Tennis’ Last Man Standing

The story behind Rafael Nadal’s journey to tennis immortality.

Lon Shapiro
Sep 8 · 16 min read
US Open 2017: Mike Segar / Reuters

On a humid September evening in New York, six days before the Men’s Singles championship match will take place, Rafael Nadal is flitting about the court like a bumblebee with 14-inch biceps.

In his march to the finals, Nadal’s fourth-round against Marin Cilic is his toughest match.

The Croatian is the only player Nadal will play who has won a Grand Slam title or even beaten the Spaniard.¹

After losing his only set in the tournament, Nadal has turned up the pressure in this round-of-16 encounter, winning the third set 6–1, and going up two service breaks in the fourth set.

Nadal is serving for the match at 5–2, 30–30, when the point of the tournament takes place. Watch this video and see if you can figure out why this point is incomprehensible.

If you guessed it was hitting a spectacular shot from around the net you would be wrong— Federer, Djokovic and many other great champions have done the same thing.

No, what separates this point from every other point in the tournament is what separates Nadal from every other player in the history of tennis.

Nadal’s implacable instinct to fight on every shot in every rally, during every point, every game, every set, every match and every tournament for the entirety of his career makes him the greatest fighter in the history of tennis, and possibly any sport where human beings compete.

There was no reason to chase down Cilic’s powerful forehand in this particular situation, and even less reason to keep fighting after he hit a weak return, knowing his opponent would put the ball away 99% of the time.

In this situation, the vast majority of older players would conserve energy and think about serving out the match at 5–3, while younger players might hesitate for an instant before going after the next shot because of frustration at hitting such a poor defensive shot.

There was no reason to put extra stress on Nadal’s heavy frame, knowing that the only thing that could stop him was the possibility his own body could break down as it did in the semifinals of last year’s US Open.

Nadal still had three more best-of-five-set matches ahead of him to win the title, so why did he make this incredible effort in a non-essential situation?

Maybe Nadal’s team knew Cilic has a weak backhand volley. Maybe Nadal sensed it was the key moment to close out the match. Or maybe Nadal is a T-3000 cyborg assassin sent from the future.

All we know is that Nadal didn’t hesitate after hitting a weak shot that gave his opponent a complete set up at the net. Instead, he sprinted to the spot where he anticipated that volley would go.

“Expectations don’t win matches, you do.” — Rafael Nadal

Even the greatest champions have moments where their focus in the here and now is broken by some stray thought or emotion.

Unless you’re Rafael Nadal.

Nadal’s lack of expectations (and short-term memory) allows him to hit every shot with the energy and intensity of the first point of a match and the willingness to leave everything on the court as if it’s the last point of his career.

Nadal’s harsh training as a child didn’t allow him to relax for even one point² and instead, he broke Cilic’s last bit of will. Nadal won the match on the next point with barely a fight.

In the world of athletic performance, only bees and Nadal seem to defy the laws of physics.

The bumblebee doesn’t look flight-worthy, based on its size and weight.³

“Antoine Magnan, a French zoologist, in 1934 made some very careful studies of bumblebee flight and came to the conclusion that bumblebees cannot fly at all! Fortunately, the bumblebees never heard this bit of news and so went on flying as usual. “ — Ross Hutchins

In the case of Nadal, he may have heard the news, but it didn’t matter.

Rafael Nadal is a bundle of nervous tics and straining muscular effort who first turned the tennis world upside down in 2004 when he beat world #1 Roger Federer as an 18-year-old.

Nadal revolutionized the modern forehand by creating an average of 3200 revolutions per minute (rpm) on his topspin forehand — 500 rpm more than Federer.⁴

In doing so, the Spaniard became living, breathing kryptonite to the man many regard as the greatest player of his generation, if not all time.

Everything about Rafael Nadal physical form flies (no pun intended) in the face of established tennis dogma.

Three athletic characteristics are common to elite tennis players: a natural throwing motion to facilitate a world-class serve; a lean, flexible upper body to maximize racket head speed and flexibility; and, a lithe frame that creates the optimal combination of speed, change of direction and stamina to cover the court.

Nadal is almost the exact opposite of each ideal body characteristic.

Natural throwing motion: Nadal was born right-handed and played tennis with his natural hand from the age of 3 until he won an under-12 regional tennis championship at the age of 8. At this point, he was “encouraged” by his mad-scientist-turned-tennis coach uncle Toni to play left-handed, because of the small advantages left-handed players have in the sport.⁵

Every time Nadal goes into his service ritual, you see a mass of nervous energy trying to muster the discipline to hit a serve in the court as he wipes his brow, adjusts his hair, and tugs at his shorts. As he begins his service motion, the left side of Nadal’s mouth curls up in a scowl, while be bites his lower lip. After 25 years as a left-handed tennis player, Nadal still looks like a kid struggling to master arithmetic.

