Monday, 27 December 2010

Rafael Nadal's feats are the year's best

Everything was better in the past. The statement can’t be true, but somehow it makes us feel better to believe it. And few people like to believe it as much as tennis fans. Wood racquets, slice backhands, serve-and-volleyers, even the profane bad boys and patchy Wimbledon grass of the 1970s — we long for all of it.

But if there was ever a time to put nostalgia aside and focus on the here and now, this is it. The pro game, and in particular the men’s pro game, is in the midst of what might be called the Extraordinary Age. From winning streaks to Channel Slams to majors collected to aces hit to hours played: What seemed unimaginable a few years ago has become routine. Who would have believed at the start of the last decade, when there was little order at the top of the ATP tour rankings, that over the course of five years two men would win 21 of 23 majors and hold the No. 1 and 2 positions for longer than any other duo in history? That one of them would own a record 16 majors while the other would win a record 93 straight matches on clay? And that they would each have earned a career Grand Slam, something that had previously been accomplished by just five other men?

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have lifted the sport in unique and very different ways — Federer with his artistry and elegance, Nadal with his passion and athleticism. In 2010, the sense of the extraordinary that they’ve created became contagious. At 28, Serena Williams continued her climb through the game’s historical stratosphere. She won her 12th and 13th majors, at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, respectively, which sent her past Billie Jean King on the all-time Slam list. But it was two less-than-legendary figures who gave us the most mind-boggling day of the season. Three days, actually: That’s how long it took John Isner and Nicolas Mahut to play their second-round match at Wimbledon. The two slugged serves at each other for 11 hours, 5 minutes, and 183 games; the fifth set alone lasted longer than any match in history. Pity the Frenchman: Mahut won more points in one match than anyone ever has—502 to Isner’s 478—but still took a loss.

That indelible 11-hour moment aside, the story of 2010 was the resurgence and eventual dominance of Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard had finished the 2009 ATP season at a personal and professional low point. After enduring multiple injuries and family problems, he’d lost all six sets he played at the ATP World Tour Finals in London. By March of 2010, though, there were signs of life in his beat-up body; he reached the semifinals in both Indian Wells and Key Biscayne. The dam finally burst in May, on the clay of Monte Carlo, where he stampeded through the draw to win his first tournament in 11 months. After the final point, Nadal dropped to the court in tears. He had the winning feeling back, and he wouldn’t let it go.

From that point through the U.S. Open, Nadal put on one of the great sustained performances in tennis history. He reclaimed the French Open without dropping a set, made quick work of Tomas Berdych in the Wimbledon final, and, serving more effectively than ever, surrendered just one set on the way to his first U.S. Open title.

Few top players have remained as committed to improving as Nadal. The former dyed-in-the-wool dirt-baller has moved up in the court, made himself a credible volleyer, and turned his serve into a bail-out weapon. Yet the 24-year-old has also retained the fearsome desire and competitive intelligence that have defined him since he was a teenager. Is Nadal the next Federer? It’s too early to say, of course, and if we’ve learned anything about their rivalry, it’s that whoever is being counted out is the person we should be watching.

For now, we’re watching Nadal. When asked about the future, the Spaniard’s characteristic reply is, “We gonna see, no?” We’re gonna see more Rafa, which is the best part of this story. The Extraordinary Age may just be getting started.

Courtesy: nbcsports

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