It was a simple post on social media after the world witnessed one of the greatest records ever achieved by a single athlete, #Dreamin9, a wonderful word play on Rafael’s Nadal unreal Ninth French Open title.
Yet, Rafael Nadal isn’t dreaming. He’s doing. Imagine trying to climb Mt. Everest for the first time, like Hillary & Norgay, now, as they did back then. Imagine the inner battle you face, step after step, higher and higher where no one has gone before.
Then do it.
Rafael Nadal didn’t have a chance a month and a half ago to win Roland Garros, the French Open, our second Grand Slam on the calendar after losing in Monte Carlo, a title he’d won eight times prior; losing in Barcelona to a fellow countryman at a tournament he has not lost; winning Madrid, even though for a set and a half, he was down and out; losing at the Italian Open in the final, where he was lucky to get the chance.
No, there was no way Rafael Nadal should’ve done what he did, and yet he did it for an unprecedented ninth time, fifth in a row. He won the 2014 French Open Championships.
I won’t even talk about the elite club he has joined by winning one Grand Slam Five times, but it is an exclusive club of dominance. Tilden, Emerson, Sampras, Federer. It’s an exclusive club of sheer dominance. And the perseverance and execution it takes boggles the mind.
At Mt. Everest, there is a season to climb the highest mountain in the world. If the weather cooperates, and the body is willing, there is a chance you will do what few have done in this world. For it’s unpredictability, the weather creates a whole side industry to determine weather patterns, optimal days to climb, probability of a downturn and unexpected chaos.
A Grand Slam is similar. It’s weather can affect matches in interesting and unique ways. It affects both players the same, yet it’s how each player deals with it that separates them. We enter the inner sanctum of the mind. For eleven days the weather was cold and damp making the French Open a brutal test of wills where the ball wasn’t a ‘lively’ as when the weather heats up. Add an unpredictable wind and well, nothing is certain. Just ask Roger Federer who was surprised by a resilient Ernests ‘Gull Wing’ Gulbis and exited early.
In France, when the wind whips up, it’s called ‘le mistral.’ Defense attorneys have used it to get their clients who’ve committed crimes of passion due to the constant, blustery wind. It creates an insanity. A condition for which you have little or no control over, yet must face, daily as you go slowly insane. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mistral_(wind)#The_effects_of_the_mistral
Enter Novak Djokovic.
This was to be Novak Djokovic’s French Open. It was his time. In 2011, he was undefeated going into the French Open, then through a freak event — Fabio Fagnini wins his round of 16, then defaults to Djokovic — Nole (Novak’s nickname) sits idle while the rest of the draw is in the heart of the battle. For four days he tries to prepare himself for the semi-final, but let’s face it, you are idle. Your routine is different. You can relax. But you can’t relax, you have a match to play and a title to go after, but there isn’t the urgency.
In that semi-final we saw one of Roger Federer’s best performance in a long time. Nole was unsure of his footing. Federer capitalized by backtracking the speedy confident Djokovic making him slip, lose balance, regain footing and just get to the shot with less than optimal power. For a set and a half, Nole was off balance and out of place, then he began to claw his way back into the match, only to lose in a tiebreaker in the fourth set. If he had won that fourth set tiebreaker, the match would’ve been called because of darkness, and Nole would’ve had another chance, a better chance. But Federer denied him.
Novak Djokovic owned Rafael Nadal in 2011. He beat him on hard courts, clay courts, grass courts and hard courts again. When all was said and done, after the season, Novak Djokovic took out Rafael Nadal six times.
Fast forward to the semi-final in 2013 where Novak was up a break of serve and ready to advance his lead on Rafael Nadal when things went south. It was as if Novak were a ridge away from the summit and the weather prevented him from ascending. At 7-8, serving to stay in the match, Novak appealed to the tournament referee to have the clay court smoothed over, swept with the lines brushed. After all they had played two sets worth of games on the court which looked like a carved red canvas of slashes.
Request denied. Why think it? The conditions were the same for Nadal. Why even think that the officials at the French Open would even listen to your argument when the rules of the tournament stated that the court would be swept after each set? Why let that thought even enter your mind as you were down two sets to one, evened the match at two sets a piece, and then had a moment to increase your lead with the chance of serving out the match?
Why think it? Why let that thought enter your mind? And when it was rolling around in your head, Rafael Nadal, the best mind in the history of the game, who plays each point as if it’s his last, thinks of nothing before, nothing ahead, is watching the ball with angry precision and ready to capitalize on any miscue here right now.
Four points later, Nadal wins his fourth French Open in a row. Nole was denied the only title that has eluded him, again.
