advantage on court).

I trusted him so implicitly when i was little that I even came to believe he had supernatural powers. It wasn’t till i was nine years old that I stopped thinking he was magician capable, among other things, of making himself invisible.
During family get-togethers my father and grandfather would play along with him on this, pretending to me they couldn’t see him. So I came to believe that I could see him but other people couldn’t”

At the age of 3, when most toddlers are playing with toys and games, here is a Spaniard, waving a tennis racket, aiming to lump balls into the sky only later to be used as a weapon of destruction, a tool to success, the pen to a page in history.

The humble Spaniard turned pro at the age of 15 and announced his ability after beating Pat Cash in an exhibition game in Spain. Rafa was the youngest to reach the Wimbledon 3rd round at the age of 17. He even beat the younger Roger Federer at the event. The young Spaniard was very highly thought of in his home country. Greats like Carlos Moya lauded the Majorcans rise through the ATP rankings and in 2004, he beat Andy Roddick to help clinch his countries first Davis Cup win.

Rafa holds a modern era record of 18 Clay court titles since 2004.  Clay is his home court. He was restricted from playing the French Opens in 2003 and 2004 through injury, but came back to win at Roland Garros. What makes the Spaniards game this special on clay? Rafa’s game is characterized by power and tenacity. He embodies what a modern tennis machine would look like. Tall, powerful and extremely athletic.

‘He doesn’t like the dark, for example, and he prefers to sleep with the light, or the TV, on. He is not comfortable with thunder and lightning, either. When he was a child, he’d hide under a cushion when that happened, and even now, when there’s a storm and you need to fetch something, he won’t let you”

With strokes dominated by top spin he prefers to play a few metres behind the base line, allowing him to chase down balls and whip them back harder, restricting his opponents from coming to the net. He hits the ball from the lower part of the racket to generate top spin almost equalling 3500RPM (for those who know cars, imagine your RPM metre display at 3500). Launched from sound foundation and a low grip.  Rafa prefers to hit from the baseline but has developed into an all rounder by playing on Grass and Hard courts. Nadal makes you uncomfortable. There isn’t a single tennis player in the world that is either used to or relishes hitting balls that reach head height.

“He’s always talking about buying himself a boat. He loves fishing and jet-skiing, but he wont jet-ski, nor will he swim, unless he can see the sand at the bottom. Nor will he dive off a high rock into the sea, as his friends do all the time”

The Majorcan, an unheard commodity, has waltz through clay seasons since 2005. He beat Guillermo Coria, the 2004 French Open runner-up, in Monte Carlo and in Rome. Paris buzzing with Roger Federer’s class, were treated to powerful hitting from Rafa instead. At 19, he won the first Grand Slam he played beating the experienced Marian Puerta and then biting the sacred ‘Coupe des Mousquetaires or the Muskateer’s Cup’.

The dominance of Rafa continued. He was feared on this surface. In 2006, he won three clay tournaments; Barcelona, Rome and Roland Garros. He was only the 4th person to beat Federer in the year, but Rafa signed off in style beating the Swiss maestro twice. Rafa became the only player to beat Federer in a Grand Slam Final.

2007 was another year of Nadals development. He won at Barcelona, Madrid and Rome but lost out to Fedex in Hamburg. A defeat that ended a run of 81 games unbeaten, yes you read it right, 81 games. Rafa reigned supreme in France again, outplaying the world no.1 in 4 sets. Wimbledon showed a glimpse of Rafa’s all round game. He developed his ability to volley and slice the ball, but it was too soon. The Swiss Maestro called trumps in a 5 set final.

Not many know that Rafa cried after the final, claiming thats the best tennis he had played, that he would never overcome the barrier of Grass, the pinnacle of Wimbledon.
How wrong he was…

2008 signified Rafa’s step up to greatness. Till now, he was a lucky no.2 only to dominate the clay and lose out through other Slams. Monte Carlo got the ball rolling; the big ground strokes then reached Barcelona, conquered Madrid and waltzed past Hamburg only to encore with a demolition of Federer at the French Open. Rafael Nadal won his 3rd French Open becoming the fifth man in the open era to win a Grand Slam singles title without losing a set. Mighty Federer wasn’t the favourite even at Wimbledon. In what was termed the ‘best ever game of tennis’ and in near darkness, Nadal clinched the final becoming the third person to win both the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year. Two Grand Slams were succeeded by Olympic Glory.He had announced himself. Broken the shackles of a clay court genius, he was a man for all courts. A fighter. A legend.

