The Fighter

The Australian Open has not been kind to Rafael Nadal. He’s played brilliantly there plenty of times, but has just one title to show for his exertions — injury (2010, 2011, 2013, 2018), an injury-and-Stan-Wawrinka tag team (2014), Novak Djokovic (2012, 2019), and Roger Federer (2017) have proven difficult obstacles. 2019, in retrospect, was Nadal’s last big chance to score a second title. He chewed up his first five opponents. Against Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semifinals, Nadal lost a total of six games, was never broken, and only had to face a break point one time. Tsitsipas looked so dazed after the match that by the fourth question in his press conference, a journalist remarked to him that he did, in fact, look dazed. His answers rang with demoralization.

"Honestly, I have no idea what I can take from that match...I only got six games from that match."
"In a way, it wasn't tennis so much like the other matches I've played. It felt like a different dimension of tennis completely. He [Nadal] gives you no rhythm." 

Nadal had kept his legs fresh, he had handed a top-15 player something resembling an existential crisis while barely lifting a finger…things looked promising for the final, even if he hadn’t taken a set off Novak Djokovic on hard courts since 2013. Djokovic had played an equally surgical semifinal — Lucas Pouille was as helpless as a comatose patient. Djokovic hit five unforced errors in three sets. Still, Nadal’s blistering form made most project a close match in the final.

The match was not close. Djokovic mauled Nadal the way Nadal had mauled Tsitsipas two nights earlier. The score was 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, a row of numbers that was actually somewhat merciful to the Spaniard, hiding the seven times Djokovic held serve without dropping a point, the lone unconverted break point Nadal was able to produce, and the fact that Nadal hit just two winners during his return games in the entire match. Nadal lacked the trial by suffering that can often be ideal before a major final, true, but he also lacked ways to beat Djokovic on a hard court. His huge forehand was starved of time again and again, being reduced to practically a rally shot much of the time. He couldn’t read Djokovic’s serve. It was as if the surgeon had cut out his patient’s heart with a few precise, concise cuts. Nadal fought expectedly, but there was never any traction for him to work with — like a spiritual kind of cow on ice.

Nadal hasn’t had to play Djokovic at the Australian Open since 2019, but his results have been no better, falling in the quarterfinals in each of the last two years. At the 2021 tournament, Nadal got Tsitsipas in the last eight — and after an opening two sets which looked like a continuation of the 2019 beatdown, Nadal shockingly lost the next three in succession.

*****

Nadal has bled, sweated (has he ever), and cried on Rod Laver Arena. He’s poured his soul into the event for very little reward. Yet it might be the tournament that defines him, showcasing all his qualities as a tennis player, more than any other.

Okay, let’s dissect the obvious counter-answer: Roland-Garros. While Paris encapsulates much of Nadal’s legacy, while he’s done things there that had never been done before and will never be done again, it is rarely the site of one crucial element of Nadal’s being: the fight. For me, the most special thing about watching the Spaniard play is his ability to take matches to a higher plane. His opponent sets a crazy-high standard, Nadal matches it by throwing every fiber of his being into the challenge, trying to run everything down and blasting his forehand over the net at wicked angles, and the contest becomes mindblowingly incredible as a result. In Paris, it’s always Nadal setting the impossibly lofty level of play, and his opponents can never equal it. (Hence, a career total of 105 wins, three losses, and thirteen titles.)