Fast forward to the 2014, new coach added to his team, Boris Becker, same spectacular fitness program, diet, training and confidence leading into the final, except for one thing: le mistral. Post match Novak claims that he was feeling quesy, a problem with his gut. Put it rest. Ask any Olympian who’s not 100% leading into the Olympics Games, and you’ll see the obvious response, ‘not a factor.’ After all, isn’t that why you pay the ‘team’ enormous sums? Aren’t they supposed to be the first line of defense for anything? A protective veneer which prevents even a stomach bug from entering your ecosphere?
So discount it. It’s sport. Get over it. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Four days before the final, the weather changes to heat, wind and a drier, faster rich red clay court. David Ferrer comments after losing to Nadal in the quarters, ‘it was so heavy, powerful.’ The ‘it’ was the bounce of the Nadal ball shredding grooves in the clay, whipping opponents deeper and wider off court, out of position into wide open spaces.
Then Nadal pummels Andy Murray, who two weeks earlier at the Italian Open has a chance to beat Nadal in the semis, but let’s it slip away. In this match, the semi-finals, Nadal punishes Murray with brutal efficiency. Nadal was energized, and no where near the same person in mind and spirit as he was a month and a half ago at the start of his season, a season after several years of dominance, gave birth to his moniker, The King of Clay.
All the demons were out of him, now. And the man who eventually was to play him in the final, once again, Novak Djokovic was aware, even testy. In Nole’s semifinal versus his unexpected opponent, the Latvian, Ernests Gulbis, Djokovic demolished a racket in anger, yet prevailed in four sets. Was he thinking about Nadal? Was he thinking about the herculean effort it would take to beat The King of Clay?
The rematch was on, but the conditions were not the same. The mental edge, the history and the burden of not winning the French Open were weighing heavy on Novak. Even after taking the first set, you knew Novak was going to be in trouble. It was the Novak of old, questioning instead of delivering; turning towards his team’s box when missing a shot at a key moment, shrugging his shoulders, talking to himself, to them, to anyone who would listen. The 2011 Novak would’ve played closer to the baseline dominating from the very beginning, controlling the depth, the angles, opening the court up to set up the driving penetrating winner deep to the corner or right on the line.
The 2014 Novak hired Boris Becker to get him back in touch with that offensive machine. Or did he?
The 2014 Novak must’ve been carrying all the losses in all the finals forward into this final, his final. You could see he was searching for a higher understanding, some explanation about why the change of weather, the wind, the resurgent Rafael Nadal, now. Why now? he argued to himself, looking up to the heavens, after losing a particularly long game, it mattered not which game it was, because Novak of 2014 was not the Novak who was hardened, steadied and strong in self-belief. This was the old Novak, the one we saw prior to finding out that he had a gluten allergy, the Novak who we never knew had the heart. Surely he had the talent, but somehow he’d tire at the key moments, succumb to the pressures, begin to make the cautious mistakes at key moments, and find a way to lose what was certain victory.
Where was the Boris Becker footprint on the 2014 Novak? To add an offensive dimension to his game: better serving, more aggressive shotmaking and yes, even some all out approach volleying, Becker was the spark to ignite Nole 2.0.
Why then was Novak standing so far behind the baseline to return serve? Why was he tentative and unsure when looking for his moments in the match? This should be Becker’s influence. But was saw none of it. Give it time? I wouldn’t. Why change success? Why tamper with what is working well? I don’t know. Ask Tiger Woods why change your swing when you’re thick with success and confidence? Somehow Novak Djokovic was convinced that Boris Becker was the answer to the question marks racing in his mind; and over time with the same people surrounding you — your inner sanctum — seems stale and maybe they don’t know how to move you from your perceived plateau.
Maybe it was the Becker mind, a finely skilled, dialed into extreme focus and execution under the most arduous moments early in his career, that Novak wants to tap into that would — should — carry him into another dimension. One that’s already occupied … by none other than, Rafael Nadal.
No the man at the top of Mt. Everest, the man who has faced his fears, who has walked deep into the desert for forty days and forty nights, hoisting the Spanish Flag, is none other than the 14-time Grand Slam winner, nine of ten French Open titles, five in a row; the man who has conquered his doubts in none other than the most deserving, one of the greatest lengths of dominance we will have seen in our lifetime, Rafael Nadal.
And simply this is why, from our good friend Christopher Clarey of the NY Times who writes the following:
“I knew I had lost four times in a row to Novak, and to be able to win again against him was very important to me,” Nadal said. “I had enough courage. I made the right decisions at the right moment and ended up on top. It’s an emotional moment, a real mix of things.”
Nadal is now tied with Pete Sampras for second on the career list with 14 Grand Slam singles titles, and he is now only three behind the leader, Roger Federer, who has 17.
“That’s true, but I’ll repeat what I always say: that this is not something that worries me or motivates me,” said Nadal, … “I’m following my path, and when my career is over, then we’ll count them up.”
Step by step. One point at a time. This one. Not the next one. Not the last one. One point at a time, Rafael Nadal will be … here, now.
Dreaming? No. Doing.