If there is one thing that unites great champion athletes it's a sense of delusion. For some, that level of delusion can be comical or eyeroll worthy (I'm rolling my eyes at you, Serena). For others it manifests itself in a self-confidence that seems independent of results. I'd put Fed in this category.
In Rafa's case, it's a humility that is independent of results. If you didn't know better as you watched Rafa collapse to the ground on match point, roar in exaltation and relief, and convulsively sob into a towel as he realized not only what he accomplished on this dominant two month run, but also how he had finally overcome the devastating professional and personal trials of the last year, you would have thought this was his first career Slam victory. Leave it to Rafa to make Franny's celebration look mundane and entitled. As the NBC commentator's remarked, you could see in his reaction that he genuinely thought this day might never come again.
And that, in a nutshell, is what drives Rafa. The cynics will say that he's the epitome of false modesty. After all, how can the player anointed "the King of Clay", with the results he's had on this surface over the course of his career, possibly think that, if healthy, he wouldn't ever hoist the Coupe de Mousquetaires again? He ran the table in the pre-tournament run-ups in dominant fashion. He didn't drop a set going into Sunday's final. He was the unanimous favorite as he picked apart and broke down challenger after challenger, ramping up his level of play from match to match. I mean, come on, Rafa. You can't be serious.
But that's Rafa. He's dead serious. He's dead serious when he tells you he gets nervous before every match. He's dead serious when he tells you that he knows that he can play well, create good chances, and lose. He's dead serious when he tells you that he accepts the fact that he can either win or lose on any given day when he takes the court.
Take that practical, if not sometimes delusional, view of his tennis mortality and combine it with the fiercest competitive fire on the tour, and Rafa's results and his reactions make sense. The guy believes he can lose against anyone and therefore he will do anything and everything to prevent that from happening. That explains how he hit the ground running today, Vamosing and fist-pumping as early as 1-1 in the first. It's why he took the game to Sod from the first ball, tracking down every single ball, no matter how hard it was crushed, and forced Sod to hit another ball. Rafa was everywhere. It was a jaw-dropping, dizzying display of defense that I haven't seen from him since the AO09 semifinal.
As for Sod, I thought he played. To put it in WTA terms, he pulled a Sam. He played well enough to win most matches. Just not this one. Rafa was just too good and Sod acknowledge as much after the match. Rafa forced him to hit winner after winner just to get a winner and on this day, his serve wasn't as effective as in previous rounds. Could he have made some adjustments? Sure. Would it have made a difference? Probably not. And so for the second year in a row, he beats the top seed and defending champion, only to lose in the final. And thus begins the rather unfair talk as to whether Sod has the guts to win a Slam. But whatever. Dude played well. He just ran into a delusional madman.
Delusions, while they do have a negative connotation, can be a mechanism for self-preservation. Again, see e.g., Serena Williams. Blocking out the negative to remain in a positive state of mind is understandable and expected among the greats. But Rafa's tact, of blocking out the positive to remain in a neutral to negative state of mind, takes iron-strength character to pull off. Without that character, he's just a Spanish Debbie Downer. He's no different than any other headcasey Negative Nelly on the tour. With it, he's a humble, fiery competitor who plays without a lick of entitlement. That's fucking scary.