Monday, June 1, 2009

Nadal's Early Exit: Surviving the After-Shock, and Learning the Lesson

Rafael Nadal's unexpected departure from the Roland Garros draw yesterday says more about the human spirit than I first realized. At first, I didn't want to hear about it - like many fans of tennis I was truly stunned, and yes, for a brief period, heartbroken and confused.

In four years Nadal's legend has grown exponentially, as has his game. Just about to turn 23, the dominant Spaniard seemed to be almost invincible - there was a palpable belief that Nadal's chances of securing the coveted calendar year grand-slam were not slim at all. After all, Roland Garros was in the bag - nobody can beat Nadal on clay (or so we thought) - so he would be half way there with only two to go.

Just yesterday, before and during his match with husky Swede Robin Soderling, Nadal was referred to as "the greatest clay-court player of all time," by several commentators.

But today, Bjorn Borg's name is back in the conversation, right there next to Rafa's - together they are the only two players to win four consecutive French Open championships.

But when it comes to Nadal, we couldn't help but want more. That is why there is disappointment in virtually everyone I've spoken to about the match today. After all, in sports, we truly believe that records are made to be broken. It is one of the golden rules. In Nadal we had our hero - the player that showed us, as tennis players and fans, that it was possible - you could be invincible, you could rewrite the record books and turn the rest of the gifted field of professional tennis players into pawns in your own high-stakes game.

As the records piled up for Rafa (31-0 at Roland Garros, 81 consecutive wins on clay, never lost a best-of-five set match on clay) their was no doubt that in Nadal, we were witnessing the perfect combination of power, focus, and desire. Here was the model that we could all emulate, that we could embrace as the best that man can achieve in this fickle sport of ours.

There is a t-shirt that I've seen Dinara Safina wearing many times: It reads "impossible is nothing." Rafa was the realization of this ideal. He made the impossible look easy, and in our own ways, I think we've all gained by watching him do it.

But yesterday taught us all that sometimes impossible is impossible. If you asked me right now if I thought any one would ever win four consecutive French Opens again, I'd laugh in your face. Never!  Impossible!

But a strange feeling overtook me when I watched this match for the fourth time yesterday and tried again to fully comprehend its immensity. The feeling overtook me that Rafa's defeat might actually be better for tennis than Rafa's domination.

Robin Soderling may have played the best match in the history of the French Open yesterday. From a relatively obscure position in the tennis world, this man burst onto the scene and proved to us that you never know how much brilliance is inside you unless you strive to let it out.  If we can get more players on tour to feel and to play this way, our sport might be that much more compelling when it is all said and done.  

Whether it was for Sweden (deep down couldn't you tell that Soderling was fueled by a Nationalistic furor?) or just for the heck of it, what Soderling showed the rest of the tennis world is what they had failed to see for the better part of four years when it comes to Nadal: If you believe you can win, you can! Go out there and be an engine of belief and strive to execute your vision from the very first point, and you just may pull off the biggest upset in the history of a certain highly-regarded Grand-Slam.

So many players have been beaten before they have ever stepped on the court against Rafa, Roger Federer being probably the most obvious example of this, and each of those players has failed miserably against Nadal in Roland Garros.

But for some reason, Robin Soderling boldly said "enough is enough." You could see it in his eyes and you could see it in his mighty forehand.  He ran Rafa around the court in a way that none of us ever thought we'd witness. It was amazing. Breathtaking. Miraculous.  The perfect dream hashed out in reality. 

Soderling has shown us all a little something about courage and belief.  In doing so he has eased the heartbreak that we all feel when when one of our truly deserving heroes temporarily falls from grace.

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