If I told you a player had double-faulted at set point in a tiebreaker, double faulted again and been broken while serving for the match, and had his forehand get so tight at certain stages that he could barely get the ball to the service line, would you believe he had won in four sets anyway? That’s exactly what happened to Rafael Nadal in his 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4) win over Nick Kyrgios on Monday in Melbourne. And if you know anything about Rafa, you probably aren’t surprised.
The match, between tennis’ most famous antagonists, was highly anticipated and duly hyped. But it ended up being played in the shadow of a more historic and tragic sporting event, the death of Kobe Bryant, along with his daughter, Gianna, and seven others, in a helicopter crash in California. The fact that Kyrgios warmed up in a Bryant jersey and Nadal did his post-match interview in a Lakers cap only shows how far the basketball player’s passing reverberated.
When it was over, John McEnroe asked Nadal for his thoughts on Bryant. Rafa said that his good friend Pau Gasol, a teammate of Kobe’s, had described Bryant as “the spirit of overcoming.” In Kobe’s own words, this is what was known as the Mamba Mentality. When Bryant was asked for his philosophy on competition, he liked to say, “just keep rolling,” and don’t let anything stand in your way. And that’s how he played basketball, with ruthlessness and single-mindedness.
Among tennis fans, Nadal is equally legendary for his single-minded approach to competition. But tennis isn’t basketball. You have to do everything yourself; no one else can take the last shot. You have to keep your arm loose and your racquet steady even when you start to feel like your elbow is encased in concrete. There’s no hiding or running from your anxiety on a tennis court. That’s a fact that Rafa also knows, as he showed when he talked about getting broken while serving for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set.
“He played a good game,” Nadal said of Kyrgios. “But I played a scary game in the 5-4. That’s part of the sport. Just accept that and try to recover mentally and find my level again.”
Can there be a Nervous Mamba? A Jumpy Mamba? A Worried Mamba? They all work as descriptions for the way Nadal plays tennis, and for how he won this match. He got tight, but, as Kobe would have advised, he didn’t let it stand in his way.
Press Conference: Rafael Nadal
The biggest improvement Nadal has made against Kyrgios has come in their tiebreakers. Before they met at Wimbledon last year, Kyrgios was 5-0 in them; now Rafa has won the last four, two at Wimbledon and two last night. Kyrgios used to play their breakers as if he had nothing to lose; now it’s Nadal who has found a way to manage and neutralize Kyrgios’s explosive game just long enough to get to seven points first.
The first tiebreaker came with the Spaniard and the Australian knotted at one-set apiece. Whoever won it would have the momentum; whoever lost it would have a hill to climb. Nadal, as he tends to do in these do-or-die situations, immediately became more proactive. He won the first point with a service winner, the second with a strong backhand, the fourth with a strong forehand, and the fifth with a forehand winner. When that flurry was over, he was up 4-1. All good, right?
Not so fast. The closer Rafa got to winning the set, the tighter he became. Up 5-3, he put two forehands in the net. Up 6-5, he double faulted. But that’s when he dug deep and found his inner Mamba again. At 6-6, Nadal loosened his arm back up and won the point with a big forehand and a winning backhand volley. A minute later, he had won the set, quieted the crowd, and put Kyrgios in a hole.
Nadal went through a similar set of mental flip-flops in the fourth set. Serving for the match at 5-4, he double faulted and was broken. At 5-5, he retreated far behind the baseline and tentatively blocked his forehand into the middle of the court, hoping Kyrgios would miss. Then, serving at 5-6 and staring a fifth set in the face, Rafa put his game back in gear again. He hit an ace, a forehand winner, and a service winner to hold. He stayed aggressive, and ahead, through the fourth-set tiebreaker, hitting an ace to go up 2-1, a good body serve to go up 6-4, and a series of strong backhands to close it out on his first match point.
“I think I played well from the baseline, changing rhythms, playing aggressive with my forehand and backhand,” Nadal said. “The problem is, when he’s serving, you don’t have many chances. You are under pressure the whole match.”
When the Lakers legendary general manager Jerry West first saw Kobe Bryant as a high school player, he walked away raving about the teenager’s “fearlessness.” That was a big part of Kobe’s appeal: he allowed us to live out a fantasy of ruthlessness, of the stone-cold competitor taking no prisoners and never showing any doubts. Nadal’s appeal is different, maybe even the reverse: he shows us the reality, the vulnerability, and then finds a way to prevail over it and win anyway.
Pau Gasol called Kobe Bryant “the spirit of overcoming.” The same spirit lives on in Rafael Nadal.