We tend to take for granted that the greatest champions will show up for each and every tournament ready to play their best brand of tennis, prepared to perform with unbridled enthusiasm, determined to win at any cost. They are expected always to give the public all that they have to offer, and sometimes seemingly even more. They are judged harshly if they fail to reach and maintain the highest standards of competitive equilibrium. They are well aware that fans from every corner of the globe are counting on them to be stalwarts of their trade, to become absolutely unwavering whenever they step on a court to conduct business.
But even the most unassailable professionals and ferocious competitors remain human beings. In my fifty years of watching top flight tennis and forty years reporting on it, I have never witnessed a better competitor than Rafael Nadal. He is singularly unshakable, fearless no matter how dire his circumstances, a man who seldom lets his guard down, a fellow who hardly ever shows up for work without overflowing intensity and a spirit and fortitude that is second to no one in his profession. Over the weekend, Nadal captured the 62nd ATP World Tour career singles title of his illustrious career, securing the crown at the Rio Open in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on his beloved clay. Nadal bested the sporadically brilliant Alexandr Dolgopolov 6-3, 7-6 (3) in the final.
For Nadal, the triumph was his 43rd clay court championship run. He raised his staggering career match record on that surface to 298-21. He has lost only six finals on the clay over the course of his sterling career. He reminded us that he is the best there has ever been on the dirt. But the story of his triumph in Rio was not simply that he won another tennis tournament. The central theme this time was the way he recorded his victory despite being pushed to the very brink of defeat in the penultimate round by compatriot Pablo Andujar, an opponent ranked No. 40 in the world. Andujar played perhaps the most inspired match of his career, and he moved beyond himself to a level he might never replicate again. His second serve returns were searing, particularly when he ran around his backhand to pound inside out forehands from the ad court. He was lethal off the forehand during the rallies. His level of play soared so high at times that he resembled a top ten competitor. This man was playing unconsciously, performing out of his mind, living as if in a dream.
Conversely, Nadal commenced this contest as if he wanted to be someplace far away. He played one of the worst opening sets I have ever seen from him. The man celebrated for his unwavering intensity was strangely listless. It all started unravelling swiftly and early for the Spaniard. In the opening game of the match, after saving three break points, he missed a routine inside out forehand wide at deuce and then lost his serve when Andujar clipped the baseline with a forehand and coaxed an error. At 2-4 in that set, he uncharacteristically lost another tight game on his serve. After saving one break point in that game, he missed two first serves in a row from deuce, and Andujar connected with consecutive winning forehand returns to move ahead 5-2. The 28-year-old Spaniard sealed the set 6-2 as Nadal remained in a terrible funk.
Slowly, Nadal found his range off the ground in the second set. After saving a break point in the third game and holding for 2-1, Nadal broke for the first time in the battle to move ahead 3-1, rolling his forehand return deep and high crosscourt to draw an error from his opponent. That was the lone break of the set. At 5-3, 40-15, Nadal raced wide for a forehand down the line, eliciting a weak shot down the middle from Andujar. Nadal then released a superb backhand inside out drop shot winner to make it one set all.
On they went to the third and final set, with Nadal seemingly ascendant. And yet, his troubles were far from over. At 0-1 in the third, he was twice down break point, erasing the first when Andujar netted a forehand down the line on the run, cancelling the second with an ace down the T. Nadal held on for 1-1. Soon he was in a bind again. At 1-2, he saved two more break points, willing his way back to 2-2. At 3-3, Nadal took charge from the middle of the court, unleashing a trademark inside out winner off the forehand. He had the break for 4-3, and seemed to have matters under control. But he bungled a forehand volley on the first point of the eighth game. At 30-15, he double faulted into the net. Nadal made it to deuce, but Andujar kept firing away unhesitatingly off the forehand. A crackling down the line shot off that wing took him to break point, and the sprightly underdog successfully negotiated the break back for 4-4 with a remarkable inside out forehand return winner off a tricky second serve into his body.
After Andujar held confidently for 5-4, Nadal served to save the match in the tenth game. Andujar advanced to 15-30, concluding a 16 stroke exchange with a forehand drop shot winner. Nadal was two points away from a deflating three set defeat. But his bread and butter first serve sliced to the backhand drew a return error long from Andujar. Then Nadal produced a clutch first serve wide to the forehand at 30-30. The return came back short and high, but Nadal took it on the rise above his shoulder and rifled a forehand winner down the line. On the following point, Nadal swung his first serve wide with heavy slice again, forcing a short return from Andujar. Nadal stepped into the court eagerly to drive his inside out forehand for a clean winner. It was 5-5.
