The last 10 days in Indian Wells were a riot of tennis, with players, fans, press, tournament workers, and myriads of other humans crisscrossing all over the grounds. Floating above them the entire time, and landing safely with the trophy between his teeth at the end, was one man.
In my own little corner of this world, the back rows of the pressroom, Rafael Nadal was a figure of fascination. I heard reporters who don't normally cover tennis say how "charming" and "hilarious" and "nice" and "amazing" he was. As a player, yes, but even more so as a person.
They're right, of course, but they're getting in a little late, don't you think? After making easy, 6-1, 6-2, work of the No. 4 player in the world today, Nadal stands at an unprecedented career peak. He's won the first Slam and Masters event of the season and dominated a Davis Cup tie for Spain. The season, as Nadal said today, is long, and at this time last year Novak Djokovic found himself in much the same position. But for now the only way I can think of to wrap up this tournament properly is to record the best of what I saw of its central character, Rafael Nadal.
—I had lunch at 1:30 or so on Sunday. The cafeteria was mostly empty. Facing away from me, toward a wall, a few feet from a TV, was Nadal. He was at a table with a hitting partner and looked smaller in his sweatshirt and vintage blue-and-yellow Nike sneakers. He was watching golf; he and his friend were analyzing how one of the golfers should hit the ball. Nadal put his hand up and moved it toward the right, indicating that it should be a slice. When the shot landed with a thunk in the sand trap, Nadal went "Ooof." He was scheduled to play the final in an hour.
—It was match point for Nadal against Andy Roddick in the second-set tiebreaker of their semifinal. Roddick duffed a strange return that popped up diagonally and landed in an awkward position for Nadal, a few inches from the net on his backhand side. Nadal wanted to drill it but couldn't get there in time. You could see him adjust as he ran. When he got there, he pushed the ball lightly and at an extreme crosscourt angle. This forced Roddick well wide of the court on his pass. He got to it, gave it a rip, but couldn't bring it back into the court. Anyone who says modern tennis, or modern men's tennis, is the domain of thoughtless power needs to see that shot and the improvisatory poise that made it happen.
—At his press conference after his quarterfinal win over Juan-Martin del Potro, Nadal shows up with two chocolate chip cookies and starts to eat them as he talks.
Q. I'm surprised to see you eating cookies. Are they chocolate chip cookies??
RAFAEL NADAL: Yeah.
Nadal says "Yeah," but his smile says, "So? What about it?"
Q. I was wondering if you have things like that quite a bit? I always think athletes have a very regimented diet and don't indulge. ?
RAFAEL NADAL: Not me. (Laughter.) ?
Long pause, Nadal flashes what you might call a s--- eating grin.
"My opinion, you can eat everything. Well, before the match maybe don't have five cookies or one steak, but my opinion, you can eat everything in the right time. If I eat right now, 20 cookies, maybe I gonna have indigestion tonight. If I eat two, three cookies, maybe it's OK.
Maybe not for the stomach, no, but for the head it's better. (Laughter.) In the end, the important thing is to be mentally okay.
Q. Better mental preparation? ?
RAFAEL NADAL: Yeah.
—Nadal is down a match point and for all intents and purposes out of it in the fourth round against David Nalbandian. He hits a ball with maximum force that lands on the line for a winner.
When he pulls out the second set in a tiebreaker, I can only wonder if any other great players in history have had so many emotional, dramatic, unlikely, and memorable moments as Nadal. Already this year he's been involved in two classics—Verdasco in Melbourne and Nalbandian here—and topped them both by putting his arm around Roger Federer.
—Nadal walks into his press conference after the final with his cellphone in his hand and a distracted look on his face. He looks like he's walking toward a van that’s going to take him to the airport, not to answer questions from a room full of reporters. He sits down and says, lightly, "Hel-lo."
—It's 2-2 in the second set of the men's final. The wind has kicked up and is swirling. Nadal and Andy Murray each move inside the baseline and chip balls at each other that bend and curl in the breeze. It looks like they're playing paddleball with magnetized racquets. Nadal takes a ball from Murray and slices it back low and slow and down the middle. He follows it forward. The ball curves away from Murray, who can't get his forehand up and over the net. Nadal breaks and doesn't lose another game. Ditto my comment above about his shot on match point against Roddick—improvisatory poise at its best.
—To do this, Nadal uses a Babolat Aerodrive (or something like that), a racquet that nobody else anywhere uses. It reminds me of his cookie comment—you can eat everything, you can use anything, it doesn't matter, what matters is you.
—Late in the second set in the final, Murray runs down a lob and flicks a forehand over his head. Nadal lets it go and watches it drop two feet inside the line. When his reaction—he jumps a little, closes his eyes, raises his head, and opens his mouth to say something like, "Oh no!"—is replayed on the big screen, the audience erupts with laughter.
—Nadal practices his forehand over the first weekend of the tournament. He's working on snapping up on it with less backswing and more flick. In his next match, he seems to have it mastered, and it does look a little different and more abbreviated than I remember it. While Federer sticks with what works and maintains a deep belief in his innate ability, Nadal is about the process. He's a tinkerer who doesn't believe he was born to be the best; he concentrates on how he can improve himself enough to get there. He's there, but he's still tinkering.
—After his semifinal, Nadal is asked whether he feels like he has learned to win matches even when he's not playing his best. He says that that's something he's always had success doing.
After the final, he's asked why he thinks he handled the wind better than Murray. Nadal says that he thinks he "accepted" the conditions better than Murray, who fought them.
These two answers, about finding ways to win and accepting the conditions around him, point to what I think is, beyond his speed and spin and power, a major reason for Nadal's success. Unlike most tennis players, even the best tennis players, he doesn't play with anger or regret or frustration, the three emotions that doom most of us.
After losing the fourth set of the Wimbledon final last year, Nadal said that he sat down on the changeover and accepted that he had played horribly when he was ahead in the tiebreaker, but that otherwise he was "doing very well." If Nadal is a control freak or a perfectionist, he doesn't allow it to get the best of him. John McEnroe couldn't emotionally deal with his errors, Djokovic lets his frustration affect his play, and even Federer gets down in the mouth if things aren't going as he expects. Nadal accepts, when he walks onto a court, that he will not always be at his best. As a guy who is constantly trying to improve, he begins with the premise that he can never be perfect, and that he should not always win. Federer and Pete Sampras, by contrast, begin every match believing that no one can beat them if they go out and do what they're supposed to do.
On the one hand, Nadal's is an intelligent approach because it allows him to take pressure off himself and put his mistakes behind him—why regret what was inevitable in the first place? On the other hand, when you try to imagine actually putting this into practice in the heat of battle, you realize that it is an almost impossibly difficult psychological stance to achieve for any length of time. How does one banish these primal reactions?
Forget the biceps and the legs and the forehands and the overheads. Nadal's most important strength is the one that's the hardest for all of us to achieve. He has the strength to be honest with himself.