Who is the best athlete in the world?
It is always a spirited argument, the kind that begins in a bar and ends at closing time with too many empty bottles of beer and too little consensus. Somewhere, some place, whether it’s in the grand arena of the public or the privacy of practice, an athlete is making the impossible possible.
But Sunday, there came an answer to the dispute that no one can argue with, at least for a couple of days.
On the red clay in Paris, Nadal defeated Roger Federer in four sets to win the French Open. Tennis is, shall we say, not the most mano a mano of sports—the only player who probably ever thought about using his racket as a WMD was John McEnroe and even he resisted—but Nadal versus Federer has become the Ali-Frazier of modern-day sports. And it is terribly needed.
Tennis has never been the same since the late 1970s and 1980s when Bjorn Borg (epic serenity), McEnroe (epic temper tantrums exceeded only by epic tenacity) and Jimmy Connors (epic guts and epic dislike for McEnroe), routinely thrashed it out.
But Nadal and Federer are at the same level. Every match they play, and they have fought it out 25 times, sizzles with that electric wattage that something incredible is about to happen.
Both are the same height (6’1”) and virtually the same weight (Nadal wins by a pound, 188 to 187). Together they have owned men’s tennis for the last decade and they have proved that it still can be breathtaking. And in a sport where emotion is generally shown by the degree of friction with which a player rubs his face with a towel in between games, Nadal has actually shown that tennis players do have blood and animus in their veins.
In 2008, in what many believe was the greatest tennis match ever, Nadal beat Federer in five sets at Wimbledon in a grueling four hours and forty-eight minutes. Sports Illustrated’s L. Jon Wertheim described it as an “infomercial for everything that is right about tennis—a festive display of grace, strength, speed, shotmaking and sportsmanship.”
Yesterday’s final did not come close to that threshold. Some thought that Nadal didn’t even play all that well. But he did what he had to, getting to seemingly everything with his speed, using his lob as personal weapon of mass frustration, putting top spin on the ball that was made for the surface of red clay (a study once commissioned by the International Tennis Federation showed that Nadal’s ball rotates five thousand times per minute, twice as much as the average pro). In all the endless statistics that have now infected every sport, one did stand out: Federer made almost double the unforced errors (53) that Nadal did (27) during the match.
The French Open, which at this point seems to have been personally invented for Nadal, put him into a tie with Borg for most championships at six. The win was his 10th Grand Slam title. He also sent Federer home to try to find at least some solace in his millions upon millions in endorsements, since in 25 matches between the two of them, Nadal has now won seventeen. This against a man who some say is the greatest tennis player ever, until yesterday when Nadal was proclaimed as the greatest tennis player ever, until a couple of years from now when someone else is proclaimed as the greatest tennis player ever (tennis commentators are greatly fond of hyperbole).
But right now Nadal is indeed the greatest not just in tennis but in any sport, and the most amazing thing of all about him may not even be his tennis. In a world of sports that is coming more colorless and character-less by the minute with the exception of those hideous end zone celebrations in football and chest-thumping finger pointing in the middle of basketball games, Nadal does more than simply wear his heart on his sleeve.
It covers his entire body like a beautiful coat of armor, unafraid to sob, unafraid to emote, unafraid to show his love for his native Spain, and doing it all without some in-your-face-it’s-all-about-me gesture.
When he hasn’t played well, he tells reporters he hasn’t played well. Even during the French Open, when he was very wobbly in the opening rounds, he expressed genuine self-doubt. If he has ever transmitted anything personal over his cell phone, it is probably a picture of the five-story apartment in Majorca where he lived with his parents until his early twenties. He has only had one coach, his uncle Toni.
His immediate reaction on the court after a major tournament victory always seems to be the same—a dropping to his knees with his back arched in a straight-line slant, his fists clenched and eyes closed tight.
He sobbed when his parents separated several years ago. He sobbed before the semi-finals of the Madrid Open last month when homage was paid to golfing great and fellow countryman Seve Ballesteros, who had died earlier in the day. He sobbed yesterday after beating Federer. Then he apologized to Federer for beating him. A half hour later he was still on the court talking to well-wishers and friends and family.
Yesterday’s win also represented something of a vindication for Nadal, who many thought might be finished forever in tennis because of a combination of a physical style of play that was almost too brutish on his body, a severe case of tendinitis in his knees that forced him to withdraw from various major tournaments, and his parents’ separation. At one point in 2009 and 2010 he went 1-11 in matches against opponents in the top ten. Out came the headlines that could only be written about a tennis player because the game’s eternal fountain of youth:
Has he peaked at 23?
Yesterday proved that the answer was a delicious no. At the age of 25, middle-age in tennis, Nadal proved that he can still hit the ball.
The curse of age in tennis was obliterated even more in the women’s finals at the French Open when 29-year-old Li Na of China beat defending champion Francesca Schiavone. Li at one point took two years off from the tour when it seemed like she would never crack the top 100 in the women’s rankings. She enrolled in a course in journalism, no doubt what prompted her to rejoin the tour. The way writers depicted her before the final, it was surprising she didn’t go to the net in a motorized wheelchair. Instead she won in straight sets and became the first player from China to ever win a Grand slam title.
A Grand Slam winner on the cusp of thirty?
For those of us truly advancing into old age, the French open proved that maybe there’s some hope for us after all.
Buzz Bissinger, a sports columnist for The Daily Beast, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August. He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.