To this day, Nadal throws balls, sweatbands, and towels to the crowd with his right hand. And photos show how much more relaxed he is when using that hand.

Lean, flexible upper body: If there is going to be an over-development of one muscle group in a tennis player’s dominant hitting arm, it would be the wrist and forearm.

We have seen evidence of that in almost every great player through history. Rod Laver was renown for his Popeye-like left wrist and forearm.

At his height and weight, Rafael Nadal should be a college football defensive back. No player in history has ever looked like this on a tennis court:

Lithe frame for optimal movement: Tennis is a sport dominated by gazelles who can change direction at full speed and do so throughout a match that can last anywhere from 1–5 hours. Into this world entered a cheetah whose name is Novak Djokovic.

Tennis Australia’s Game Insight Group (GIG)⁶ tracked the movement of players over a distance of three meters or more at the Australian Open between 2013 and 2016 and found that Djokovic reached the maximum speed of 22.38 mph. For context, the fastest speed clocked during the 2015 NFL regular season was 22.60 mph.

Unlike the impossibly fast Djokovic, Nadal stampedes across a tennis court like the symbolic bull on his personal logo.

He came in at #12 in the GIG rankings over 25% slower at 16.67 mph.

But somehow Nadal’s legs churn and beat the surface with his feet, willing him to retrieve opponent winners as he became the greatest clay-court player of all time.

If Roger Federer is Da Vinci, the greatest artist to ever paint the lines of a tennis court with his racket work, Rafael Nadal is Michangelo, willing to paint the Sistine Chapel while lying on his back.

Where Federer floats on the court, Nadal tramples it. Where Federer attacks effortlessly on any shot, Nadal’s greatest moments have come as a counter puncher, running down untouchable winners to hit a forehand on the dead run.

The one thing that is synonymous with Rafael Nadal is his ability to break his opponent physically and mentally. But it has come at a high cost.

“I learned during my career to enjoy suffering.” — Nadal

Since he missed the last six months of the 2012 tennis season with a knee injury, the world of tennis has speculated that Nadal could not continue to play the same relentless, physically grinding style of play.

He proved experts wrong, coming back from injuries to dominate the sport in 2013, regardless of what his rivals threw at him.

But there is true genius behind those rippling muscles.

Nadal is one of the greatest tacticians I’ve ever seen in tennis.

Casual fans only see him standing way behind the baseline to return serve and playing behind his trench at the baseline.

What professional players and coaches see is his constant tinkering with court position, shot selection, spin, and speed, as his subtle adjustments throw off the timing and comfort of equally steady baseline players or take away the initiative from attacking players.

Watch for the way he comes to the net, even on clay, and then brings his opponents up into the court where he can pass them.

Watch the way he varies his serve return from being a deep topspin or slice to start a rally to hitting hard dipping balls that drop at the service line the one time an opponent tries to serve and volley.

You have to be a tactical genius to read every situation perfectly and anticipate where your opponent’s ball is headed, even when he has complete control of the point, like Cilic did in the video I included above.

There’s a reason Nadal is one of only of four men in the Open Era of tennis who has been able to win both the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year.

Only Bjorn Borg (the record holder at five), Nadal (twice), Rod Laver (twice), and Federer (once) have accomplished the most difficult transition in tennis, going from the slow red clay at Roland Garros to the uncertain footing and bounces of the grass at Wimbledon.

Elite athletes do have physical limitations, and Nadal’s ability to adjust and recover only add to his legacy.

Time finally caught up with Nadal in 2014.

His body finally broke down, and after willing his way to another French Open title, and Nadal began a slow painful descent, dropping from #1 to #10 by 2015.

He suffered unimaginable losses against players against whom he had never lost.

And this is where the true power of Nadal’s fighting spirit showed itself, as he began to transform his game and tactics to shorten points and preserve his body.

While some people might point to all the injuries Nadal has suffered and all the months he has missed from the circuit, I did the research and found that Nadal is closer to an iron man than people realize.

Guess who has played the most matches of the modern generation at the age when Djokovic retired from this year’s US Open with his shoulder injury (age 32 years, 101 days)?

Here are the top three in most singles matches played (excluding Challengers, ITF circuit events, and exhibitions):

Federer (1,138), Nadal (1,111) and Djokovic (1,060).

Nadal, in spite of his injuries, has played almost an extra full season than Djokovic, and three seasons more than the #4 player on the list, who has played 961 matches.

Nadal has a very good chance of catching Federer for the most Grand Slam titles at next year’s French Open, and that doesn’t even include the fact that he has been forced to retire from four Slams due to injuries sustained during the tournaments: 2014 Australian Open finals; 2016 French Open 3rd round; 2018 Australian Open semifinals; 2018 US Open finals.

