Zen and the Art of Rafael Nadal
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Once there was a Roger Federer, there had to be a Rafael Nadal, if only to give the absurdly gifted Federer a chance to overcome something besides himself. Imagine how stunned Federer must have been during their initial encounter at the Miami Masters in 2004. He was 22 then, evolving into the game's most feared and majestic player. Nadal was a 17-year-old kid with a prematurely determined look, remnants of baby fat, and a tendency to fist pump anytime he hit a winner. Until then Nadal's association with the Mighty Fed extended to watching him make mincemeat of other players on television, which filled Nadal with what he calls "special motivation."

Nadal beat Federer in 70 minutes. Later, Federer remarked that Nadal "will become the most powerful left-hander in tennis," a left-handed compliment if ever there was one.

When Nadal was a kid, he didn't dream of being number one. He dreamed of winning the championship on the grass courts of Wimbledon. It meant everything to him, for himself and for Spain, a nation of clay courters that had produced only one Wimbledon champion, Manuel Santana, who won the title 20 years before Nadal was born.

Nadal made his ambition plain in 2006 by renting a cottage near the grounds rather than booking a hotel room on a nightly basis, the custom of clay courters who enter Wimbledon assuming they're three sets from leaving town. That year Nadal reached the final, taking a set from Federer, a respectable result in everyone's eyes but his own. The next year, 2007, he reached the final again. He held four break points in the deciding set, but Federer refused to lose. It was said that he wept for an hour afterward, sitting in the shower, water tumbling around him. In fact he wept much more. That night his father and Costa heard him "crying like an animal," as Costa puts it, in his small room, where the closet held the tuxedo he would have worn to the Champions Dinner, had he won the match.

Yet even then Federer felt his one and only rival encroaching. "He's a fantastic player," he said of Nadal after the 2007 Wimbledon final, "so I'm happy with every [win] I get now, before he takes them all."

The next year, 2008, he reaches the finals again. In the fourth-set tiebreaker he is just two points from the crown when he double faults, nets an easy backhand, then squanders two match points. They're titanic blunders.

Awaiting that decisive fifth set, he sits courtside, eating a banana, gulping Evian from a plastic bottle. "Time," the referee calls.

Nadal heads onto the grass court. He crouches, coiled and ready for Federer's serve. "I am far away from the title," he tells himself. "But, at the same time, never going to be this close again."

He plays on, doing what few players manage to do, which is to simultaneously settle down and rev up.

After a rain delay the match ends in semi-darkness. Moments later, Rafael Nadal strides back onto the court, the Spanish flag draped around his shoulders. He is, at last, the Wimbledon champion.