In 2009, Rafa was hit with his biggest setback of his life, his biggest injury, something potentially career threatening. His parents were on the verge of separating.

“I felt no elation at my victories, but my body somehow kept going through the motions. My attitude was bad. I was depressed, lacking in enthusiasm. On the surface I remained a tennis-playing automaton, but the man inside had lost all love of life”

The same year Nadal suffered from serious tendonitis. All the exhaustion was aggravated by the unhealthy mind.  It was sadly a feature through the year. Rafa played through the barrier of pain most occasions but something had to give.

“First it was my knees that went. The pain got worse week by week, but I managed to keep playing through it.
Maybe I shouldn’t have competed at Roland Garros, but I had won the championships the previous four years and felt a duty to defend my crown, however unlike the prospect of victory felt”

A first loss in five years at Roland Garros was followed by a withdrawal in London. Surely this was breaking point. Nadal’s attitude can either be considered stupidity or full of honour. When he bowed out to injury in Australia during a match against Murray, he felt he’ dishonoured’ the competition and his opponent by retiring hurt. The same feelings surge into his head when he played Ferrer at the US Open in 2011, but this time an injured Nadal ‘honoured’ his opponent and completed the match, not to use injury as an ‘excuse’.

Understanding his knees and mind needed a break, he ‘paused and waited for the desire to return’.  He started his 2010 clay season at Rome. Was the king back? Had the desire returned? The pure ecstacy of winning would bring back the Rafa we all were so well versed with. Rome and Madrid bowed down do their son and the French Open welcomed its greatest champion. Only the great Bjorn Borg stood in his way. The traditional biting of the trophy followed, first in France and then at the lawns in Wimbledon. Rafa’s greatest test was yet to come..

The resurgence of a certain Serb with his non gluten diet caused a stir in the ATP. Nadal had never been dominated before, but in the summer of 2011 it seemed like all was lost once again. The Greatest Ever clay courter was treated to the new best returner in the game. Novak Djokovic was in his head. There was visible fear that continued all year round. Yes, Rafa won his 6th French Open by beating Roger, but surely, he got lucky. Novak had his number; he was his jimmy for the year. A new era beckoned with a clean sweep from Nole. Was it all done for Rafa? If there was one thing we learned from this man, it was honour, respect and the ability to win from absolutely nothing.

Could 2012 be Rafa’s year again. The Clay Court Season [read Bijon’s article on Clay Court] provided new hope, new game and no fear. The French was on the horizon. This is where he proved his mettle, not the ATP’s. Court Philippe Chatrier was his home court. Rafa came out strong, focused and determined. A blip in the 4th game caused a turn in fortunes. Nole returned strong, winning the next three games. Would Rafa pack shop again? Would he crack? Would the nerves and the thoughts from the previous season get to him? Luckily no, the 2012 Rafa was in his zone. An impeccable two hours of tennis resulted in a two sets to love lead.. and then came the rain. The rain break switched momentum. Heavier courts, less zip, everything suddenly suited the Serbs abilities. The world no.1 true to his nature fought hard and regained momentum by winning the 3rd and leading in the 4th. As the French sky shot to kill yet again, Rafa was handed a lifeline, to restart and regroup for a Monday finish. And the rest they say was #HIS7ORY.

11 Grand slams at 26 years old, the ‘jimmy’ of his back, the Rafa we all knew had returned. One may argue that Borg was the greatest on clay, but his competition didn’t include players as talented and successful as Federer and Djokovic.

He fell to his beloved clay, tears rolling down his face…

Mustering up the strength to climb into the stands and embrace his family..

And #HIS7ORY he tweeted, The King of Clay