Don’t get me wrong, watching Nadal at Roland-Garros is amazing. But there’s a sense of sameness, a drama crater. In 2013, with Nadal heading into the clay season with hopes of winning an all-time record eighth Roland-Garros title, Peter Bodo wrote a piece called “Rafatigue.” (It’s a harsh take, but even if you’re a fan of Nadal’s, you’d have to lie to yourself on some level to convince yourself he had a material chance of losing at Roland-Garros most years.) Still, can you imagine a piece like this being written in many other scenarios? It seems absurd, right? Historic dominance being boring? Yet Nadal’s fighting spirit, one of the most transcendent, fascinating things about him, gets almost entirely canceled out by the clay which he has so mastered. The Federer-Nadal rivalry at Roland-Garros might have once gripped the world — they played there six times total, including four straight years from 2005 to 2008 — but Federer is not only winless against Nadal on the Parisian terre battue, he’s never even forced a fifth set. Across the 2008 and 2019 matches, Federer won 13 games in total. In 2009, Nadal lost early at Roland-Garros for once, saving Federer from another likely final defeat. Even then, the pressure of taking his chance the one time Nadal was absent still almost caused Federer to tumble out of the tournament. (To his credit, he survived two five-setters and won the title.) It’s the Swiss’s lone title at Roland-Garros to date. In 2020, Bodo said on the Tennis and Bagels Podcast that Federer’s Coupe de Mousquetaires is asterisked due to Nadal’s absence. Again, harsh, but is he wrong; would Federer have won if Nadal was there in the final? “No” is probably a better answer than “I doubt it.”

The story is slightly different with Novak Djokovic, who recently beat a pretty good version of Nadal at Roland-Garros for the first time ever. To get there, though, Djokovic had to lose to Nadal at the tournament seven times, three times in finals. His 2015 quarterfinal win over the Spaniard is barely ever brought up since Nadal was so clearly diminished from his usual form. Djokovic’s game is practically tailor-made to blunt Nadal’s, yet it took 15 years after they first played at Roland-Garros for the Serb to take down his rival in strong form on the Parisian dirt. This, I think, was partly why the semifinal last year got such an enormous buzz — better matches were played in 2021, but the energy of the occasion (this kind of match is happening here? Against Nadal? This, this is special) was unmatched.

Again, Nadal in Paris is spectacular. When trying to describe, evaluate, or predict, though, you run out of superlatives almost immediately. It’s unbelievable, godlike, inimitable. Maybe this year his reign is looking a bit shaky, but ha, ha, who are we kidding, I’d be a fool to bet against him! Nadal to win the title for a 9463rd straight year. And…that’s pretty much it. He’s dominant, but there’s nothing complicated about his dominance. We know what’s coming, as does Nadal (even if he won’t admit it, ever), as do his poor opponents. He still fights, as always, but he doesn’t need to fight, which kind of takes the competitive magnetism out of his celebrations and efforts. He’s like an all-star team that runs up the score on a challenger team full of mortals, making you want to invoke the mercy rule to make sure the loser doesn’t quit the game forever out of sheer hopelessness. If Nadal falls behind at Roland-Garros, wondering if something is wrong with him feels as natural as appreciating the prospect of a close match. When Nadal hit a half-volleyed, bending forehand pass to break Federer for a second time in the third set of the 2019 semifinals, up two sets already, I did not think wow, Rafa is amazing. I just felt bad for Federer.

I think it’s for this reason that so often in GOAT debates, we hear people try to diminish Nadal’s case with “take away clay and…” It doesn’t take much to see how absurd this idea is. Taking away thirteen Roland-Garros titles and ten-plus titles at several other tournaments, adding up to over a decade and a half of surface dominance? Try pushing Mount Everest into the nearest ocean. Yet Nadal’s supremacy on clay, and his relative nonchalance surrounding it, have been so steady that it’s all long become one-color. The totality of his mastery has a tendency to make all his clay accomplishments seem like part of the same glorious chapter, rather than the 1,000-page novel that it actually is. If it can all be packed into the same box, it seems easier to remove, or to hide behind a curtain for a few minutes. In reality, the depth and weight of Nadal’s accomplishments on clay are nearly incomprehensible, but the consistently dominant way Nadal earned them can make it difficult to appreciate. It’s just very hard to relate to in any way. Fans love vulnerability, suspense, nuance, and the Spaniard is usually a living vacuum of these qualities at Roland-Garros.