In response to those injuries, Nadal once again fought back.

Nadal reinvented himself to shorten points, preserve his body and prolong his career, and his comeback starting in 2017 has been one of the most successful ever.

For 8 glorious weeks under sunny Meditteranean skies, Rafael Nadal frolics on the red clay in Spain, Italy, and France. The greatest clay-court player in the history of tennis has continued to dominate the five-event clay-court season that includes 1 ATP 500 event (Barcelona), 3 Masters 1000 events (Monte Carlos, Madrid, Rome) and one Grand Slam event (Roland Garros).

Here are his clay-court accomplishments since he regained his health in 2017:

2017: 4 titles, 1 quarterfinal

2018: 4 titles, 1 quarterfinal

2019: 2 titles, 3 semifinals (a huge drop off for him)

That’s 10 titles out of 15 tournaments ( 3 Grand Slams, 5 Masters 1000s and 2 ATP 500 titles)

Nadal reinvented himself by hitting flatter, trying to move up into the court more often instead of rallying from far behind the baseline, and to use his genius for understanding tactical situations to either come to the net to end points, or get his opponent out of position with drop shots.

Since 2015, and the adjustments he made to add more power to his game, Nadal’s comeback has been a success of epic proportions. After today’s final, Nadal set the modern open record for most Grand Slam titles won after the age of 30.

  • 3 French Open titles
  • 2 US Open titles
  • 2 finals appearances at the Australian Open
  • Ranked #1 for 59 weeks (various times from August 2017-November 2018)
  • Ranked #1 at the end of 2017
  • Ranked #1 at the end of 2019 (if Djokovic doesn’t return from his injury)

But the comeback has come at a cost. Nadal will continue to suffer, knowing that the changes he made to prolong his career will work against him when he plays his two greatest rivals.

To prolong his career, and climb back to the top of men’s tennis, Nadal had to sacrifice the incredible defense, high bouncing topspin forehands and relentless pressure of his old self.

The thing that made Nadal kryptonite for Federer was also killing Nadal, leading to a fascinating crossroads match as the two rivals met again at the beginning of their comebacks in 2017.

In the Australian Open final, Nadal struggled between those two styles.

He lost the first set playing as new Nadal, then won the second set with his old game. He tried to preserve his body by changing back to his more aggressive side and lost the third set. One last time, he tried to draw upon the well of Old Nadal, and it gave him the 4th set and a 3–1 lead.

However, he was unable to finish the match. The physical stress of that match led to Nadal losing the last five games of the match to give Federer one of the greatest victories of his life.

Nadal made his choice and did not revert to his old style against Federer, and it cost him three more losses to the Swiss champion during 2017. But Nadal preserved his body and finished 2017 healthy enough to get through most of the indoor season and clinch the year-end #1 ranking.

He hasn’t looked back since.

Nadal may once again be ranked #1 in the world at the end of 2019, but will never earn the luxury of becoming complacent, because he will still be the underdog against his two greatest rivals.

Since 2015, here is Nadal’s record against the other two members of the Big 3 when they play on hard courts, grass, or indoors:

  • Djokovic: 0–6 overall, 0–2 in Slams (2018 Wimbledon, 2019 AO), (0–1 on grass, 0–4 on hard courts, 0–1 indoors), 0–11 in sets,
  • Federer: 0–6 overall, 0–2 in Slams (2017 AO, 2019 Wimbledon), (0–1 on grass, 0–4 on hard courts, 0–1 indoors), 4–14 in sets.

Regardless of what happens in today’s US Open final, Rafael Nadal is again the last man standing.

He will take a massive lead in the 2019 calendar year rankings (The Race to London), and unless Djokovic can return to the circuit and dominate the late-season indoor events, Nadal will end 2019 as the #1 ranked player in the world.

His resolve, stamina, and ability to suffer in order to come back already put him in a category by himself.

Most champions reach the top, and then get displaced, never to return to the pinnacle of tennis, but not Nadal:

2008 (#1), 2009 (struggle at the French, dropped out of Wimbledon due to knee), 2010 (regains #1), 2011 (displaced and dominated by Djokovic); 2012 (misses 6 months due to injury); 2013 (regains #1); 2014 (begins to drop); 2015 (hits bottom); 2016 (injured for French Open, withdraws from Wimbledon, and end of season events); 2017 (regains #1); 2018 (displaced again by Djokovic in November); 2019 (likely to regain year-end #1).

Not even Federer has had as many comebacks.

