Rafael Nadal, the man who defeated Alex de Minaur on Saturday in a thrilling semifinal tie between Spain and Australia at the first ATP Cup, has been able to display the same intensity in ATP Tour matches as his international team competitions.
Nadal learned at a very early age how to come to the court with the same preparation, the same mindset, the same consistency, the same tunnel vision. In 2011, Novak Djokovic developed much the same thing, empowered and emboldened by his 2010 U.S. Open run and then the 2010 Davis Cup championship he won for Serbia.
Nadal and Djokovic overcame what can be called “The Monica Puig Problem” or “The Nicolas Massu Mystery,” in which a player delivers transcendent tennis at the Olympics (or another international team event) but can’t replicate it in regular tour life.
As the 2020 ATP Cup winds down — and as the focus of the tennis world turns to Melbourne in one week — a basic question we are all asking is this: Will Alex de Minaur and Denis Shapovalov be able to transfer their ATP Cup performances to the “normal” tour this year?
Very clearly, Shapovalov — who was great in the 2019 Pique Cup in addition to the 2020 ATP Cup — and de Minaur drank heavily from this “Cup” and ate up the atmosphere. They feasted and, as a result, beasted. They were a perfect fit for this new tournament. They delivered the best tennis of their young careers.
We all have to live with — and in — our own minds. When I say that, I don’t mean we should be “head people” instead of “heart people.” I don’t mean that we are defined by our thoughts, either. Spiritual teachers talk about the importance of emptying the mind and being open to others.
When I say that we all have to live with — and in — our minds, I am referring to the simple reality that we all have to sign a peace treaty with our inner voices. No one else can manage our thoughts for us; we have to do that. ONLY we, as individuals, can handle the storms of weirdness, conflict, and emotional turmoil which flow through our minds over the course of a lifetime.
We inhabit our own body and the mind attached to it. Only we can figure out the puzzle which is ourselves. Others can give us advice and counsel, but only we can ultimately establish peace in our heads.
The great challenge of any sport — magnified by the solo journey of the tennis player — is to find the right mixture of self-challenge and self-love, being an inner critic enough to improve performance when it suffers, but not being self-loathing to the extent that confidence is diminished… and to replicate that equilibrium every time on court, with a blend of passion and patience.
Nadal and Djokovic got there long ago. They will contest the ATP Cup Final on Sunday. De Minaur and Shapovalov didn’t get that far, but they both pushed their Big 3 opponents. De Minaur played two tremendous sets against Nadal before losing steam in the third. Shapovalov took Djokovic to a third-set tiebreaker before falling just short.
There is no debate that de Minaur and Shapovalov were hugely impressive this past week. The debate over these players is framed thusly: Will they take into Melbourne — and beyond — what they learned at the ATP Cup?
What happened in Laver Cup did not remain in Laver Cup for Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas. Those two players took what they gained in Geneva and carried it into Beijing, Shanghai, and the ATP Finals.
Can de Minaur and Shapovalov do something similar? We’re all about to find out.