Rafael Nadal has changed. After a semester spent treating his knee, Rafa came back even more powerful and aggressive. His game, glimpsed this summer and currently at the U.S. Open, is different too. Problem: the Spaniards will also have to change their habits. Siesta time.
For seven months this winter in Spain, no one saw Nadal. When the hero of Mallorca decided not to play against Andy Murray in the semi-finals in Miami in March 2012, it was the whole of Spain that had a sore left knee. His articulation could no longer handle his back and forth, his wizard footwork and his mental of unstoppable matador. Some even said that it was time to find a new hero. They were already depressed at the thought of turning to Granollers, Almagro or Ferrer. The shock was too hard. So they all decided to switch off the TV and pray. In Spain, Nadal is on top of the sports hierarchy. Far ahead of Gasol, Alonso or Contador, he reigns on the Iberian sport. Iniesta and Casillas come close but they still have a long way to go before holding the fate of a country in a racquet. At 27, Rafa is God.
Closed shutters, afternoon nap
Nadal, it's a man of hot afternoon behind closed shutters. His epics over three hours on the clay of Rome, Monte-Carlo and Roland Garros have been punctuating the lunches and afternoon naps of the whole Peninsula for eight years. All Spaniards have fallen asleep at least once while watching one of the 90 finals he played since 2004 (the first in Auckland against Hrbaty). All Spaniards have seen the kid play at least once during naptime. In a country where football fills the pubs, all residents have at least spent a whole afternoon watching his overpowered services and his unlikely rescues from the baselines. Nadal is the most beloved, the most admired and the most watched Spanish athlete, because his endless exchanges since 2004 coincide with one the most difficult decade Spain has ever known. His laborious triumphs and the way he always manages to deal with adversity are a kind of parable. Rafa saves the honour of a country that used to be very strong and powerful and suffers of not being much anymore. Even Jose Mourinho in his years at Real Madrid, asked for "eleven Rafa Nadal" in his team once. Nadal is Spain, but better.
Yes, it’s a man
So when the man who never gives up doesn't show for a semi-final, the world seems to have gone terribly wrong. "I want to tell all my fans that I’m sorry" he wrote on Twitter that day: "For those who are here in Miami and everybody in the world. I don't feel ready to play today because of my knee." He returned for two rounds at Wimbledon and then disappeared again. In 2012, he missed the Australian Open and the Masters. More importantly, he gave up the Olympics - he was supposed to be the Spanish flag bearer, Gasol stepped in at the last minute - and the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas final against the Czech Republic. David Ferrer won both his matches but Nico Almalgro is no Rafa. He’s only a man. The world number 11 collapsed against Stepanek during the last simple. Obviously.
Rafa, the survivor
During his convalescence, Rafa too got melancholic. When the diagnosis was announced in September last year, a few days before Spain had to face the United States in the semi-finals of the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas, it really got scary: Partial rupture of the patellar tendon and Hoffa's disease, an inflammation of the whole articulation that causes him an unbearable pain. Some, like Mats Wilander, believed him lost to the Top 10. His uncle Toni played it down. He talked about the six million unemployed in Spain, of Nando Parrado and his 15 teammates who once survived a plane crash in the Andes Mountains, of Irene Villa victim of ETA... In short, of "things that really matter (...) admirable people who have faced adversity in life, who help others." If Rafa is the Spanish Alexander the Great then Toni is his Aristotle, the man who shapes the mentality of a conqueror of another kind. "The situation, said the philosopher uncle, was far from pleasant. The injury prevented us from doing what we were prepared to do: him to play and me to train him. In order to calm him down, I always give him an example. I told him: 'the economic situation in Spain is very tough. At this time, for many people it is very difficult. So this isn't a drama.'" It might not be Aristotle's wisdom but it's Toni Nadal's. The uncle even published in 2009 Serve Nadal Answer Socrates: From Classical Philosopher to Elite Sportsman. 144 pages of Iberian tennis philosophy. Not less.
Mental Vs. Tennis
Seven months later, Rafa came back. 2013 is a year of "transition" he warned. He won 11 of the 12 tournaments he played, including victories in Cincinnati, BNP Paribas Open of Indian Wells and Roland Garros. Is the classic Nadal back? No. Rafa is someone else. His head is still the same but something changed. "He plays differently, said Novak Djokovic. He plays more inside the court, he knows he must be more aggressive." To preserve yourself, you have to play for a shorter time. A shorter time means you have to go faster. And to go faster, you have to make the ball move faster. "We don't have the choice, said mentor Toni. We have to change." So Rafa improved his service. "He realized that if his service is better, he protects his knee, said Toni. So it actually helped him to serve better." Serve better, play more inside the court, shorten the exchanges and hit the balls earlier. When he won Roland Garros in June, faithful to this new style, it allowed him to remind everyone that he's not just a monster of fitness: "You don't win everything I’ve won without all the rest: a great drive, a good backhand or a great ball touch. (...) Mental toughness and muscle power help at specific times of the game, but it's with a good tennis that you win all the matches, not just a good mental."
But for the Spaniards, it's a cultural revolution. Alex Corretja, the Spanish captain of the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas team, saw the training of Nadal 2.0, the man who plays good tennis, "He hits the ball much earlier than he used to (...) Historically, we Spaniards used to hit the ball much lower. Now we realize that it's when we go up that we can give the ball a much stronger impact. In addition, doing so allows you to reduce the distance from your opponent." "The idea, says the uncle, is for him to anticipate more. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But it makes Rafael more aggressive! (...) As a result, he doesn't have to run as much (sic). In Montreal (victory, ed.) and Cincinnati (victory, ed.) he played further to the front and therefore more aggressively. Indeed, to be more aggressive, you have to hit the ball earlier." How does one become the new Rafa? "It's a matter of decision (...) Rafa learned not to trust his knee." With shorter exchanges, Spain will have to change too. No more siestas watching Rafa.