As we celebrate Nadal’s career, his message to every fan and would-be champion in any sport and at any level is to never stop fighting:

“Endure — put up with whatever comes your way, learn to overcome weakness and pain, push yourself to breaking point but never cave in. If you don’t learn that lesson, you’ll never succeed as an elite athlete.” Rafael Nadal

[NOTE]: I wrote this article before Nadal’s epic final match with Medvedev, as his story wouldn’t change regardless of the results. As it turns out, Nadal finally proved to be human, as the thought of winning Slam #19 and being within reach of Federer’s record caused him to stumble when serving for the championship at 5–3 in the third set, and then again at 5–2 in the 5th. But he finally held serve at 5–4 to win the match and reign as the U.S. Open’s last man standing.

With Nadal sure to be a heavy favorite to win the French Open next year, the greatest “underdog” of all time has the chance to catch and perhaps pass the Master he has always addressed as the greatest of all time. Tennis just keeps getting better.


¹Nadal is 6–2 overall against Cilic. His last loss to Cilic was during the 2018 Australian Open semifinals after being forced to retire in the 5th set with an injury.

²Here are some excerpts from Nadal’s autobiography, about the harsh treatment he received from his coach, uncle Toni:

“If he hadn’t made me play without water that day, if he hadn’t singled me out for especially harsh treatment when I was in that group of little kids learning the game, if I hadn’t cried as I did at the injustice and abuse he heaped on me, maybe I would not be the player I am today.

On being singled out for extra harsh treatment

It was always me, too, who he got to pick up the balls, or more balls than the others, at the end of the training session; and it was me who had to sweep the courts when we were done for the day. Anyone who might have expected any favoritism was mistaken.

Quite the opposite. Miguel Angel says Toni bluntly discriminated against me, knowing he could not have got away with it with him and the other boys but with me he could, because I was his nephew.

In this passage, he talks about psychological warfare.

My friend Miguel Angel Munar reminds me sometimes how Toni, if he saw my head was wandering, would belt the ball hard at me, not to hit me, but to scare me, to startle me to attention.

On never feeling complacent but dealing with insecurity

While Toni’s refusal to let me off the hook has its value, in that he pushes me always to improve and do better, it can also be bad because he creates insecurity.

I often feel this way, especially in the early rounds of a tournament, and the truth is that while he deserves credit for so many good things in my career, he also deserves blame for me being more insecure than I ought to be.

³In 1934, French zoologist and aeronautical Antoine Magnan calculated that bee flight was aerodynamically impossible. (3) High-speed video photography has since explained the mystery of the bee’s “unconventional combination of short, choppy wing strokes, a rapid rotation of the wing as it flops over and reverses direction, and a very fast wing-beat frequency.”

⁴For context, Roger Federer began to dominate the world of tennis in 2003 by hitting a topspin forehand that averaged 2700 rotations per minute (RPM). This dwarfed the 1800 RPMs averaged by the champions of the previous generation Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.

Additional note: Sergi Brugeri was the only player besides Nadal who reached the 3200 rpm barrier a few years before. However, he was a clay-court specialist who won the French Open but never even reached a quarterfinal at any of the other three Slams. Nadal’s ability to beat Federer in that first match at the Miami Masters event was an event of seismic proportions.

⁵A left-handed serve pulls a right-handed player off the court on the ad court. This means that on every game point or breakpoint, the left-hander starts with an advantage. Even though the right-hander has the natural advantage on the deuce court, from a psychological perspective, all the pressurized, decisive points favor the left-hander.

Because of the preponderance of right-handed players, lefties get more practice against right-handed spin, so they are more comfortable returning those shots

Right-handers learn to serve to attack other right-handers, which means they develop flat and kick serves to attack right handed backhands. Only the most elite right-handed players develop great slice serves, which curve away from a right-handed forehand and left-handed backhand. On the other hand, lefties use their slice serve all the time to attack right-handed forehands.

Only the rare elite left-handed player will also develop a great flat serve to attack a right-handed forehand. Nadal’s rise over the last two years has been because his team studied data from the Hawkeye ball tracking system.

They found that Nadal was putting too much spin on his serve, which allowed opponents more time to attack the ball on the serve return. Nadal has adjusted his serve to hit a little flatter and more often to a right-handed forehand, which has taken most opponents by surprise and given him the advantage in rallies after the first ball.

This TV statsdistic tells you everything you need to know about Nadal’s improvement on the serve and the attention to detail of his coaching staff.

⁶Djokovic is not just a freak of nature in tennis, but one of historic proportions. If we extrapolate his top speed to 100 meters, he would have ended up in a photo finish with Bob Hayes, the gold medal winner at the Tokyo Olympics.

Lon Shapiro

Written by

Father of two amazing men. Peak Performance coach for professional athletes. Ad agency creative director, writer & artist. Tireless research. Author of 5 books.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade