On a fine spring day in Barcelona just over a week ago, Rafael Nadal threw himself down to the earth and roared in glee at the skies above him. It was a scenario that has played out countless times over the past 16 years, particularly during this time of year.
In the three hours and 38 minutes it took Nadal to overcome Stefanos Tsitsipas from match point down, he wrestled with his own serve, his nerves and with one of the most in-form players this year. His reward, his 87th title, will be only a footnote in his career when all is over. He celebrated it as one of his great victories.
As Nadal has explained numerous times since, of course he would celebrate such a difficult victory so vigorously. Between a back injury in Australia this year and his decision to sit out the early pandemic events, Nadal has played few tournaments recently and his form has suffered. In Melbourne, he hit a wall after leading Tsitsipas by two sets in their quarter-final and lost in five. In Monte Carlo last month, he was dismayed as he fizzled out in the third set against Andrey Rublev.
It was, however, still a notable sight. This is a time when Roger Federer and Serena Williams, both five years older, ration their energies for the tournaments that matter most in the twilight of their careers. Novak Djokovic has spent much of this year stating, understandably, that he is only really motivated by grand slam titles these days. Dominic Thiem, in the prime of his career, recently took a break after feeling burnt out from all the effort it took for him to win just one grand slam title. Nadal’s ability to be fully present in every match and every point he contests feels even more significant and special as his career endures.
Still, the frequency with which Nadal’s mental strength is discussed can obscure many other qualities that have defined his greatness over the years. He is constantly described as the resident worker on tour, the raging bull who plays with a primitive fighting spirit and works more than almost all of his rivals.
In recent years, Nadal himself has come to reject many of these characterisations. Yes, his intensity and passion are essential to his success, but those qualities would be far diminished if he did not play with the clarity of thought and composure needed to continually problem-solve on the court. On the topic this week, he said: “On court I think I have always been playing with a positive attitude and of course try my best. But almost always under good self-control.”
Over the years, Nadal has fashioned one of the most complete games in the sport and his vast toolbox has allowed him to beset his natural decline in foot speed and athleticism. His improved serve has been essential to his sustained success, allowing more efficiency on faster surfaces. The past two times Nadal ended his season as No 1, 2019 and 2017, he won 90% and 89% of his service games, the highest and third highest numbers of his career.
During the mid-2010s, when Nadal’s struggles sent him out of the top five for the only time in the past 16 years, it was often his forehand with which he struggled. He compensated by taking on more responsibility with his backhand, which now, at times, can end points as viciously as his forehand. So, too, has he matured at the net – Nadal has always been one of the most capable and talented singles players at the net, but he chose his approach shots carefully. Now he is far more daring with his net play – in the 2019 US Open final against Daniil Medvedev he executed 20 serve and volleys, winning 17, with 66 total approaches. It has taken every facet of Nadal’s game to remain at the top of the sport for so long.
Not all of these qualities have been as easy to summon so far this year, but on Wednesday Nadal will face Carlos Alcaraz in his first match of the Madrid Open as he continues on his road towards a possible 14th Roland Garros title and a 21st major title. Their first encounter will garner significant hype as Alcaraz, 18 on Wednesday, has flitted up the rankings and is already anointed the next flagbearer for Spanish tennis. He may have to wait some time to see how heavily it weighs.