Rafael Nadal has achieved it all; he has reached the summit of the ATP World Tour Ranking, he has won an Olympic Gold medal, clinched the Davis Cup twice, won 18 ATP 1000 titles, and most recently he achieved the Career Grand Slam, defeating Novak Djokovic to capture that elusive US Open title. He has achieved so much in so many different areas of tennis, on different surfaces and in different continents. However, he wasn’t always the well-rounded player that we see today. This has been achieved through an abundance of determination, hard work and most importantly – a hell of a lot of heart.
2002-2005: Rafael Nadal’s Big Arrival
In April 2002, a 762nd ranked 15 year old by the name of Rafael Nadal played in his debut match on the ATP tour in his hometown of Mallorca. He won it, defeating Ramon Delgado of Paraguay in straight sets and throwing himself into the record books by becoming only the 9th player in the Open Era to win an ATP Main Draw match. Rafael Nadal had arrived.
Throughout this period, Nadal was seen solely as a claycourt player. And rightly so. Though he achieved a handful of impressive results on hard, it was on the claycourts where he really excelled. At this time he had a number of limitations – his backhand, his net-game, his slice and serve. Nadal compensated for these weaknesses by standing miles behind the baseline and using his outstanding athleticism and highly-revered forehand to grind his opponents into the ground. And it worked. Easily. By 2005 he had won his first French Open in his very first appearance. He was already being proclaimed the “King of Clay”, and while his fans were exuberant at the victory, Nadal himself was far from satisfied. In fact, he took that title as an insult.
2006-2008: Attacking the Grass
Though Nadal continued to waltz through the claycourt seasons, his eyes were firmly set elsewhere. The Spaniard had always maintained that Grass is and was his favourite surface. Not the best surface for his game, of course, but the mystery and prestige surrounding it simply proved too much for him. Growing up in Majorca, the surface of grass was probably akin to a forbidden fruit to him, and one that he longed to taste. After his victory at the French Open in 2005, he finally had the chance to do just that.
Between 2006 and 2008, Nadal worked tirelessly on the qualities he needed to succeed on grass. He worked on attacking and playing more aggressive tennis, he developed a formidable traditional lefty slider to compliment the grass, and he added a slice to his ever-growing repertoire of shots. He was transforming at a magnificent rate. A year later he was in his first Wimbledon final and in two years from that, he took the title in magnificent circumstances – defeating Roger Federer 9-7 in the 5th set in one of tennis’ all time classic matches. Wimbledon? Check.
2008-2010: Breaking down the Hardcourts
With 5 Grand Slams to his name, he had already achieved so much at the tender age of 22. However, Nadal still wasn’t satisfied. And he wouldn’t until he mastered the hardcourts, and so he got to work. He continued to refine his game while working on further flattening out both his serve and groundstrokes. A month later he would snatch the Olympic Gold Medal in Beijing, before taking his third Grand Slam in Australia 2009, yet again defeating Federer in the final. Still, people doubted that he would ever win the US Open to complete the set. It was too fast for him, his serve wasn’t good enough and his knee problems during the clay and grass seasons gave people more reason to doubt him. He simply didn’t have the game to win on such a quick surface, they said.
They were, of course, categorically wrong. At the 2010 US Open he would clinch that final slam, completing the Career Golden Grand Slam and catapulting him into the history books once again. He consistently unleashed serves above 130mph, he strolled into the forecourt and easily put away the most testing volleys and he hugged the baseline as if it was a long-lost friend. What is ironic is that the French Open wasn’t where he played his best tennis in 2010, nor at Wimbledon. He played his best match of the year in the finals of the US Open. Now that is special.
What Is Next For Rafael Nadal?
Rafael Nadal has to be considered the hardest worker and most determined player in the history of the game. He has exceeded so many expectations and has improved more than any other player. Ever. The scary thing is that he continues to evolve to this very day. Will he ever reach a ceiling? In the US Open final it was the backhand that emerged as the dominant weapon rather than his legendary forehand. With his trademark open stance technique he was unleashing breathtakingly powerful and flat-as-a-pancake backhands that even the defence of Novak Djokovic stood no chance against. Not to mention the fact that he has transformed himself into one of the most complete players in the world, and he is capable of bringing his very best tennis to every single surface. Many think that the knee problems will emerge again and cut short his career, but if he continues to refine this new all-out attacking game of his and lighten the stress on his body, he will prove them wrong. He always does.