Both men held to set up a final set tie-break, and what a beauty it was. This match was a virtual advertisement for why a hard fought, final set tie-break surpasses anything else in the sport. It tests the character of the participants comprehensively, gives the fans a singular sense of drama, and brings a contest to a fitting and exhilarating conclusion. In this particular case, the first five points all went against the server. Both men were brilliant and enterprising in that stretch. Nadal released a pair of forehand winners and a terrific, unanswerable backhand drop shot; Andujar was remarkably aggressive. Serving at 3-2, Nadal went to his trusted slice serve wide, opening up the court for a forehand swing volley winner. But Andujar countered on the next point with a defiant forehand inside in winner. 4-3 for Nadal.
Serving the eighth point, Andujar could not contain Nadal, who approached the net, went crosscourt with a solid overhead, and then won the point on his next smash off another tantalizingly high lob from his adversary. Nadal was two points from the win, leading 5-3. But Andujar was unwilling to surrender, not even now. He drilled another scorching inside out forehand to induce the error from a harried Nadal. The serve went back to Nadal, who now was ahead 5-4. Once more, Andujar seized the initiative, coming forward with no inhibition, putting away an overhead emphatically. 5-5. Yet Nadal advanced to 6-5 and his first match point when Andujar netted a high forehand, failing on a down the line winner attempt.
Andujar, however, remained implacable. After Nadal made a reasonably good return off a first serve, Andujar stepped in and sent a blazing inside out forehand a few inches from the sideline. Nadal’s reply was a forehand slice with decent depth, but Andujar calmly drove a forehand winner behind Nadal to make it 6-6. When Nadal miss-hit a forehand long on the next point, Andujar had garnered his first match point opportunity. Nadal missed his first serve in the ad court. He clearly realized Andujar would be looking for a second serve to his backhand, and knew his opponent would be prepared to move around and crush a forehand return. Nadal was not only resolute but brave. He served down the T to the Andujar forehand with heavy spin and good pace. It was risky, but Nadal was not going to lose with passivity.
That second serve neutralized Andujar, who made the return but without much on it. Nadal took control of the point quickly. Andujar drove a two-hander crosscourt, well over the baseline. 7-7. Nadal missed another first serve, and Andujar went to the net behind his inside-out topspin backhand return. Nadal was not unnerved. He made a backhand passing shot winner cleanly down the line, taking an 8-7 lead, arriving at match point for the second time. Andujar approached behind a backhand down the line, and Nadal’s crosscourt backhand pass was almost letter perfect, dipping low over the net. Andujar promptly turned into a magician, producing a down the line forehand half volley drop shot winner that died on Nadal’s side of the net. 8-8.
Andujar now found some more magic. He drew Nadal in with a drop shot to the forehand, and the world No. 1 angled his forehand pass crosscourt. Andujar’s lateral movement was magnificent, and he punched an impeccable backhand volley winner down the line past Nadal. 9-8 for Andujar. He was up match point for the second time. Nadal collected himself, and did precisely what he had to do, directing a slice first serve that stayed exceptionally low. Andujar netted his backhand return. Nadal was level at 9-9. The two players changed ends for the third time in the tie-break, and Nadal went on the attack, approaching inside out off the forehand. Andujar missed his down the line passing shot. Nadal led 10-9, holding a match point for the third time.
The tension was borderline unbearable, not just for the players but also for the almost delirious fans. Andujar served the twentieth point, and took utter control. He released an inside out forehand dangerously close to the sideline, and Nadal scraped that ball back skillfully. But Andujar had no apprehension, driving an inside in forehand for a clean winner to make it 10-10. He then sent a first serve to the Nadal backhand. The return was covered with heavy topspin, landing relatively short but bounding up high. Andujar inexplicably went for a backhand drop shot, and found the net.
Nadal led 11-10, standing at match point for the fourth time. He missed his first serve, and Andujar thumped another assertive return. Nadal masterfully guided a forehand reasonably deep crosscourt to keep himself out of trouble. A few shots later, Andujar went for a forehand down the line, but hit it into the net. Nadal had survived 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (10), avoiding what would have been a devastating setback, carving out a victory despite battling apparent cramps in his hand during the tie-break, despite an abysmal start, despite feeling “empty the whole match.”
