MAN OF THE YEAR
Consider the plight of Rafael Nadal, who has in so many ways redefined and reshaped the landscape in which he performs. Nadal had taken over unequivocally from Roger Federer in 2008 at No. 1 in the world after the Swiss had resided masterfully in that post from 2004-2007. In that remarkable 2008 campaign, Nadal toppled Federer in the French Open and Wimbledon finals, and then secured a gold medal at the Olympic Games. He commenced 2009 unhesitatingly, striking down Federer for the Australian Open crown, adding four more titles by May. But the rest of the year was horrendous for Nadal. Weakened by tendinitis in his knees, distracted by the impending divorce of his parents, losing his competitive compass, Nadal bowed in the round of 16 against Robin Soderling at the French Open, and did not defend his Wimbledon title.
When he returned later in the summer, he was not the same player. Nadal finished 2009 decidedly behind a revitalized Federer, the victor at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Heading into April of 2010, Nadal had still not recovered his conviction, and he was losing matches he once would have won; in the crunch, his growing doubts were painfully apparent. But from the moment he captured his first tournament in eleven months—losing a mere 14 games in five matches while ruling on the red clay at Monte Carlo for the sixth year in a row—Nadal was a man reinvigorated, a player back in sync, a champion moving beyond himself and reacquiring the art of triumph. The Spaniard went unbeaten all through the clay court season, won a fifth French Open title, returned to Wimbledon for a second championship run at the All England Club, and then secured his first U.S. Open championship at summer’s end, becoming the first man since Rod Laver won a second Grand Slam in 1969 to sweep Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in succession.
Nadal had very little incentive to compete with his usual ferocity and unbridled enthusiasm thereafter, although he won one more tournament in Sydney and made it to the final at the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London. Long before he lost in London to a top of the line Federer, Nadal had sealed the No. 1 world ranking for the year. He was back where he belonged, an authentic world champion, a dedicated craftsman of a rare breed. Moreover, he had gone to work assiduously over the summer to develop a much bigger first serve, changing his grip, adding considerable velocity to that delivery. The vastly improved serve was the driving force behind his U.S. Open breakthrough victory.
Was he the Sportsman of the Year? Indisputably yes, because he won and lost with equanimity, because he carried himself with such dignity and grace not only when he was winning but when he endured his long and debilitating slump, because he navigates the territory of champions better than anyone in his profession. But more than anything else, this singularly charismatic Spaniard with the immense heart—and a thirst like no one else for success—was his game’s towering Man of the Year. Who else could it be? Rafael Nadal wears that label awfully well.
Men’s Match of the Year
The way I saw it, this was no contest. From beginning to end, across three absorbing sets, on a low bouncing indoor court in London, through three hours and eleven minutes of spellbinding tennis, Andy Murray and Nadal played with verve, intensity, imagination and extraordinary resolve. They were pitted against each other in the semifinals of the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, and both men threw their hearts and souls into a battle that was worthy of a final. The rallies were often breathtaking, the speed of the two competitors often staggering, the shot making frequently out of this world. Moreover, the mutual respect between these two steely competitors was evident at each and every stage of a match they both wanted very badly.
Both men were unstoppable on serve in the first set, with not a break point to be found by either Nadal or Murray. Nadal was backing up his delivery with a barrage of mightily struck forehands, using every inch of the court, making Murray run miles. Murray was up to the challenge, serving fantastically, releasing nine aces in that opening set. In a tie-break, Murray rallied from 2-5 to 5-5, only to be throttled by a highly charged Nadal, who simply raised his intensity a crucial notch and took two points in a row to close out the set. Early in the second, Nadal had an opening to break the match wide open. Murray was serving at 0-1, 15-40, and had he been broken there Nadal might have sent him quickly into submission.
Murray steadfastly held on, found another energy surge and it was Nadal who lost some emotional ground. From 3-3 in that set, an increasingly aggressive Murray broke him twice to make it back to one set all. Serving at 0-1, 0-30 in the third set, Nadal was in danger of losing a sixth game in a row. He managed to sneak out of that game and hold on for 1-1, and then reignited his game and his psyche. Murray wasted a 40-15 lead in the third game of that set and suffered from a few brain cramps as Nadal broke him for 2-1. The Spaniard surged to 5-3 and had a match point on Murray’s serve, only to drive a backhand return off a second serve long.
Serving for the match in the following game, Nadal got to 30-30 but missed an inside-in forehand and then Murray passed him brilliantly off the backhand down the line to break back for 5-5. It all came down fittingly to a final set tie-break, and Nadal seemed as good as gone when he fell behind 3-0 and two mini-breaks, and then 4-1. But he struck back boldly to 4-4 with a scintillating forehand winner, and soon it was 5-5. Nadal got to match point for the second time with Murray serving at 5-6 in the tie-break but was rushed into a backhand passing shot error. Soon Nadal made it to a third match point opportunity, and won a stirring 19 stroke exchange with a trademark, well measured, inside out forehand winner. Nadal got the victory 7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-6 (6) with characteristic gumption and indefatigability, but Murray has never been better in defeat.
The semifinal contest between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open was a contender for best match of the year. Djokovic audaciously erased two match points against him at 4-5 in the final set to clip the five time champion in a riveting five set confrontation. But I believe Nadal-Murray surpassed that and every other match I saw in 2010. I don’t make that assessment casually.