June 5th, 2005. That's when the unbounded legacy of Rafael Nadal began.
Capturing his first of 11 Grand Slam slam titles at the tender age of 19, Nadal used Roland Garros as a fitting venue for his first major win. Nadal's four-set victory over Mariano Puerta presented his profound and unquestioned skill-set to the tennis world in stunning fashion. Since this first title at Roland Garros, the Spaniard has proven to be a nearly unbeatable force on the red dirt of Paris.
But having won each of the four majors, including Wimbledon twice, an Australian Open, a U.S. Open and an astounding seven French Open titles, the Majorca native has had success across all surfaces. By now we all know about Nadal's abilities from a fundamental tennis perspective—his unprecedented ball-striking, tennis IQ, incredible movement, and all court skills have been well-documented. But what does Nadal do so well without the racket that accounts for his greatness?
"My greatest point is my persistence. I never give up in a match. However down I am, I fight until the last ball. My list of matches shows that I have turned a great many so-called irretrievable defeats into victories.'' —Bjorn Borg
Nadal's similar never-say-die attitude is a characteristic that is undeniable. Whether it be within the context of a single point, a single game, a single set or an entire match, one thing you will never see from Nadal is quit.
Blood and pain seem to come from Nadal as readily as sweat. His ability to urge himself on in the face of adversity propels and wills him through matches.
With Nadal, all shots are valued equally. He believes each and every ball has to be retrieved. The moments when Nadal increases his level of energy and motivation is during moments in which others would falter thus allowing him to play each and every point to its rightful end.
Tennis may be "just a game," but watching Nadal play often makes one think otherwise.
You often hear commentators say that players will alter their strategy if they enter a deep hole within a game or a set. And for the most part, this is true. Down deep in a set, some players will look to make their opponents serve out the set depending on the tightness of the set. But in many instances, they may lay over and reserve energy for the next set. Even when down deep in a game, I think it is certainly safe to say that players tend to loosen up mentally and disengage from prior levels of focus.
This never happens with Nadal. Absolutely never. Every single point is viewed in the same light. The ability to consolidate every ounce of focus into each point is a remarkable attribute.
Think about playing a four-hour, best-of-five set match at your local club or community tennis courts and constantly elevating your mental forces in the face of the ups and downs of the match, variable conditions and external human distractions. Impossible, right?
"I think it's the mark of a great player to be confident in tough situations."—John McEnroe
Rafael Nadal has beaten Roger Federer 18 times. Are you kidding me? It is an absolutely breathtaking statistic. While a majority of these defeats have occurred on Nadal's surface of suit, the feat is no less impressive.
This unprecedented superiority over arguably the greatest player of all time is truly a sensational accomplishment.
There are only a handful of players (Dominik Hrbaty, Paradorn Srichaphan, Alex Corretja, Joachim Johansson, Chris Guccione, Nikolay Davydenko, Oliver Mutis) who have winning records over Nadal. And most of the victories recorded by these players came before 2005.
When Nadal steps onto court against virtually every single player in the world, he can claim that he has conquered them more times than not, with the exception of Davydenko.
"The Bull," as Nadal is sometimes called, enters every match believing he will win even though he may say otherwise. Behind his modest and humble exterior exists an everlasting confidence. Every strand of his DNA seems to spell out victory, which is appropriate for a man who at times seems to be beyond human, a genetic superior to the rest of us mortal beings.
While, of course, he is merely a man, this mindset has had the ability to make boys out of the rest of the tour.
"I've been motivated by overcoming challenge and overcoming the hurdles and obstacles that face me. There still is plenty out there to get motivated by."—Andre Agassi
We as humans are often judged by our ability to handle failure and success with equal footing. The barriers to our goals are just that—barriers.
Having dealt with his fair share of personal problems, health scares and tough losses, Nadal has had his fair share of arduous experiences both on and off the court.
But whether it be in a match, a season or against a specific opponent, he never fails to recoup.
After losing his first and only French Open match in 2009 and later being unable to compete at Wimbledon due to injury, Nadal made the ultimate rebound in 2010, reclaiming both the French Open and Wimbledon titles. These feats were capped off when Rafa captured his maiden US Open title.
Looking back at the epic 2008 Wimbledon final, Nadal sprinted out to a commanding two-sets-to-love advantage over Federer. After losing the third set in a tightly contested tiebreak, Nadal found himself two points away from destined glory at 5-2 in the fourth-set tiebreaker.
Unfortunately for Nadal, Federer had other ideas, storming back to eventually save a match point at 7-8 down with a memorable backhand down-the-line passing shot, and ultimately taking the set 10-8 in the breaker having rescued two match points.
But this did not serve as an impetus to the succumbing of Nadal. He took the fifth set 9-7 to close out what I feel is the best tennis match to ever be played.
When the 2012 clay court season rolled around, Nadal had lost seven consecutive matches against Novak Djokovic, including three straight Grand Slam finals and four Masters Series 1000 finals. Then came the 2012 clay-court season, four months of tennis that would test the status of not only the rivalry between Djokovic and Nadal, but in many respects, Nadal's career moving forward.
And as all know now, Nadal handled it with brilliance. Erasing the memories of earlier matches, Nadal defeated Djokovic in Monte-Carlo, Rome and Roland Garros, only dropping one set.
This rise was quickly curtailed as Nadal was eliminated by Lukas Rosol in the second round of Wimbledon.
Unexpectedly, this proved to be Nadal's final match of 2012. Rafa missed the Olympics, US Open, and the World Tour Finals due to an ongoing battle with a knee injury.
Originally expected to play the 2013 Australian Open, Nadal was forced to withdraw due to a stomach virus much to the disappointment of fans across the globe.
Rafa played his first tournament back after a 222 day absence and was able to reach both the singles and doubles finals on the red clay in Vina Del Mar before losing to Horacio Zeballos in singles and Starace/Lorenzi in doubles. Obviously not the desired outcome, but one that seemed to get Rafa's feet wet as he looks to regain his ideal form.
Nadal's ability to live by Agassi's words have provided him a great deal throughout his career and will surely will inspire him through this current comeback process.
Overall, Nadal is humble, yet he demands only the greatest from himself on a regular basis.
He is gracious in both victory and defeat and rarely allows doubt and negativity to infiltrate his thoughts. His combination of effort, belief and motivation has created a true warrior who has already left a permanent stamp on the tennis world.
Eventually, Nadal will have to hang up his rackets for good.
But until that time comes, we must sit back and enjoy as much as we can of the man from Majorca.