US Open 2017

Rafa, Roger and the joy of reinvention

2017 will go down as the year when we saw two of the greatest tennis players of all-time show us that it’s never too late to go back to the drawing board.

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They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But to Tiger Woods, who was seated in Rafael Nadal’s box at the Arthur Ashe stadium in Flushing Meadows, and to millions of those watching… that saying lost all significance in 2017.

The year will go down as the time when we saw two of the greatest tennis players of all-time show us that it’s never too late to go back to the drawing board; that it’s never too late to start anew; that reinvention is the key to surviving modern sport.

Careers that last decades are rare in sport. Rarer still are careers that last two successful decades where you pat yourself on the back not just because you survived but because you spent those decades beating back the young guns.

After the US Open win on Sunday, Nadal was asked to comment on his great rival, Roger Federer. He said: “Two things that we share: that is passion for tennis, & competition and the spirit of improvement all the time.”

The one thing that hasn't changed about Rafa is that devastating forehand. Image credit: USTA
The one thing that hasn't changed about Rafa is that devastating forehand. Image credit: USTA

That spirit of improvement is what makes legends of athletes. Life would be so easy if we could perfect a certain skill set and then just keep on rolling. Well, it would be easy. It would also be boring. Imagine having to do the same thing, day in and out. It would also make it easier to figure out. Soon, opponents would be able to second-guess your next shot or your reaction to a particular problem. And then, you start losing.

And that is why the greatest are forever in flux… making minute adjustments to their game. Anything large-scale is usually ruled out as breaking down and building up again takes time, inhuman effort and great mental strength. But that’s exactly what Roger and Rafa chose to do.

They chose to rework their game; they chose to not give up; they chose to change. In many ways, reinvention was a challenge and in brought with it, a certain joy; joy that would have been doubled by the success it brought them.

Federer went all in – mastered his bigger racquet, attacked regularly with his backhand, went for shorter points, stood closer to the baseline. All put together, it led to a remarkable improvement. One that many reckoned saw him play his best tennis ever. That’s a tall claim but that is how good the Swiss maestro looked.

Roger's stunning turnaround has astounded most observers. Image credit: USTA
Roger's stunning turnaround has astounded most observers. Image credit: USTA

Nadal, on the other hand, isn’t as old as Federer but chronic injuries had knocked him back. He needed to change something to get back into the groove – mentally as well as physically. A big catalyst for that change was Carlos Moya. Uncle Toni was a really hard taskmaster. Moya helped Rafa step back a bit. Subtle changes (he added a little weight to the tip of his racquet) helped him serve bigger and added more venom to his groundstrokes. He also worked very hard on the mechanics and rhythm of his swing. Tactically, he also started playing the smarter game. This wasn’t Rafa just chasing everything down. This was Rafa playing smart tennis – one that we saw in full evidence against Del Potro in the semi-final. The entire package seemed that much more complete. Intimidating even.

Before Roger and Rafa, there was Djokovic. His reinvention was linked to diet, fitness and a wicked backhand crosscourt. Murray changed his physique completely to be able to match up to the other three.

This remains one of the big reasons why the Big 4 have won 46 of last 51 Grand Slam titles since 2005 Roland Garros. By the time, the opponents catch up, these guys have already moved on.

Over the years, we have seen many legendary athletes do the same and perhaps that is why watching them in their twilight years remains just as exciting. Agassi took to climbing hills in a bid to find his game again. He did – going from No 141 in November 1997 to finish No 1 in 1999.

Sachin Tendulkar’s reinvention was perhaps not as feted but it was still just as crucial for the Indian team. He went from dasher to the team’s guiding force. And for a painful few years, struggled with the tennis elbow but he made it through.

Michael Jordan went off to play baseball but then came back to the game armed with the fadeaway jumper which basically made him unstoppable and the Chicago Bulls said hello to another three-peat.

Having now played more than 800 games, Cristiano Ronaldo has been just as deadly – started off as a tricky winger, evolved to a free roaming phenom and is now the ultimate fox-in-the-box. He runs less. He moves less. But he scores more.

If anything – then all of this only goes to show that there is always the chance to come back from the brink and in those moments, French philosopher Simone Weil’s words come to mind: “If we go down into ourselves, we find that we possess exactly what we desire.”

Words that Roger and Rafa have shown to be true in a magnificent 2017. May 2018 see more of the same.

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