That showdown had lasted two hours and 46 minutes, but Nadal was clearly relieved to have given himself a chance to play for the title the next day. Facing Dolgopolov, he seemed fresher, sharper, and more composed. Dolgopolov had taken apart David Ferrer the day before and had ousted Fabio Fognini in the quarterfinals, but he had no solutions to deal with the severe problems presented by the inimitably left-handed Nadal. Nadal broke Dolgopolov at love to establish a 3-1 opening set lead as the 25-year-old missed four straight first serves. Nadal kept his second serve returns deep with heavy spin, and gained the break easily. He held at 30 for 4-1, serving very cagily into the body on the forehand side of his opponent.
Nadal had lost only four points in his first three service games, but at 4-2 he was pressured for the first time on his delivery. He saved three break points in that game. The first one he fought off was nothing less than spectacular. Nadal defended stupendously, and took the point with a running forehand down the line at full stretch setting up a magnificent backhand drop shot down the line. Nadal erased the second break point with an un-returnable first serve down the T. On the third and last one, Nadal peppered the backhand of Dolgopolov with punishing forehands, drawing a predictable error in the end. Nadal held on gamely for 5-2. Two games later, he served out the set at love, putting all four first serves in, finishing it off with an ace out wide. Set to Nadal, 6-3.
The top seed broke for a 2-1 second set lead as Dolgopolov missed four of five first serves. On his way to a 4-2 lead, Nadal dropped only two points in three service games. In the seventh game, he had a break point that would have sealed the verdict, but Dolgopolov was very fortunate to get out of that precarious corner. He completely miss-hit a ground stroke and his shot took a bizarre bounce, forcing Nadal to lunge for a slice backhand rather than stepping in to drive his two-hander forcefully. Dolgopolov won that point with a winner and held on for 3-4 despite missing nine of twelve first serves.
At 5-4, Nadal served for the match. He had not faced a break point since the seventh game of the opening set. He had won 16 of 20 points on his delivery in the second set. Nadal advanced to 30-15, two points away from the title. Dolgopolov stepped in and angled a backhand crosscourt return winner off a second serve to make it 30-30, and then Nadal played one of his few anxious forehands of the match, netting a routine inside-out shot off that side. At break point, Dolgopolov did not back off, cracking a flat two-hander crosscourt that gave Nadal no chance. Just like that, out of nowhere, Dolgopolov was back to 5-5.
After holding comfortably at 15 for 6-5, Dolgopolov got to 0-15 in the twelfth game with a dazzling inside out forehand winner. But Nadal was unbending. He reached 15-15 with a clutch forehand inside in winner off an awkward return from Dolgopolov. Nadal held at 15 with a gorgeous backhand drop shot winner down the line. He had admirably weathered a brief storm from a prideful opponent.
The tie-break was on, and there was never much doubt about the outcome. Dolgopolov double faulted to trail 1-3, made a backhand unforced error to make it 1-4, and could not recover. Nadal—who made only seven unforced errors across two full sets—was not guilty of a single one during the tie-break. An inside out forehand winner took him to 5-2. Dolgopolov attempted a serve-and-volley on his second serve at 3-5 and misjudged Nadal’s high trajectory inside out forehand return from the deuce court. The shot landed safely in the corner for a winner. Nadal swiftly took the next point, securing the match 6-3, 7-6 (3), comfortably, competently and professionally.
This was a more important tournament for Nadal than many observers may have realized. Having lost the Australian Open final to Stan Wawrinka under the worst possible circumstances with an ailing back, Nadal needed to resume his winning ways in Rio; anything short of claiming the crown would have been disappointing and a deep blow to his pride and confidence. His play in the final was first rate, save the tight game he played when serving for the match. But Nadal will remember his tournament win most for the way he rescued himself so forthrightly in the penultimate round. Andujar caught Nadal off guard with his surprising degree of aggression, and Nadal had an uneven day off the forehand.
Most significantly, Nadal was not really himself for a large chunk of the match. It was one of those rare evenings when his emotional energy was nowhere near its normal level. And yet, in the end, despite all of his shortcomings in that match, no matter how much firepower Andujar threw at him from start to finish, Rafael Nadal succeeded because he simply refused to accept losing. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Nadal’s mind is the single biggest weapon in the game of tennis.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.