But Nadal in Melbourne? That is nuance. He still picks apart plenty of opponents at the Australian Open, but he’s also played at least a half-dozen all-time-epic matches. He’s very mortal there, but excitingly so. His lone title there came in 2009, only after consecutive five-setters. The first, a semifinal with Fernando Verdasco, was so exhausting and dazzling and thrilling and stressful that it drove Nadal to tears before he had even converted match point. (I think this is the best tennis match ever, but that, sadly, is a discussion for another day.)

This rally is surreal from start to finish, but it really explodes when Federer hits one of the best shots of the tournament: an on-the-run squash shot from deep in his forehand corner. It sends Nadal racing across the court, tailing away from him (you can hear the commentator gasp after this becomes clear. I’ve watched this point with the ESPN commentators as well, and they react the same way), and probably would have ended the point against many. Somehow, Nadal gets to the ball and slices it back deep, and the next shot Federer has to hit after his utterly brilliant squash shot is a half-volley from his weaker wing.
"I wasn't crying because I sensed defeat, or even victory, but as a response to the sheer excruciating tension of it all." - Rafael Nadal on the 2009 Australian Open semifinal with Verdasco in his autobiography Rafa 

Nadal’s nearest miss in Melbourne, too, came after a physical gauntlet. After a four-hour, 23 minute quarterfinal with Berdych and a three-hour, 42 minute semifinal with Federer, Nadal had to play Djokovic in the final. At this point in time, Djokovic had beaten the Spaniard six times in a row, a streak including two straight-set wins on clay. After splitting the first two sets with Nadal in the title match, Djokovic tore him apart in the third set. He lost only two points on serve. He broke Nadal at love to seal the set. He deprived Nadal of time on his groundstrokes so reliably, so effectively, that Nadal hit a grand total of one forehand winner in the set (a pretty risky inside-out from the baseline). One. Some matches look over before they’re over. This one looked more than over. Yet Nadal refused to cave. He won the first point of the fourth set off a Djokovic unforced error — not a big deal, or a consequential point — but immediately screamed “¡Vamos!” to remind his opponent and the crowd (and maybe even himself) of his presence. He lost the second point to some exceptional Djokovic defense despite bombing shot after shot into the Serb’s forehand, who celebrated winning the 23-shot rally with a raised fist. Despite losing the epic point, Nadal’s intensity to open the set had already made the match start to seem close, even if it still wasn’t. Nadal ended up winning the fourth set 7-6 (5) despite trailing 3-4, love-40 and three times being two points away from losing the match in the tiebreak.

Nadal lost the fifth set, famously blowing an easy backhand at 4-2, 30-15 up, but the way he had fought completely transformed the match from a dominant Djokovic display into a devastating war of attrition. Kevin Mitchell of the Guardian wrote “Djokovic could not have done this without his dancing partner. Nadal confirmed Djokovic’s greatness,” in his match report. Brian Phillips wrote a brilliant piece for Grantland in which he summed up the magic of Nadal’s tenacity:

"...he carries matches to a higher plane than they have any business reaching. Djokovic could and should have won the Australian final in four sets, but Nadal refused to surrender, played lethal tennis, and took Djokovic to a place he’d never been. Instead of notching a routine victory, Djokovic had to tap into the same well of inspiration that Nadal was already drawing from." 

Nadal might not win all these battles — he’s lost his fair share of them — but he does bring that divine well of inspiration into play time and again. At the 2020 Australian Open, he went down two sets to Dominic Thiem. Though Nadal wasn’t as overmatched as he’d been in the 2012 final, he was failing to win enough big points to keep the match close. But in the third, Nadal dug in and forced a netted backhand from Thiem to win the set. For just an instant, Nadal’s elated “¡Sí!” was audible, before getting lost in a sea of screaming fans, the player processing the tennis briefly before the audience. Nadal bent into a crouch, bouncing lightly, roaring unrestrainedly, then straightened up and fiercely pumped his left fist a few times. I got chills watching this live on TV, even though I knew he would probably still lose the match (and he did).

