Rafael Nadal has officially blown the tennis world’s collective mind to start the 2022 season, and I’m here to un-blow it.
By winning the Abierto Mexicano Telcel in Acapulco, he claims title #91. He’s riding a perfect start to the season. Nadal is now both the youngest and the oldest to win in Acapulco. Let’s explore that fact further.
Most people want to understand aging in a way that makes sense to them: A person is young, a person peaks and a person is past-peak. They think of aging as an upside-down V on a chart. I recently heard a tennis analyst describe Jelena Ostapenko as “in her prime at age 24,” because that’s when women on the WTA Tour peak. I disagree. This is not how it works necessarily. Ask players like Serena Williams, Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki, who all won Grand Slams well after age 24.
To most people, it stands to reason that Nadal would be “over the hill” at 35. Therefore, what he’s been doing– which is a 15-match win streak to start 2022– and three titles, including a Grand Slam, is not what’s “supposed to” happen.
I challenge you to think of the age trajectory– any person’s age trajectory– Nadal or even yourself– in an entirely different way.
There’s no denying a diminishment of skills will happen. Nobody beats father time. But it’s the way that it happens, over the years, which is different than an upside down V.
The great British novelist Jane Austen, in her novel Persuasion, describes the female lead character of Anne Eliot as having lost her “bloom” early in life. Bloom, as described by Austen, isn’t just the way a person looks– though that’s part of it– it’s also a person’s energy, intellect and general verve for life. Anne ran into some bad luck and was the victim of circumstance early in her 20s. However, in the kind of yarn only Austen spins, Anne goes on to regain her bloom, actually exceeding what she had in her youth.
Now let’s apply this concept to Rafa.
Over the course of a long career, Nadal has had amazing moments in his youth, in his late 20s and now in his mid-30s. But he’s also had his down moments. He’s had bad knees, bad feet and times when he didn’t know if he’d be able to continue.
Think of aging– and the kind of tennis greatness that Nadal has– as a more zigzag trajectory. There are up moments and down moments. But the aging process and the diminishment of skills is rarely if ever a straight line.
For that reason, it shouldn’t be so surprising that Nadal is winning. He’s having another bloom. The same goes for Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Recall times that they have “lost it” for a bit– only to blaze back with all their winning and sublime tennis.
Please stop being surprised by greatness.
And the thing you have to understand about Rafa is, he really is that good. 21 Grand Slam titles represents something that is a cut above. And by the way, something is to be said for experience. Nadal now employs a raft of tools to beat his opponents, including drop shots, lobs, serve and volley as well as being possibly the only player in tennis that owns the backhand overhead. Think of the lessons learned. Think of the tactics and all the math from which to draw on in his mental files.
So enjoy this moment for Nadal, as he looks ahead to Indian Wells, the clay season and Roland Garros. Get comfortable with it. What goes up will come down eventually. Nadal will experience a diminishment of skills. And then he may experience another bloom yet again. It’s a zigzag world. Embrace it.