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Unquestionable 'greatness'

Passing insurmountable odds and leaving greatest of names behind, Rafael Nadal was adroitness personified at Rod Laver arena — exhibiting indomitable spirit to claim his well-deserved 21st Grand Slam title

Unquestionable greatness
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Rafael Nadal had billions of hearts pounding as he took his fans around the globe for one hell of a roller-coaster ride at the Rod Laver arena to win his 21st Grand Slam title.

Nadal revealed many shades of himself, rarely seen before, as he turned in a classic act which would be hard to describe in simple words. At the end of over five hours and 30 minutes, when the 35-year-old Spaniard dismantled Daniil Medvedev in a five-setter, it was not just the adrenaline which everyone felt but also a sense of belonging. It was a record 21st Grand Slam title not just for Nadal but for all those who have idolised him since the time he broke onto the big stage as a unique southpaw in 2005 at Roland Garros.

At that time, Nadal was seen as some kind of a freak, not a great tennis player. Clay courter for sure on the brick red Parisian clay, but his long shorts (pedal-pusher), flashy T-shirts, scowl on his face and the body language gave one an impression as if a new rock star had arrived. Was this like hearing loud heavy metal which could give you a headache if you were not a rock fan, or was this some punk music? For all those who have been hearing Nadal's racquet strike the tennis ball with power and poise, speed and deception, angles being conjured up by a master in geometry, his tennis has been unbelievable.

He was given the clay-courter label, which is basically meant for players who rush, slide, retrieve and indulge in counter-attacks. But you had to see Nadal closely. So close, that you watch how he stretches every muscle and sinew to produce tennis which leaves you spellbound. No, he is not a clay-courter but a master of the game that can be played on any surface. He has won most of his 21 Grand Slam titles on clay at the French Open but his efforts on grass at Wimbledon, the synthetic courts at the Australian Open and the hard courts at the US Open are proof he is an all-weather, all-surface player.

For a man blessed with a robust physique, his tennis has been a bit grinding, in the sense he will not hit winners at the first go. He can tease and torment his rival, he can make them cry, he can make them go berserk with rallies and then come up with a winner out of the world. Well, Rafa, as fans love to call him, showed all that against Medvedev in melting Melbourne, where the fans sipping red wine, champagne or beer from Dan Murphy's left the arena dazed past midnight. Their high did not come from the spirits consumed but from the spirit that Rafa showed in taming an opponent, despite being wounded.

Nadal, from Spain, has the best manners on court. He loves hard battles. Yet, to be two sets down and staring at defeat under arc lights was not what he had come to Melbourne for. As someone whose travel schedule in the last few years has been very conservative, Nadal picks and chooses where to play. At the 2022 AO, as they call it, Nadal was bogged by more questions on the arrival and departure (sorry, deportation) of Novak Djokovic. Nadal answered very politely, knowing very well he was going to come under pressure.

Having been through tough matches in the draw this year, when Nadal was struggling against Medvedev, he had the crowds on his side for sure. It was almost as if he was playing not in Australia but some Spanish town where the fans were pumping him up. The record books were being looked up when Nadal had last won a five-setter after being down.

It seemed like ages

Once inside the cauldron called the Rod Laver arena, a tennis player is all alone despite the raucous roars from the fans. You have to help yourself at the end of it. You have to find the shots which can hurt the opponent or produce winners on either flank. Or, you have to find the rhythm and gusto of a lead guitar player in the midst of a concert, as both involve plucking the strings. One produces high decibels and the other, with a tennis racquet, produces faster racquet head acceleration and times the ball like sweet music.

Nadal himself may not have known what to do in the final. He was in trouble, and he was in tears. No, not because he was despondent but because of his left foot problem which has been hurting him for over a decade. In medical jargon, they call it Mueller-Weiss Syndrome, wherein the arch in the bone of the foot does not permit movement in the best way. It could be due to wear and tear or it could be due to sheer overuse.

Nadal has played long rallies for a point over and over again, like a billion times. His lateral movement and his front and back movement are extremely physical, which can look tiring from the stands. But that is the way he has played his tennis, grinding the opponent to dust, literally. Nadal had to produce something more than special, and a lot of it had to do with toughness. Everyone knows he possesses a body which is the dream of any athlete. At the same time, he needed to stay ice cool like a neuro-surgeon at work, using the array of equipment in an operation theatre. For the last two sets or so against Medvedev, the operation which Nadal performed was life saving for himself to win his 21st Grand Slam title. This was history being written in men's tennis by a man whose career had almost come to a screeching halt in 2022 when he was out for over five months. In this period, he missed Wimbledon as well as the Tokyo Olympics.

Nadal has not been at peak fitness for a long time. If you go through his career, almost every year in the last decade there were periods when he was away from tennis courts for a long time. He has never spoken of his own pain and suffering, as what he believes in is giving fans pure joy. And once the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in 2020, Nadal became even more conservative with his playing schedule.

In December, Nadal tested positive for the dreaded virus. There were doubts if he would make the trip to Melbourne, where he last won ages ago. History and geography were against him as Melbourne has been more kind to Roger Federer and Djokovic. With Federer out for an indefinite period, Nadal's journey at the Australian Open was very much a voyage into the unknown — Down Under. Yet, when one looks back at his seven matches won in the magical fortnight, Nadal has shown there is still so much he has to give to tennis.

Modern tennis has this crazy debate going around on who is the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time). Yes, he is GOAT, not just because he has gone ahead for the first time against Federer. Nadal is GOAT not because of the 21st title but the way he has shown what a role model should be.

In times of the pandemic, his behaviour has been exemplary, where he had no hesitancy in taking the vaccine. For someone who has handled injuries so many times and needed anaesthesia injections for pain in the left foot to keep his tennis going, Nadal has redefined longevity and hunger for success.

Mind you, in a few months he will be 36. The boy we all first saw with a bizarre dress sense has grown to become a charismatic player who still sets aflutter hearts and hormones of his lady fans. The pin up poster boy has ''aged'' but his grace and charm are intact.

Will Nadal win his 22nd Grand Slam at the French Open? Or will Nadal be surpassed by Djokovic eventually? These questions don't really matter now as Rafa has shown that there is still plenty of brain and brawn in him when he is out on court. You can well call it, Love All.

Views expressed are personal

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