MY HERO JUST TURNED 21
Rafael Nadal is the undisputed King of Clay. Last week, he turned 21 years old and won his third consecutive French Open title. Nadal defeated #1 Roger Federer in 4 sets to claim the crown and prevent Federer from achieving the one thing he hasn't done in tennis... win the French. Federer was looking to complete his career Grand Slam (all four major titles at some point in a career), and set up himself up to be the first man to win the calendar Grand Slam (the four major titles in a calendar year) since Rod Laver accomplished the feat in 1969. In addition, Federer has entered the discussion of Greatest Player of All-Time. But in order to truly be considered, many think he needs to win the French Open. So history was on the line last Sunday at Roland Garros, and Nadal wrote his own. After winning his 3rd French Open at the ripe age of 21, talk now turns to Bjorn Borg's record of 6 French Open titles. If Nadal stays healthy, he'll eventually break Borg's record and go down as the greatest clay court player in the history of the game.
The Nadal-Federer rivalry is exactly what men's tennis needed. Roger Federer has been the #1 player in the world for a record 177 weeks. Rafael Nadal has been the #2 player in the world for 99 weeks. Nadal has now set the record for most weeks at #2 without being #1. No one on the men's tour seems to be able to beat Federer with any consistency (or at all) except for Nadal. Watching Sunday's final, I couldn't help but notice Roger's body language. He is always so supremely confident and composed on the tennis court, but you could clearly see the frustration at being inferior to Nadal on the red clay in Paris. Nadal actually got inside Federer's head. On clay, Nadal puts so much spin on the ball, plays incredible defense, and has the patience to wait until the right moment in a point to go for the winner. He's unstoppable on the surface. In fact, he has literally yet to be stopped at the French Open, holding a 21-0 career record there and the 3 titles. His intensity on every point intimidates and wears down everyone he plays, including Federer. And he's only 21. What amazes me is the maturity and mental strength at such a young age. You expect a 21-year-old athlete to be in great shape (and Nadal is certainly in phenomenal physical condition), but you don't expect him to have developed the strongest "inner game" by this point. Yet, on clay, he has done exactly that.
This rare combination of discipline, patience, intensity, and determination gives me great admiration for the young man. Add to that his likability in the press, and the fact that he still lives with his family on the island of Mallorca and is still coached by his uncle Tony, and you have the complete picture of why Rafael Nadal is my favorite player on tour since the retirement or Andre Agassi. And the guy has only been legally able to drink for a week.