Showing superior courage, Nadal finally won 6–4, 6–4, 6–7, 6–7, 9–7, finishing in near darkness. Nadal not only supplanted Federer as the leading man in men’s tennis, he proved that he could win on a surface other than clay. It was evidence that he’s destined to become one of the great ones. “To have the chance to beat [Federer] on that occasion, at that magical final, was something unbelievable, something special,” he says.
After the match, Nadal was greeted by deliriously happy family members and a cheering section that included Spanish royalty. But as they all approached the locker room, he asked them to keep it down. Federer, he explained, was already in there, devastated by the defeat. If he were to hear the celebrations, it would make him feel worse.
And therein lies the great irony of Rafael Nadal. On tennis courts throughout the world, he is a singularly relentless player, described by colleagues -- and they mean it in the best possible way -- as “a beast,” “a rock,” and “an animal.” “Don’t get me wrong, he has great strokes,” says Mats Wilander, a seven-time Grand Slam singles champ and now a tennis commentator for television. “But it’s not his forehand or his backhand; it’s his will. He just wants it more than anyone else. No one else comes close to matching his killer instinct.”
Yet the minute the match ends, Nadal transforms into a stoic, humble 23-year-old kid, almost pathologically modest. He lavishly praises opponents. He never cites injury as a reason for his rare defeats. Asked recently if he perceives himself as tennis’s new king, he winced. “Before the match, you are who you are, and after the match, you have to know who you are too,” he says in his improving English. “You are the same, no?”