Rafael Nadal: Seems like hed make a fine outfielder
  • AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand
  • Rafael Nadal: Seems like he’d make a fine outfielder

The reason I admire Rafael Nadal above all other professional athletes was on display at this week’s U.S. Open final, won by Nadal over Novak Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1. Nadal’s matches with Djokovic might represent the highest level of tennis that has ever been played—but what happened in the fourth set?

What happened, according to commentator John McEnroe, who won the same tournament four times himself, was the third set. Djokovic had outplayed Nadal in the second set and was outplaying him in the third set, breaking Nadal’s serve in the first game and a few games later having him on the ropes at love-40. But somehow Nadal won that game. Then he broke Djokovic. Then he broke him again. Djokovic lost a set he thought he’d won, and he was finished.

Little can be assumed in sports, but I am sure of this: if the opposite had happened, if Nadal had lost the third set the same way Djokovic lost it, he wouldn’t have let himself be blitzed 6-1 in the fourth.

In the second set, with Nadal down 30-40 on his serve, he and Djokovic played a 54-stroke point. The fans were beside themselves. I was beside myself. The rally ended when Nadal dumped the ball into the net, losing the point, losing his serve, and, as it turned out, because of that break losing the set.

But he didn’t lose the match.

The quality that sets Nadal apart is his resilience. His will doesn’t break. He seems unafraid of defeat in the same way a great soldier seems unafraid of death. It’s what sometimes happens regardless of what you do, but there’s no reason to think about it. He reminded me of Grant, taking horrendous losses but never breaking off the battle. History has more affection for Lee, who was more dashing, but Grant outfought him.

In 1980 McEnroe won tennis’s most famous tie break ever, beating Bjorn Borg 18-16 to end the fourth set of the Wimbledon final. But Borg recovered to win the fifth set and the tournament. Shifting sports, Carlton Fisk hit one of the most dramatic home runs in World Series history, standing at the plate in the bottom of the 12th inning and willing the ball fair, as the Red Sox won game six against Cincinnati. But the Reds won game seven.

Athletes and teams that don’t bounce back can sometimes make a strong argument that only bad luck kept them from their championship, but they can’t argue that they deserved it. Baseball fans in Saint Louis still moan about “Denkinger’s boner,” the bad call at first that led to two runs in the ninth and a 2-1 Kansas City victory in the sixth game of the ’85 Series. But the Royals won the seventh game 11-0. When Steve Bartman arguably kept Moises Alou from catching a foul ball in the eighth inning of game six of the NLCS series in 2003, the Cubs still led the series three games to two and the game 3-0, and the Marlins still had one out and one on.

Sometimes an athlete’s most impressive move is a shrug.