It took all of four sets, played in three hours 43 minutes, for Rafael (Rafa) Nadal to defeat Novak Djokovic in the highly entertaining final of the 2010 U.S. Open.
The road to completing his career slam may have taken a little longer in comparison, but regardless of when we start counting—from the age of three when the toddler Nadal first picked up a tennis racket, or eighteen when he clinched his first major on the rich, red clay of Roland Garros—the fact is that the current world No.1 has collected nine crowns and the career slam (one of only four men to accomplish this) at the ripe young age of 24. After such an achievement, you have to wonder: what’s next for Rafael Nadal?
By the looks of it: whatever he chooses. Fans who have been following Nadal’s career must feel that claiming this career slam was only a matter of time. But anyone watching him, even only at the U.S. Open, would be likely to come to the same conclusion. There seemed to be something in the air (or stormy gales, more like) at Flushing Meadows signalling Rafa’s time to take the title. But if it was timing or momentum or even fate that gave him his victory, it was no less his own doing.
It’s true that any number of things (like not having to face Federer but the more fatigued Djokovic in the final, or the shiny new 125-mph service bombs at his disposal) may have paved the way for this momentous opportunity. But look more closely and you’ll see that what he achieved this year was the result of the one weapon that keeps him winning even when all else fails (though it rarely does): his unrelenting determination to improve.
No, he didn’t have to face his greatest and most successful rival on the way to the title, but surely having to take down the man who beat Federer was enough trouble in its own right. And that new serve, regardless of how nonchalant or surprised he seemed about it, was no doubt the result of the careful planning, hard work, and masterful execution that we’ve come to expect of Nadal.
We get a better perspective of the value of his astonishing, yet seemingly inevitable achievement by looking back. The boy from Mallorca, with his long hair, sleeveless muscle shirts, pirate pants and all, burst onto the scene armed with the heaviest forehand in the game, and a fiery, tenacious attitude—but not a whole lot else.
After his first Grand Slam title at the 2005 French Open, the lefty assessed his performance and came up with a new game plan: developing a competitive backhand to add to his arsenal. Three Wimbledon finals later, on a surface that no one believed he could win on, he had the SW17 tournament under his belt. In the years following, his to-do list included committing to enhance his all-brawn style with a sturdy net game, getting fit after a series of physical injuries, and coming back after dealing with family troubles. Check, check, and check. This was problem-solving tennis. This was ever-improving, boundary-pushing, record-setting tennis. Even those who weren’t originally fans of Nadal’s physical, ball-crushing style of play (made to look even more primitive across the net from Federer’s game so powered by finesse) had to acknowledge that it was getting the job done.
The pirate pants and muscle shirts may be gone, but the bull-headed tenacity and refusal to rest on his laurels lies at the heart of Nadal’s game, as strong as it’s ever been. He has an expanding trophy collection to show for it.
This isn’t to say that he won’t be without his worthy and ever-present challenges; he certainly will, most immediately in Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray (ranked second, third, and fourth in the pecking order). However, all evidence points to Nadal staying the path and finding ways to build on his already formidable game to overcome the road blocks. After all, that’s exactly what he had to do to cement his current place as the world’s best—5,000 ranking points clear of the runner-up.
It’s impossible to speak about Rafa, especially in terms of titles and records to be set, without mentioning the already widely-regarded G.O.A.T., (Greatest of All Time) Roger Federer. But while it seems it’s never too early to have the Greatest of All Time debate, Nadal makes for a more serious discussion.
For now, the fans of this spectacular rivalry, which is looking more and more like a four-horse race, are privileged (if not inconsolably impatient) to find out what will come. And with Nadal, still only 24, leading the charge of this new generation of tennis greats, they have a whole lot to look forward to.