Back to the future

Tue 12 Sep 2017

Men’s tennis appears to have been transported into the past this year. No one saw Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal splitting the Majors in 2017, but that is precisely what they have done. In winning the Australian Open and the Wimbledon in his 36th year, Federer showed he is that rare great — one who marries a handsome, timeless style and a clinical, ruthless mind to transcend what is thought possible. Nadal has been stretching the limits of possibility himself. From the time he won his first ATP match as a 15-year-old in 2002, he has been told that his frenetic, physical method would not last into his 20s. He was also told that his monotone game would find little success outside the familiar comforts of clay. And yet, as he soaked in the applause of a boisterous New York crowd on Sunday, he had not merely lasted, he had also won a third U.S. Open title, his 16th Major overall. The Spaniard had debunked the theory that he was a one-surface wonder in 2010, when he first triumphed at Flushing Meadows and completed the career Grand Slam. But before this Sunday, the 31-year-old had not won a Slam outside of Roland Garros since 2013. In ending that wait and closing the gap to Federer’s record 19 Majors, Nadal bullet-proofed his legacy as an all-court champion and kept the race to No. 20 alive.

Sunday night also marked the end of the most successful player-coach relationship in tennis. Toni Nadal, who has coached his nephew since he was four, had said that the U.S. Open would be his last Grand Slam on the road. Through 27 years and 16 Major titles, Toni has challenged and cultivated Nadal’s innate relentlessness. The addition of former World No. 1 Carlos Moya to the coaching team has played a part in the resurgence, but none of this would have been possible without Toni. In both the semi-final against Juan Martin del Potro, Federer’s conqueror, and the final against Kevin Anderson, the 6’8” South African on an impressive, heart-warming run, Nadal showcased the tactical mastery and technical advancement that he and Toni have so painstakingly worked towards. “I know we’re the same age,” Anderson told Nadal during the trophy ceremony, “but I feel like I’ve been watching you my whole life.” It was a measure of the impact Nadal has had on the sport — and also a tribute to his longevity, his incredible ability to overcome injury setbacks and return to a high level, as he has this year after a gloomy 2016. Another remarkable recovery story played out in the women’s draw: Sloane Stephens, who walked for the first time in April after foot surgery earlier in the year, put mind over matter to break through at her home Slam. The 24-year-old American has been picked out for great things; on Saturday, she delivered a popular, courageous triumph, the first, it would appear, of many.


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