My Sportsman: Rafael Nadal
By any measure, it was a banner year for athletes from Spain. La Furia Roja, of course, won the World Cup. Despite what the MVP voters indicated, Pau Gasol was vital to the Lakers' title run. Though his win was later tainted (is this not always the case?) Alberto Contador took the Tour de France. Still, when it comes to athletes from the world's new sports powerhouse, Rafael Nadal is el mejor.
In a short time, Nadal has gone from a clay-court impresario to a worthy opponent of the great Roger Federer to a player who, himself, might retire as tennis' most accomplished practitioner of all time. In 2010, Nadal brushed up an already-impressive resume, winning three Majors, ascending to the ATP's top ranking and generally beating all manner of opponent on all manner of surface.
For more than 25 years, no man had won both on the clay of the French Open and on the grass of Wimbledon in the same summer. Nadal has now pulled the "summer double" twice in three years. Before this year, Nadal had never even been to the final of the U.S. Open. In 2010, he won the event, dropping just one set along the way, thus completing the "career Grand Slam," i.e. winning all four Majors.
For the better part of the past decade, tennis fans have been treated to Federer's graceful, stylish tennis. If Federer is Monet, all light and delicacy, Nadal is Jackson Pollock, all force and power, all toil and trouble. Nadal is, by his own reckoning, something other than a natural. "If I could play like Federer, trust me, I would," he says. Yet precisely because he's not a natural, he works like hell at improving. In 2010, he added an almost uncanny amount of wattage to his lefty serve. He developed his net game to the point that no less than John McEnroe has deemed Nadal one of the best volleyers in tennis. In part because of the knees he's worked to strengthen, Nadal, at 24, moves as well as ever.
There are players who serve better than Nadal does. There are players with flatter, more potent strokes. What does Nadal do so well? For one, he has no peer at going from defense to offense, scrambling to retrieve shots and whistling them back. (He resembles the superhero who doesn't just catch the thunderbolt; he then chucks it back with more force.) Beyond that, Nadal is the most mentally tough athlete -- not tennis player; athlete -- in sports today. He just doesn't have the "choke" chromosome. The bigger the stakes, the better he plays.
One example among many: During his U.S. Open run, Nadal and Denis Istomin were deep in a second set tiebreaker. At 4-1 Istomin made a spectacular shot, leaving a skid mark on the court as he reached the ball, and then poked a winner to put him up 5-1. Nadal went to serve, but first, made eye contact with his opponent and tapped his racket in applause. Nadal then rolled off six straight points to take the set.
That's something else about Nadal. While his results border on ostentatious, his personality remains defiantly humble. Trying to inflame his rivalry with Federer is a fool's errand. "Roger is better [than I am]. Anyone who knows tennis knows that." (Imagine for a moment, say, LeBron James openly conceding the superiority of Kobe Bryant.) You'd be hard-pressed to find a top-tier athlete who signs more autographs, poses for more photos, makes fewer false moves.
When the 2011 season kicks off, Nadal will go for his fourth straight Major in Australia, already hyped as the "Rafa Slam." And with each Major he wins -- he's up to nine already, more than folks with surnames like McEnroe, Agassi and Connors -- the "Greatest of All Time" talk will only intensify. But for now, let's pause to acknowledge a standout season turned in by a standout competitor. Nadal for 2010 SI SoY? Si. Hoy.