24 major titles, two calendar slams, five straight French Open titles and numerous other accolades to add to; this would have been Roger Federer had it not been for a certain individual. Rafael Nadal.
Federer currently has 17 Grand Slam titles to his name, but this sparkling tally would have been even more incredible and inaccessibly phenomenal had it not been for the Spain’s greatest ever athlete.
It is often said that Federer is to tennis as Shakespeare is to English literature; an epitome of class and elegance, a reflection and model of an eye-soothing brand of tennis hitherto unseen.
The all-conquering Swiss has compiled stats and records which are sure to stand the test of time and has earned himself the appellation and title of being, for many, the greatest ever player.
But how did Nadal get the better of the ‘best’. How was he able to not only tame the Federer juggernaut but also stake his claim as the greatest player of all times status.
A careful review and analysis of Nadal’s game will reveal what makes him the player that he is today. Firstly, Nadal is a fierce and pugnacious competitor, the best description and personification of the phrase ‘never say never’.
His unyielding ability and hunger to fight for each and every point and asking questions of his opponent’s credentials has been one most prominent feature of his game. His opponent would strike a shot which would be a clear winner against any other player but he will only see Nadal make a stunning return and make him work an extra short.
What it does is it creates doubt in his opponent’s mind and the feeling that they need to do a little bit extra to win a point. This uncertainty and a shake-up of mind extracts unforced errors.
Players look to add a bit extra power behind their shots or look to play a volley that will drop closer to the net or a winner as close to the lines as possible. All of these are ingredients of a high unforced errors count.
Secondly, Nadal has got the nerves of steel when it comes to dealing with pressure situations. His knack of producing sublime tennis at crucial moments is one prime factor of his successes.
During his multiple duels with Federer, I have noticed how he is the one coming out at the top at crucial junctures, saving multiple break points but converting from the fewest that he will get. This is no hidden secret that Nadal’s staggering success record against Federer is mostly due to his mental and psychological edge over his long-time rival.
Then, there is his game. Nadal’s forehand for me is the best shot in the game. And it’s not just Federer who has struggled to come to grips with it. Nadal puts an incredible amount of spin with his forehand which gives him an advantage in two ways.
First, his forehand shot is usually a good foot or two above the net cord, reducing his error tally. And second, it allows him to push his opponent deep in the court and hence forces them to play to his strength i.e. the baseline game.
Federer perhaps has been the major casualty of Nadal’s merciless forehand as it is often aimed at his weaker backhand, enabling him to dictate the terms of the contest.
Another notable trait of Nadal which makes him a nightmare for his foes is his ability to maintain consistency in his play. Same is not the case with Federer or any other attacking players who often play in spells. There would be a portion of the game in which Federer would appear to be untouchable when he is firing on all cylinders but then, there would be a dip in his level.
Nadal, on the other hand, would maintain the degree of his performance. He would bide his time when the things are not going his way but would immediately grab his adversary from the scruff of the neck once their game plummets. In simple words, he often wears his opponents out.
We have also seen this now in Djokovic’s case. The prolific Serb enjoyed tremendous success against Nadal in 2011, but now the old desolate times of Nadal getting into his head have returned.
Though Djokovic deserves credit for being the only one to challenge Nadal in French Open, the old order is once again in effect: Belief followed by bewilderment and then surrender.
Nadal is a player who has made power and strength important and crucial tools in modern day tennis. His tenacity, fighting spirit, a strong defensive game and mental strength are the factors which have contributed to his rivals’ undoing. He has conquered the one who is widely hailed as the greatest ever player summarily because of these features.
But can someone step up to the plate and dethrone Nadal from his perch? Brute strength, exceptional talent and a warrior’s spirit, how does one beat that?