“Champions adjust,” Billie Jean King likes to say. Has there ever been a case of a champion taking her words as thoroughly, quickly, and successfully to heart as Rafael Nadal did at the new-look Davis Cup Finals this week in Madrid?
There were a lot of things about the event that, at least theoretically, didn’t suit Rafa.
It was played indoors, under a retractable roof at the Caja Magica; just two of Nadal’s 84 career titles have come indoors.
The red clay that is usually laid down at that venue had been switched to quick hard courts, which meant that instead of playing on his best surface, Rafa was on his worst.
Spain had to win five ties in seven days, and the matches went into the early-morning hours on multiple occasions. The team’s second-best singles player, Roberto Bautista Agut, was mourning his father, who passed away earlier in the week, and two other players pulled out with injuries.
Nadal himself, who had been dealing with wrist and abdominal issues through the fall, had to win eight matches, including three in doubles, over that span of time. Finally, on Sunday, he had to survive one of the tensest and toughest sets of the season to beat a game Denis Shapovalov 6-3, 7-6 (7), to clinch Spain’s sixth Davis Cup since 2000, and its first in eight years.
“It’s been an amazing week,” Nadal said, in something of an understatement. “I couldn’t be happier. An amazing moment here in this amazing stadium. The crowd was just a joke—we can’t thank enough all of them. And our team spirit prevails.”
As Rafa said, the one thing that very much did suit him about the new Davis Cup was the location. Only the home team sold out its ties, and the Spanish crowds supported them through the late nights and long ties. On Sunday, it felt like a party inside the Magic Box before a ball had even been hit.
Nadal knew he was the star of the show and the closer for Spain, and he embraced both roles. In the process, this new, compressed competition brought out a new, more complete version of Nadal. How many champions, after 15 years at the top of the sport, have found a different way to win at age 33?
Nadal did it in Madrid by turning himself into a big server, a net-rusher, and a wizard on the doubles court. Through eight matches, he was never broken, and he used his serve to rescue himself from countless tight spots, a luxury he has rarely had in the past. Against Shapovalov, Rafa won 82 percent of his first-serve points, and hit seven aces to Shapo’s four. He served and volleyed on important points, and virtually always came out the winner.
If anything, Rafa was even more dynamic in doubles, where he showed off skills that he never needs to show off in singles. He volleyed, he lobbed, he controlled the net, he attacked his returns, and he helped will Marcel Granollers and Feliciano Lopez to clinching victories over Argentina and Great Britain, respectively.
“Rafa, he’s out of this world, I don’t know if he’s an alien or what,” said Spain’s captain, Sergi Bruguera. “We’ve been through this week, not one day we went to sleep before 3:00 A.M., and one day he didn’t get to sleep until 5:10 A.M., and he was playing singles and doubles the next day. What can you say?”
Even in this reduced format, though, Davis Cup stars need backup heroes, and in the final Spain got some especially memorable heroics from Roberto Bautista Agut, who beat Felix Auger-Aliassime just three days after his father Joaquin’s passing.
“Unbelievable,” Bruguera said of Bautista Agut’s effort. “And can you imagine Roberto yesterday was at the funeral of his father and now here giving everything—the mentality, the concentration, the spirit, everything for the team. I have no idea how to describe this in words.”
All that was left was for Nadal to do what everyone in the building, and the world, expected him to do: Close it out against Shapovalov. But sometimes doing what everyone expects you to do is the hardest thing of all. After winning the first set comfortably, Nadal couldn’t quite find a way to deliver a knockout punch in the second—the last set of the 2019 would turn out to be among the tensest, and best.
Nadal earned three break points, only to see a free-swinging Shapovalov wipe them away with strong serves and winning forehands. Nadal faced one break point, but as he had all week, he found the serve he needed, in this case a change-up into the body that surprised Shapovalov.
It was a set that could only end in a tiebreaker, and the noise and tension crescendoed over the season’s last 16 points. When Nadal hit his seventh ace to go up 6-4 and reach championship point, and then drilled a confident forehand to start the next rally, the match appeared to be over. But Shapovalov stabbed back a backhand, and came up with the shot of his life (so far), a forehand pass on the dead run. On his second championship point, Nadal hit a tame forehand return into the middle of the court, which Shapovalov quickly put away with a forehand.
Many players, including many great players, wouldn’t have been able to recover in time from the disappointment of squandering two chances to win the Davis Cup. But Nadal reasserted himself with a forehand winner and a service winner to earn a third chance at the title. Not surprisingly, Shapovalov tried the same serve that had worked for him on Rafa’s last match point, a high-bouncing lefty slice to Nadal’s forehand. It made sense; if Rafa has struggled with any shot in close matches over the years, it’s the forehand return.
How did Nadal hit the return this time? Rather than try something completely different, he tried something just a little bit different. He still hit it safe and high, with topspin; but instead of sending it down the middle of the court, he angled it just enough to force Shapovalov to move for it. It wasn’t spectacular, but it did the trick. Pushed into the alley, the Canadian tried a low-percentage forehand and hammered it into the net.
Nadal, like all champions, had adjusted.