You can admire Rafael Nadal's wicked lefty forehand all you want. You can marvel at how much better his serve has gotten. You can think highly of his improved volley.
All of those factors contributed to Nadal winning an Olympic gold medal Sunday and officially becoming the No.1 player in the world today, ending Roger Federer's 41/2-year reign.
But there's one more reason Nadal takes over the No. 1 ranking today, and it is the characteristic of his I admire above all the rest.
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“Rafa is bringing many, many balls back,” said Fernando Gonzalez, who lost to Nadal, 6-3, 7-6 (7-2), 6-3 Sunday in the gold-medal match at the Olympics. “He gets 1-2 extra balls more than any other player.”
Exactly. For all his talent, Nadal is what is known in tennis circles as a grinder. He never lets you have an easy point. He scrambles after everything, never seeming to get tired, always running down one more ball.
That sounds easy to do. Just hustle, right? Coaches tell you that from age 6 onward.
But it's not easy. As an avid tennis player myself, I know on an amateur level how difficult it is to make yourself chase down one more drop shot after you've already run around for two hours in the heat. It's much easier to give yourself an excuse, to figure you're going to lose the point anyway and let the ball go.
Nadal never lets it go.
Other pros shake their heads as he whips passing shots by them from seemingly impossible positions. Nadal is a bulldog in tennis shoes. That wears down his competitors mentally, and sometimes they miss a shot they shouldn't because they know it better be good or Nadal is going to get it.
Such a shot was the backhand volley Gonzalez missed on set point in the second set Sunday. It wasn't difficult. But by trying to hit it too near the line, he botched it. Gonzalez wasted another set point 15 seconds later with an errant forehand, and then they were in a tiebreaker. Then Nadal played that perfectly and you knew Gonzalez was done.
“I think I played about a perfect match, no?” Nadal said afterward.
He's done a lot of that lately, going 38-1 over his past 39 matches. Gonzalez was no slouch. The silver medalist from Chile has a killer forehand and actually had a 2-0 record against Nadal on hard courts entering the match.
But Gonzalez was obviously discouraged by Nadal's incessant retrieval. Nadal wore a red muscle shirt and accessorized with an orange bandanna and sweatband. He looked like a tropical bird, flitting from one side of the court to the other.
Nadal said later that “nowhere in my best dreams” could he imagine a year in which he won the French Open, Wimbledon, an Olympic gold medal and the No.1 ranking. He will be the favorite for the U.S. Open that begins later this month, too.
Nadal said the Olympic experience was “fantastic” and that it ranked just as high as all his other achievements this year. “I feel like I win for the whole country, not just for me,” he said.
The Olympic tournament here brought most of the best players in the world.
Federer was here and, although he lost in the quarterfinals to James Blake, he won a gold medal in men's doubles. Novak Djokovic – who gave Nadal his most difficult test in the semifinals – was here and won the bronze. The Williams sisters were here and, although they couldn't avoid a 1-2-3 medal sweep by the Russians in singles, they won gold in women's doubles.
But no star shone brighter than Nadal's. And yet no one tried harder. That's a combination worthy of No. 1.