FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – As Rafael Nadal sat on the podium with his well-earned US Open Men’s Singles Trophy, a smile came over his face when he was asked the last English question of the night.
You see, Nadal is a huge soccer fan, and since he doesn’t play the sport, but rather watches it as a fan, the little kid in him came out when asked if Spain’s World Cup win was more special to him than any of his nine Grand Slam Titles.
“So when Spain won the World Cup was amazing,” said Nadal, who completed the career Grand Slam by beating Novak Djokovic, 6-4 5-7 6-4 6-2. “ I was crying like ‑‑ like today, maybe, no? But is different feelings, but at the same time every feeling is unbelievable. But is very difficult to compare. Football is unbelievable. You know how big is football in Spain, or maybe you don’t know, but we deserved that title.”
Frankly, Nadal deserved today’s title as much as his countrymen’s soccer crown. By becoming only the seventh player in history to achieve wins in all four majors, his rise to the top is complete.
Only a short time ago, the 24 year-old was considered a clay-court specialist, someone who could win Roland Garros every single year, but couldn’t do much in any of the other surfaces. Rather, that was Roger Federer’s turf. Sure he made the finals on the grass courts at Wimbledon in 2006 and 2007, but he couldn’t get over the edge with the Maestro.
Then something happened in 2008. Nadal started to catch up with the other surfaces. He reached the semis in Australia and a month after his fourth consecutive French Open win, he played a classic at Wimbledon, finally beating Federer in a five set classic 6-4 6-4 7-6 7-6 9-7 to break the barrier.
“In Wimbledon, is true I have to adjust a lot my game to play in Wimbledon,” he said. “But in my opinion, play in Wimbledon for me always wasn’t that bad, because one of the most important things on Wimbledon is the movements, and I think my movements are good to play well in that surface.”
Nadal always relied upon his speed. It allowed him to catch up to balls, but he lacked the big serve which he needed to dominate on the hard courts. Yet in 2009, he won Australia and many though that it would be the year of the Spanish bull.
Unfortunately though, it didn’t turn out that way.
“Last year I had a difficult year,” he said. “Well, I had a great year because when you win a Grand Slam and three Masters 1000 you have a great year, but is true the second half of the year was very difficult for me, have some personal problems, home, and after, I have a lot of injuries, here the abdominal, before, the knees.
“So, yeah, wasn’t an easy year. But is, at the same time, for sure, is not good have these moments but live these moments but at the same time, yes, because after that, when you come back, you are ready to (through translation) value how difficult is win titles and how difficult is be there all the time, no?”
Even coming into 2010, Nadal didn’t seem the same when he came back from his injuries with Quarterfinal loss in Australia.
But he remained positive and as he got healthy, something very interesting happened. As Rafa rose, Federer may have lost a bit of a step at age 28, allowing his Spanish rival to take his customary French Open title, and then Wimbledon.
But the US Open remained the one missing piece to the puzzle.
So coming in, Nadal made changes to his grip on his serve, giving him an extra 12 to 15 miles per hour on his shot and a true determination to make this his year at the Open.
“So always when you are playing well and when you are in the right moment with big confidence, seems like you improved a lot,” he said. “But, you know, there are moments when you are not playing that good, when you lose your confidence, you lose matches, and seems like you are not playing that good and you forgot to play tennis. It’s not like this, and it is not like this I improved a lot since 2009. I think I improved my tennis a little bit but is not a radical change, no?
“Sure, to win in here in the US Open I think is the more difficult tournament for me to play, more difficult conditions to adapt, to adjust my game on this court, for the balls, for the court, for everything, no?”
Yes it was. And now that he achieved it, Nadal has the enviable task of being on top, something Federer did with grace for almost a decade. But, something says this talented young man will pass that test with flying colors as well. Because he specialty is still clay, and Paris is home to five of his nine Grand Slam title, he still will be able to dominate the competition there, especially now with his new found skills on other surfaces.
And even though, he still has a ways to go to catch Federer’s 16 major titles – and counting – with a little luck for his health, Nadal could become the greatest of all time before everything is said and done.
Right now, though, the Spaniard is just looking ahead to the rest of the season and one other goal he has for his career.
“But my goal remains for me that the Masters Cup is the big, yeah, probably the last big tournament that I didn’t win,” he said. “That’s true is the most difficult title for me to win, because we play it in indoor, and when indoor, indoor very quick surface, so going to be always very difficult if we don’t change that.
“But at the same time is a challenge for me to keep improving to have the chance to play well there and to have the chance to win. So that’s what I going to try this year. For me right now the next goal is try to finish the season much better than what I did in other years.”
Spoken like a true champion.