I don’t like ‘Greatest Ever Player’ debates. I don’t think they’re right. You can’t compare players across generations. But, of course, there can be a group of ‘Greatest Ever Players’. That’s my view. That said, since we’re going to have the debate anyway, I’ll weigh in. If you do want to think about the greatest ever players, then it cannot be done by looking at statistics. Head to head stats, grand slams won, goals scored – all that is great. But, that’s not it.
There’s a certain romance in sport that you cannot ignore. It’s just like romance in relationships. There’s magic. You can never explain it but it’s there. And, on the sports field, that magic is only invoked by genius. By an X Factor which many great sportsman will never have despite their statistic accomplishments. There are many many such examples -Gerd Muller in football, Andre Agassi in tennis, Shaquille O Neal in basketball, Allan Border in cricket and so on. Gerd Muller scored more goals than anybody but will never be spoken of in the same breath as a Pele, a Maradona or a Ronaldo (the Brazilian one). Similarly, it’s unlikely that Cristiano Ronaldo will ever be spoken in the same breath as a Messi or a Ronaldinho in his pomp.
And that’s the story with Rafael Nadal. When his uncle Toni trained him as an unnatural left hander to help his career, he became manufactured. He became incapable of what can be termed as unconscious competence. And that’s why he will never be spoken of in the same breath as Roger Federer. Forget head to head records (Half of which have come on Nadal’s favored surface) and forget numbers, there’s genius and then there’s the rest. If you’ve ever learnt to play Tennis and watched Federer, you will know what I’m talking about.
That said, Nadal might just be the greatest role model ever. And here’s why. He has given us hope. And he has done that through pure hard work, dedication and a never say die attitude.
You see, in real life, very few of us have the kind of genius that a Federer possesses. In fact, at work or at play, we often come up against that kind of genius. But Nadal has proven to us that such genius can be beaten.
Nadal does it by his incredible tenacity. The man is a machine. He needs to focus much harder than Federer every moment in game simply because the game doesn’t flow as naturally to him as it does to Federer. The game isn’t even being played in his preferred hand. He’s honed his craft over many years. He’s built a physique which is probably second to none in men’s tennis. He is relentless. Absolutely relentless. You know he’s going to come at you and keep coming at you till you’re worn down.
Federer practically coasted through to the semi finals. Nadal had a tougher ride and spent 12 hours on the court prior to this match compared to Federer’s 7. That would be enough reason to give up for normal men. But not Nadal. His mental strength seems to be in excess of his physical strength. So much so that he just simply overpowers Federer in the mental game. He is the only player who manages to make Federer human. He is the only player who manages to make Federer go an entire game not looking sublime.
And that’s why I hate watching Federer play Nadal. He feels human. It’s easy to forget that Roger Federer is a 30 year old man who still makes getting to Grand Slam semi finals look easy because of the incredible talent he possesses. Many call it a day at that age. But not Federer. He still looks in prime taking people apart. And he’s earned that. But Nadal makes him look every bit his age. And he’s done so since that fateful day at Wimbledon in 2008 when Federer conceded grass court supremacy.
But that’s also why I think Nadal may be the greatest role model ever. When I step on to the tennis court, I never think of playing like Federer. Who am I kidding? But Nadal, he gives me something to aspire to. He has shown from time to time that you can overcome the odds by fighting hard. Really hard. He’s shown that you don’t have to be a natural or a born genius or to even look good or stylish when doing your thing to do great things.
He’s given me hope. And he’s done that by walking the talk and proving his point again, and again and again.
Isn’t that what great role models do?