Zen and the Art of Rafael Nadal
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Even now, even after Rafael Nadal has established himself as the best player in tennis and one of the fiercest competitors in sports, there are those who dismiss him as "one big arm" and regard his unseating of Roger Federer, the man who held the number one spot for four and a half years, as the sports equivalent of a wrecking ball shattering Michelangelo's David. Here's what's wrong with that equation: It assumes that Nadal's game is a blunt instrument, an exercise in brute force, unrelenting attrition, and nothing more. It ignores his elemental brilliance: the lethal cross-court backhand, the thrilling retrievals crafted by lunging forehands, the clearheadedness of his shot selection on critical points.

Yet of the many advantages Nadal holds over opponents, the most significant isn't his speed or his heavy, lefty shots; it's that he's impossible to prepare for because of the unbelievable topspin he puts on balls. His true edge is his "ackitude" – a.k.a. "attitude" in non-Rafa English. It's a mentality that's grounded, unflinchingly realistic, and reflexively wise.

Some call it poise, but it's more than that. Nadal has a rare gift for living in the moment, and the rarer gift of being able to produce precisely what that moment requires. This was evident during his match with Nalbandian, when he demonstrated that his greatest strengths include the intangibles that don't show up on the stat sheet: his relish for battle, his ability to take his own measure, his force of will. And it was evident after he beat Federer in the final of the 2009 Australian Open, a contest that unequivocally established Nadal as the sport's crown prince, rather than its overachieving pretender.

During the trophy presentation, Federer cracked. "God," he blurted while addressing the crowd, "it's killing me."

Nadal raised his trophy with reluctance, out of respect. He was solemn as he turned to Federer. "Remember, you are a great champion," he told him. "You are one of the best of history."