Rafael Nadal – Effort
“I play each point like my life depends on it.”
“Nadal’s got that intensity, that energy, that’s so debilitating to opponents,” says tennis great John McEnroe. “Rafael is the greatest fighter I’ve ever seen on a tennis court. He plays every point like it’s the last point.” This is true whether he is up 40-0 or down 0-40; whether he is winning handily or being dominated by his opponent. Regardless of the score, Nadal is sprinting, sliding, lunging, diving… and then he gets back up and does it again and again and again. The man simply never gives up on a point.
Rafael Nadal is a Spaniard. He grew up in a small town on the Spanish island of Mallorca. As a child, he loved playing both football (soccer to us Americans) and tennis. When he was 12 years old, Nadal won the Spanish and European tennis titles in his age group. However, playing two sports was interfering with his schoolwork, so his father made him decide on just one. Nadal chose tennis. This was an excellent decision. Subsequently, he was nationally ranked, and was invited to train with the Spanish Tennis Federation in Barcelona. However, the Nadal family turned down this offer; They chose to have young Rafael train at home. As it turned out, Rafael’s amateur career blossomed under the coaching of his uncle Toni.
At the age of 15, Nadal turned pro. As you might imagine, at first he lost frequently to the other — more seasoned — pros in tournaments. However, Nadal continued to work relentlessly on his game. “When one player is better than you, the only thing you can do is work,” he commented. “I’m going to try a sixth time. And if the sixth doesn’t happen, a seventh. It’s going to be like this. That’s the spirit of sport.” Glimpses of Nadal’s greatness could be seen over the next couple of years, as he occasionally upset top opponents and advanced beyond the first rounds in a tournament. Accordingly, his world ranking steadily improved each year. In 2001 he was ranked #726, in 2003 he officially entered the top 100, and in 2004 he finished the year ranked #51. Then, in 2005, Nadal made his official introduction to the world by winning his first grand slam title — the French Open. He had arrived, and by the time Nadal was 19, just four years after he had begun his professional career, he was ranked the #3 player in the world.
The era of 2005 to the present day is considered to be “the golden age of men’s tennis.” This is because of the presence of “the Big Three”: Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal. At this point, any of these three could make the argument for being named the best tennis player of all time. And the fact that all three play at the same time is historic. Over the last 15 years, they have taken turns being the most dominant player in the world. This sport is noted for providing four major grand slam tournaments each year — The Australian Open, The French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. From 2004-2022, one of these three men won 61 of those 73 tournaments. To date, Nadal has won 22 grand slam titles, Djokovic has 21 and Federer claims 20 victories. More times than not, these men have clashed with each other near the end of a major tournament, creating some of the most epic finals matches of all time.
Take, for example, the 2008 Wimbledon Finals, which many tennis historians rank as the greatest tennis match of all time. It was a battle of clashing styles and personalities — Federer vs. Nadal. Federer, a right-hander, is known as the king of the grass court. He walks on the court in his collared shirt and his cardigan sweater with hardly a hair out of place. Federer is a tennis aristocrat; a pretty boy if you will. He prefers to serve hard and volley for a quick win. He possesses effortless grace, talent, pure skill, and artistry. There is a certain way he carries himself. By contrast, Nadal is a left-hander, and is known as the king of the clay court. He sprints onto the court in a sleeveless shirt that is already sweaty from his warmup. Nadal prefers to play from the baseline and wear you down with his powerful forehand. He also is a grinder who welcomes a tie-breaker or a 5th set. John McEnroe explains the contrast this way: “Nadal is more emotional. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. Roger is the ever-classy, almost perfect guy.”
Federer was the five-time defending champ of the grass court at Wimbledon. He had beaten Nadal in the 2006 and 2007 finals. However, this time, Nadal took charge of the match. He won the first two sets 6-4, 6-4. Federer battled back like a true champion to win two tough sets with tie-breakers, 7-6, 7-6. By rule, the fifth set at Wimbledon cannot be decided by a tie-breaker. One man must break the other to claim victory. Tied at 6-6, it was going to be a test of wills. In the 15th game, Nadal was able to break Federer’s serve. He then served out to win the final set, 9-7. Afterward, Nadal fell to the ground, flat on his back after giving everything he had. “Finally!” Nadal exclaimed. “Wimbledon was my dream. It was unforgettable. It was probably one of the biggest wins in my career.”
The matches don’t always go his way. Nadal has lost some heart-breakers to Federer, Djokovic and other challengers. He has played in 29 grand slam titles and has lost eight times. However, Nadal’s admirable trait, providing the same consistent effort every time, never wavers. His coach, Carlos Moya, puts it this way: “Rafael wants to improve. He doesn’t care about making records. He is just such a fighter. He’s such a warrior. It’s something that I’ve never seen before.”
Nadal simplifies his mantra even further: “I just try to win the match by fighting for every point and running down every ball.”
The legacy of Rafael Nadal is still being created. He is only 35, and there is still more tennis to be played. It will be years before historians can properly assess if he or Federer or Djokovic is the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time). Even the top critics probably will never agree anyway. What we can say is that Nadal always provides maximum effort in his pursuit of victory. And, as a fan, you can’t ask for more than that. Nadal puts his legacy in the following context: “I’m not the best player in the history of tennis. I think I’m amongst the best. That’s true. And that’s enough for me.”
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Rafael Nadal is one of the 144 “Wednesday Role Models” featured in the Student Athlete Program. This program is designed to improve the character, leadership and sportsmanship of high school athletes. To learn more about this program and how you can implement it in your school: