NEW YORK - The journey began humbly enough in 2004, when Rafael Nadal was just a stringy-haired, urchin-like youth of 18 and a champion for the first time in an ATP main tour event in Sopot, Poland. He seemed, even then, cut from different cloth than most of his rivals young or old — a kid who brought an arched eyebrow and smile of amusement to the face of any tennis fan who laid eyes on him. Who was this boy who appeared to have been raised by wolves and schooled in the game by someone who might have known much, but none of it about tennis?
Nobody who understood the strokes and bio-mechanics of tennis would tolerate, never mind teach, that wild bolo forehand. That backhand? The stroke conjured the image of a Medieval monk thrusting aloft a cross to ward off a vampire. The serve? It looked all wrong; it seemed a rushed, minimalist push bearing no resemblance to the leisurely, leonine action of a Pete Sampras, or the explosive delivery of a Goran Ivanisevic.
When Nadal won the French Open in 2005, the first time he ever played at Roland Garros, it was easy to dismiss the accomplishment as yet another proof that the red clay encouraged an eccentricity upon which any well-bred tennis enthusiast or player might frown. It was charming, in a provincial kind of way, and the boy (a right-hander prevailed upon to play as a lefty — who could imagine such a thing?) might win often on that bedeviling clay. He could become one of those familiar one-trick ponies who would never amount to much on a court that he left with his socks clean. You had to admit, though, that he was a speedy little bugger, and persistent as a rash.
But as many any Alpinist can tell you, you don't think of the summit on a long and arduous climb. You just think about the next step, and then the next — the longest and most difficult journey always begins with a single step. So it was that Nadal set forth, and Monday he finished one of the longest journeys imaginable when he completed a career Grand Slam by yanking the U.S. Open title right out of the hands of a reconstructed Novak Djokovic. It may not serve the purpose of this theme very well, but the journey was relatively swift; Nadal has a career Grand Slam at age 24. But don't for a moment assume that the distance ever seemed short, or the obstacles less than formidable.
It was fitting that Nadal's quest to join his pal Federer in what is now the exclusive seven-man Career Slam Club would end on the sea-blue, rock-hard plain of Arthur Ashe stadium, because it's always best to take challenges in the order of their difficulty, building to the most hazardous one. Not that any were easy.
We had an inkling of things to come when Nadal won Wimbledon for the first time in 2008. It was a surprise diluted to some extent by the fact that Nadal had reached two finals in London before he won, and he played the same opponent on all three occasions. Roger Federer took the grass almost as naturally as Nadal took to the clay, so there were those who thought that after falling painfully short of beating Federer at Wimbledon those first two times, Nadal probably never would do it. They said that about Ivan Lendl, too, back in the day. Only in Ivan's case, it turned out to be true.
Nadal finally did it, though, and it turns out that the prized triumph at Wimbledon was not nearly the big ask that most people predicted. Nadal explained why that was so Monday, when contemplating his journey. "Is true I have to adjust my game to play in Wimbledon, but in my opinion, play in Wimbledon for me always wasn't that bad, because one of the most important things on Wimbledon is movements, and I think my movements are good to play well on that surface. The surface help me [also] because my serve was not that good as I have Monday, and with less serve I can do the same, the same to the opponent as what I can do today —especially at this tournament."
After winning the grass-court major in 2008, Nadal turned his attention to the hard courts. Rather, Grand Slam hard courts, because by then he had already won on the cement on Indian Wells. He made his biggest, early strides on hard courts by incorporating two elements into his basic style. He realized that he had to play closer to the baseline and take the ball on the rise, and he made his life easier by developing the ability to flatten out and drive his groundstrokes deeper when the occasion called for it. Prep-work done, he was ready to knock off his first hard court major in Melbourne. "In Australia, anyway, if it's hot, the ball bounces higher," he said Monday. "Sure to win in here at the U.S. Open I think is the more difficult, more difficult conditions to adapt, to adjust, my game on this court, for the balls, for the court, for everything, no?"
So that left the U.S. Open, a tournament which Nadal was in the habit of playing in a state of mental or physical distress; often both. And it was the tournament that some pundits doubted he would ever win, because the surface is both fast and slick, which keeps the ball low on the bounce. The hard courts here keep his aggressive topspin shots from bouncing too high, and rob him of the ability to push back and tire an opponent. And the speed of the court also allowed opponents to serve more effectively, while denying him some of the benefits yielded by grass.
But that all changed this year. An 11th hour tweak of his grip and a new focus on the importance of the serve propelled him through this tournament. Until Monday's match, Nadal had been broken just twice in the tournament, and he had not lost a set. It was a tribute to the quality of Djokovic's game, and his courage, that he broke Nadal three times and prevented Nadal — if barely — from becoming the first player to win this tournament without losing a set in half a century.
Monday, Nadal frequently broke the 130 mph barrier with his serve, 10 mph more than he's accustomed to getting out of the stroke. And he spoke of it almost reverently: "For me the most important thing [for the future] is try to keep serving like I did during this tournament. I think that's — if I can do it, this most of the time is gonna be a big change for me and my career, because if I have that free points that I had during all this tournament it's gonna be different for me. I can play more aggressive. I can play with more calm when I am returning. So it can change a lot.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Like all arduous journeys, the one Nadal has taken, the one which ended tonight, has taken a toll and also transformed him — in his case, in an admirable way. So let's review: Since Nadal first won the French Open, he's learned to flatten out his strokes (when the occasion/surface requires), play from on the baseline or inside the court, added a slice backhand (it served him well at times tonight, but remains a work in progress), and boosted his service speed and proficiency. One unsung improvement: his volley. He seems to volley better by the day. There seems to be no end to the improvement of which this already iconic player is capable.
The only thing that has an end is his journey. Or at least this portion of it. But let's let him rest on his laurels before we begin to discuss his next one. He'll be the first to tell you that 16 is a big number.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will renew their rivalry in the Italian Open final Sunday.
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