Anyone who observes Rafael Nadal during a tennis match can see that the Man From Mallorca is superstitious when it comes to his on-court actions, as his quirky arrangement of water bottles during changeovers would indicate. This isn't really unusual as many athletes have a proclivity to engage in such behavior when it comes to their habits and they are usually leery of veering from routine for fear of reversals of fortune.
So it was with not insignificant surprise when I learned of Nadal's decision to change from his singular, signature sleeveless garb late last year and switch to conventional attire. Though he was supposed to debut the new look at the US Open following his epic Wimbledon triumph, Nadal deemed it best not to mess around with the sports gods and delayed his attire coming-out party until 2009. And it is now obvious that the new look has not changed Nadal's most noted trademark of winning - winning gloriously. And that other habit of breaking Roger Federer's heart.
Rafa's heroic dismantling of Federer in yesterday's thrilling final was an utterly suitable follow-up to their "greatest match of all time" at Wimbledon seven months ago. It was impossible to expect a match to equal that incandescent display on the green lawns but yesterday came close - at least in drama, even if the fifth set was anticlimactic. Coming off his five hours and twenty minutes semifinal victory over countryman Fernando Verdasco two days prior, Nadal spent more than four hours running down the yellow orbs on the concrete in the final to punch the clock with nearly ten hours of hard labor in the two matches.
What made his performance so impressive yesterday was the totality of his victory. It wasn't just an awesome display of Herculean tenacity, belief and heart. It was all that for sure but it was also a masterful triumph of tactics as he once again rendered the great Federer nearly helpless towards the end of the match, making it appear that Roger was toiling away in futility on Nadal's favored red clay and not on the hard surface which Federer has dominated so these last several years. It was a brilliant mix of both sticking with and altering - however slightly - a game plan.
The Spaniard was relentless in his aggressive backcourt game. After a semifinal in which he chose not to strike his two-handed backhand with significant power, instead opting for the vicious slices which stayed close to the ground, Nadal altered his strategy against Federer and was merciless in making sure Roger felt the potency of his groundstroke missiles on both the forehand and backhand side. Nadal knew that the combination of his fatigue and Federer's acumen on the faster courts necessitated a more urgent approach to the match if he were to again postpone Federer's record tying 14th victory in a Grand slam event. Never before had Nadal so forcefully utilized his backhand in both setting up and wining points. Nadal knew that he couldn't give Federer additional time because Roger is brilliant at turning defense into offense and he would have devoured a steady dose of Nadal's slices.
However, Nadal didn't stray too far from what has worked so well against Federer throughout their careers - more specifically, he was unyielding in working the backhand of the Swiss stylist. Federer knew what was coming as he's accustomed to hitting shoulder-height backhands against the fierce topspin imparted by his great rival. But though Roger knew what to expect he still couldn't overcome the exhaustion that sets in when constantly hitting balls at eye level and never finding a comfort zone. When Federer began to miss wildly in the deciding set it was obvious that he was out of ideas in figuring out ways to decipher his perplexing foe.
After their effulgent Wimbledon encounter much was spoken about how these two great athletes were by themselves reviving interest in the sport, especially here in the United States. Many fans who had neglected tennis for so long had welcome home their prodigal son of sports and were once again interested in its happenings. Surely, there has never been a duo who so represent tennis - or any sport - in such a fine manner. And if that match seven months ago is indeed considered the greatest display of tennis in a century then the post-match ceremony yesterday will certainly be remembered as the ultimate graceful nod to sportsmanship. Federer's tears and Nadal's sincere embrace and words for his rival will only solidify and crystallize this brilliant period in tennis history. And it leaves us all begging for more, wondering what other gifts these two wondrous athletes will bequeath to future generations of tennis followers.