Roger Federer's narrative is one of perfection, an enviable story line provided you're winning. But when you're losing, perfection is an albatross – a "monster," as Federer puts it – because it doesn't permit even the most cursory failure.
Nadal's narrative, squarely focused on the need to improve and to strive, is more forgiving and humane. "To improve you have to have mistakes," Nadal says, "That is the problem with improving. You have to accept that problem."
He grew up on clay courts, as Spanish players do, so his game naturally assumed the clay courter's tendencies, which, as he says, include "playing hard from the baseline." But the men's game is played largely on hard courts, and is, as
tennis writer Andrew Burton notes, "increasingly about the ability to defend the corners." On hard courts Nadal was still getting pushed too far behind that baseline, ceding valuable real estate, forfeiting much of his ability to discern angles.
A few years ago, at the U.S. Open, when Nadal began overhauling his then-deficient net game, he rushed the net, smacked the ball into it, then shot an anguished look at Uncle Toni, who smiled and applauded. The point was, Nadal was heading in the right direction. He was trying. If he tried, he'd succeed. Maybe not now, but later.
In early 2008, I watched Nadal practice for two weeks and noted how assiduously he was reconfiguring his game: working on his serve, hitting flat, taking the ball early and on the rise. Playing with his practice partner, he was downright demonic, and you could see that he could beat anybody if he played that way during matches. But he couldn't. Under pressure he still returned, as players do, to what's familiar. Yet by year's end all that work yielded him the Olympic gold medal and the number one ranking.
When it's all about improving, even a loss is a potential gain. When it's all about striving, you never give up. "What Rafael transmits to other players," says coach Francisco Roig, "is, Okay, you can beat me, but I'm going to be there every minute."
"No other grand slam champion has improved like Nadal has," says tennis writer Asad Raza. "He's gone from retriever to counterpuncher to attacker. It's one of the more remarkable transformations of his game."
Yet Nadal's progress has had setbacks, and he was severely tested in 2004, when he suffered the first of two injuries, shortly after cracking the top 50. A stress fracture to his left ankle took him out of play for three months; home in Mallorca he spent seven hours a day in rehab. Costa visited him often. "He was always happy," Costa recalls, "because he's a happy guy. But he would ask, 'Do you think it will be easy for me when I get back?'"
That May, Costa took Nadal to the French Open to show him the courts and grounds. They went to a match, where Nadal lasted 10 minutes. "When you can't play," says Costa, "it's too painful to watch."
A year later, in 2005, Nadal won the French Open. But that October he endured a mysterious foot injury, and this time the road back was more arduous. "Some moments were really tough," he says. "We could not find a solution. There was no light at the end of the tunnel."
His father devoted himself to his son's recovery. In May 2006, Nadal returned to the French Open, played bold, slashing tennis, and defeated Federer in the final. Afterward, spent, he collapsed into his father's arms, saying, "Thank you, Popi."