As I watched Rafa fall to the hard courts in New York last Monday night after defeating Djokovic (by the way, major, major props to Djoko, and I hope he finally starts to get the respect he deserves!), one word came to mind: WOW. Wow, wow, wow.
Just when I think I can't possibly respect, love, and admire the guy any more, he tops himself once again. Just when I think my adoration for him has hit its limit, he goes and gets his career slam. Wow.
And, as always, it is not merely that he came out victorious, it is the WAY he wins. It is the WAY he goes about everything that I treasure and attempt to emulate.
For example, early on in the tournament it is watching him play Istomin and beat him in three close sets and having that match represent everything that is great about sports. Both men were applauding one another's efforts, both men refused to quit or lie down, and when they embraced at the net at the end, it was a genuine embrace of care and respect.
After the final, it is seeing Rafa go out of his way to praise Djoko's attitude and acknowledge how hard it is to lose a slam final. He complimented Novak and said how great his attitude and approach was for kids to see. He didn't have to mention that in his moment of glory. It would have been easy to make it all about himself.
Rafa always goes out of his way to praise his opponent, to show them RESPECT before any match (even a first round match against number 200 in the world), and never to take anyone for granted. He plays every match, nearly every point, with a PASSION and INTENSITY that we all could bring to our jobs. I get the feeling he actually enjoys the PROCESS of each match, each challenge, instead of merely looking to the product or end result.
I believe him when he says "I tried my best" and therefore has nothing to feel badly about after a hard-fought loss. I believe him when he says what he loves most about tennis (and what he missed most when he was out with his knee injury) is the COMPETITION, and not the winning. I can see how seriously he takes PRACTICE and never settles for good enough.
He is constantly looking for ways to get better and is never, ever complacent. Just look at what he has done for his volleys and his serve this past year. Look at what he has done at Wimbledon. Not bad for a clay-courter. The truly great ones in any profession are never stagnant.
All I have to know about Rafa is how he plays break points against him on his serve as well as any huge point in a match. He gets even more aggressive and gutsy when it really, really matters. If he is going to go down, it will not be out of fear, but will be on his terms. All I need to know about Rafa is how he plays the points or the games right after a bad moment. Just watch how he bounces back. That is resilience.
He literally crushes the will of his opponents (think Djoko in the 4th set). One moment from the final captures much of this. It was one set all and Djoko had just salvaged an unbelievable hold (Rafa-esque) to make it 4-3 and Rafa's serve. Novak played three great points to get it to 15-30, and this was his moment. This was his chance. What happens next? Three unreturnable serves. Fitting that the aspect he worked on most and practiced hardest saves him. 5-3, and Djoko's will is broken.
Match over. Career Slam. Slam #9 at age 24.