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ROLAND GARROS: Rafa Nadal, A 36-Year-Old Immortal Among The Greatest In History

Rafa Nadal set a new record at Roland Garros. The Spaniard increased his advantage as the tennis player with the most Grand Slams by adding 22, two more than Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, the two rivals with whom he has had a historic duel in the last two decades.

It all started in 2003, when Federer won his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon. Two years later, Nadal, at only 19 years old, won his first Roland Garros, starting the duel with the Swiss. Djokovic joined the fray in 2008, when he lifted his first Australian Open trophy. On Friday he turned 36, an age not only prohibitive for any tennis player, but for the greatest in history. However, for a long time, Rafa Nadal has only competed for eternity. 

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And for continuing to consolidate a list of winners where 22 Grand Slam tournaments already appear. His competitive fierceness and his perseverance in his work bear obvious similarities to those of Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Eddy Merckx or Michael Phelps, doomed for different reasons to say goodbye earlier.

JORDAN'S "INFINITE LIBRARY"

Much has been written about Nadal's rituals with the water bottles, the hair ribbon or the track lines. A behavior, on the verge of obsessive-compulsive disorder, that makes him akin to Michael Jordan, accustomed to repeating, almost sickeningly, the same pattern. 

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A coffee before getting dressed, a piece of chewing gum, his North Carolina shorts under his pants, the millimetric alignment of the laces of his sneakers, always new every night, the protections on his elbow and left calf... And the scream of war, after leaving the last to the track: "What time is it? Game time!" With the victory resolved, he used to enjoy the last quarter from the bench, with ice on his knees.

"His head was like an infinite library of images, moments and plays. He remembered every action and how he had responded to it. He knew how to prepare for what awaited him," proclaimed Tim Grover, his physical trainer, as if he were talking about the Manacor tennis player . And what awaited Jordan in the season of his goodbye was a superlative challenge. Injuries to Scottie Pippen and Steve Kerr forced him to play an average of 39 minutes in 103 games. In February 1998 he had turned 35 years old.

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That last shot at the Delta Center, for the sixth ring, cannot be understood without the thousands of hours with Grover, who showed up at his mansion in Highland Park, between five and seven in the morning. "Sometimes, when he arrived, he had already started and I looked at the clock, as if I had made a mistake at the time," said the physio. Jordan had given her a one-month trial and their relationship lasted 15 years. "When he left, he told me: 'If I see you in my neighborhood again, I'll shoot you.'"

ALI: "I HATE IT, BUT I CAN STAND IT"

Behind the wheel of a beat-up car, Gene Kilroy and Bundini Brown cruised through the hills of Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, pumping up a champion in low hours. It was the summer of 1978 and Muhammad Ali was sweating to get rid of those pockets of fat that garnered so much attention back in February during his fight against Leon Spinks. "My chest burns, my throat is dry, I feel like I'm going to pass out. My body tells me to stop, but I force myself to keep running. Everything hurts. 

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I hate it, but I endure it because I know I have to suffer. I just a few more weeks of pain to live well for the rest of my life," admitted The Greatest. He wanted to finish off this unknown who, at odds 15-1, had snatched his Council and World Association belts from him. Ali's lousy preparation in Miami Beach had triggered one of the most notorious defeats in boxing history. Surrounded by an entourage of sycophants, the colossus who sent Sonny Liston, George Foreman or Joe Frazier to the canvas could not even complete a dozen sessions against sparring partners.

So Kilroy and Brown, under the supervision of Angelo Dundee, decided to return to the Deer Lake training center. And the discipline of yesteryear paid off for Ali, who on September 15, at 36 years and nine months, would take his revenge against Spinks in New Orleans. His last victory as a professional. Because as he himself learned later, he should never have entered the ring in 1980 against Larry Holmes, nor a year later against Trevor Berbick.

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MERCKX: "I WANTED TO CONTINUE, EXCESSIVELY"

On July 19, 1977, many fans were still wondering why not a single French rider was among those positive for doping on the Tour. Meanwhile, Jacques Goddet, race director, reiterated his criticism of the peloton, which had given him two very tedious weeks. After 16 stages, only 49 seconds separated the top four overall. Meanwhile, Eddy Merckx awaited his turn at 3:02.

It was the seventh Tour for El Caníbal, whom Raphaël Geminiani had convinced to lead the Fiat team. His last chance to break Jacques Anquetil's record, after the damn crash two years earlier in Valloire. A double jaw fracture, an arrival in Paris living on rice porridge. "I insisted on continuing, excessively, but there were consequences for my body during the final stretch of my career," he would confess later.

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However, under the heat of hell in Chamonix, Merckx continues to trust his strength against Bernard Thévenet , defending champion. He has just turned 32 and doesn't even seem to care about his food poisoning, or those liters of water he ingested the day before to urinate in doping control. But the more than six hours on the way to Alpe d'Huez will be the greatest ordeal of his life.

"Even today I wonder how I managed to reach the top of Glandon. I had to change the wheels twice, just to see if I could improve something, but on the descent I threw up. I never suffered so much," he recounted years later. When he crosses the finish line, at 13:51 from Hennie Kuiper , the Dutchman has already received the trophy from him as the winner of the stage.

PHELPS' AGONY

Bob Bowman, the coach with whom he had a love-hate relationship since he was 11 years old, described him as a "lonely guy", with an amazing ability to concentrate during training sessions and an "extraordinarily kind" heart with the children who were around him. approached after each session. After all, Michael Phelps saw in the kids the affection that he always lacked in his childhood, marked by a hyperactivity disorder.

His obsessive preparation under Bowman, with seven hours of daily work, added to unparalleled genetics, propelled Phelps to the top of Olympism. 28 medals, 23 of them gold, in four Games. No domain as superb as that shown in the 200-meter styles, the test that encompasses speed, resistance and technique, with four golds between 2004 and 2016.

However, the Spartan discipline was shattered after his second goodbye, in Rio de Janeiro, at just 31 years old. "When I was swimming, the pool was my outlet. I channeled all the pent-up anger and used it as motivation. But now that outlet is gone." There Phelps saw himself before the dark side of sport, with anxiety crises and suicide attempts. A scourge he still grapples with today.

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