SEPTEMBER 12 ― Is it 2005? Is everything I’ve been seeing about Donald Trump and Brexit and an imminent nuclear war with North Korea really just a long and horrible strange dream, and in fact what I thought was real life was only actually a scary fantasy?
And if not, how come Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer are still winning all the most important tennis tournaments, even though they are now (if it really is 2017) old enough that they should be retired, or at least playing on the veterans’ circuit?
No, it’s real, and Nadal’s success in the US Open Final on Sunday night, when he beat South African Kevin Anderson in straight sets to gain his 16th major title, completed a remarkable year of Grand Slams.
Firstly in Australia in January, Federer ― who was then 35 and is now 36 ― rolled back the years to win his first Grand Slam tournament in nearly five years, prompting a great deal of nostalgia from fans who assumed his success was merely the final grand hurrah from an era-defining performer.
Then, in Paris a few months later, his long-time foe (and friend) Nadal followed suit, ending a long battle against loss of form and injury by taking the French Open title at the age of 31 to secure his first major honour since 2014.
And that, we all assumed, was that. After temporarily ending their age- and injury-related declines, these two hugely popular performers would now slide back slowly towards retirement, having provided tennis fans everywhere with a memorable last curtain call.
But no. In July, the pattern of revival continued as Federer won Wimbledon, and now Nadal has seen those cards and matched them by triumphing in New York, meaning that the end of year Grand Slam honours board reads: Federer 2, Nadal 2, Everybody Else 0.
It’s that “Everybody Else 0” statistic which really stands out. Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori… even their combined powers ― along with emerging star Alexander Zverev and rejuvenated Marin Cilic ― were not enough to prevent the old guard from hogging the limelight and combining to sweep the major titles for the first time since 2010.
This can be explained, for simple starters, with the straightforward enough fact that Federer and Nadal are just better than everyone else.
Circumstances have also conspired in their favour, with some of the leading challengers like Djokovic and Murray being knocked out of contention at various times by injuries.
But perhaps the most important ingredient in the success of the old-timers is their sheer persistence and determination to return to their former glories.
Nadal, for instance, endured a terribly tough time in 2015 and 2016, with a loss of form and a wrist injury ― which is obviously a serious matter for a tennis player ― preventing him from advancing past the fourth round in six consecutive Grand Slam titles.
When 2016 ended with a second round defeat in the Shanghai Masters against unfancied Viktor Troicki, you could have forgiven him for deciding it was the right time to call it quits and hang up his racket for good.
After all, Nadal was 30 years of age ― easily old enough for tennis players to start thinking of retirement. He had already won 14 major titles, amassing more millions of Euros than he could ever spend, and he was a national icon in his homeland of Spain. After achieving so much and facing such a difficult situation, nobody would have criticised him for bowing out gracefully there and then.
But he didn’t do that, instead focussing all his energies on recovering from his injury, returning to full fitness and giving his career another shot ― in the full knowledge that if it went badly, he would have risked damaging his legacy as one of the greatest sportsmen of the modern era and being forced to end on a sour note.
For mere mortals like ourselves who could never even begin to dream of reaching the world-class excellence of Nadal on a tennis court, that’s quite an inspirational tale.
It shows us that even the very best have to work hard and make sacrifices ― in fact, they have to work harder and make more sacrifices than anyone else, because they would never reach the top without doing so.
Sometimes in life we can fall into the trap of expecting things to come easily, of believing that we are owed a living and owed a slice of good fortune. But that’s not the case. Nothing worthwhile comes without hard work ― and if even Rafa Nadal can understand that message, so can we.
Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. And if you’re Rafa Nadal, when you lose you roll up your sleeves and work hard enough to make sure that, one day, you starting winning again.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.