Nadal celebrates winning the third set against Dominic Thiem in the 2020 quarterfinals. He would go on to lose the fourth set 6-7 (6), and the match.

“It turns out that your relentlessness isn’t an unstoppable force,” Phillips wrote of Nadal after the 2012 final. “But — precisely because you have it — you keep going as if it is.” Ten years later, Nadal still has it and is still going, his increasingly poor chances to win the Australian Open (Djokovic is probably going to end up playing, younger challengers including Medvedev have emerged and Nadal is lacking recent match practice after a months-long layoff from his old foot injury, plus a short bout with COVID-19) notwithstanding. He’s suffered a lot of heartbreak along the way. In 2014, it seemed like the skies had finally cleared. Nadal scrapped through a couple tough matches, then waxed Federer in the semifinals. Wawrinka, not Djokovic, was waiting in the final. Nadal had never lost to the Swiss — indeed, he’d won all 26 of the sets they had played. The result of the final looked a foregone conclusion, as if the tennis gods were handing Nadal a little bit of draw luck after his devilishly difficult set of opponents in 2012. But Nadal injured his back in the warmup, and Wawrinka made matters worse by playing razor-sharp tennis from the outset. By the middle of second set, Nadal could barely serve and was crying into his towel between points. His runner-up speech was difficult to watch.

*****

"No one in sports is more imperially second than Nadal right now.
But is that any consolation? How does it feel to die at the end of the book, this many times in a row?" - Brian Phillips on Nadal after the 2012 Australian Open final

Nadal’s never really told us the answer to this question, at least not beyond the “of course, I am disappointed, no?” that has become as reliable as his lengthy pre-serve routine. Maybe he’ll give us a better response after he retires. Maybe we’ll never know. My guess, though? It hurts like hell. To try hard enough to completely transform a match, to punch the opponent hard enough to knock them out and have them come back at you anyway to knock you out more decisively, to be told your best — your most vicious forehands and elated yells, your literal buckets of sweat — isn’t good enough, must be heartbreaking. It seems that Nadal loves to fight, loves it so much that he’s okay with the inevitable harrowing losses. In 2015, he said his favorite Australian Open memory was the loss in 2012 — though things didn’t fall his way, he remarked that the match convinced him that he could hang with Djokovic after constantly falling short in 2011. His rationale makes some sense until you think of the way Nadal gritted his teeth like a wild animal who had just lost a meal it desperately needed to survive on his way to the net after losing the 2012 final. Nadal had just finished a five-hour, 53-minute final, much of which was spent sprinting into the corners to keep points alive so that he could run a little more, and he didn’t look exhausted or heartbroken, he looked pissed. The video only shows Nadal gritting his teeth for a second, but the emotion is searing, even through a screen, even ten years later. In that moment, Nadal looked, unbelievably, like he wanted to keep playing more than he wanted a different result.

How do you make sense of this? A nightmarish loss so jarring that he seemed to feel pure anger before heartbreak or exhaustion is Nadal’s favorite memory from the Australian Open? At a tournament that he won in absolutely legendary, cathartic fashion three years earlier? Explanations fail, besides perhaps the hypothesis that for Nadal, the purpose is in the eternal struggle, not the trophy ceremony. He’d obviously rather win than lose, but his most compelling moments are when he gets pinned against the wall and either tries to shoulder his way free or break through the wall into previously unseen lands. Melbourne is a canvas that displays this color of Nadal more vividly than Paris ever could.

*****

The chase has defined not just many of Nadal’s greatest matches, but his career as well. It’s fitting that he’s never held the ATP major record unequaled (neither has Djokovic, but he probably will eventually). Nadal has been second for so long, dating all the way back to 2005 — first chasing Federer, then Djokovic from 2011 on — that it seems like the fabric of the tennis world might rupture if he became first. Who would he chase? It wouldn’t be weird due to any deficiencies he has as a player, but because fighting from a deficit has been his trademark for so many years.

It’s not that Nadal doesn’t have a GOAT-level resume, because he does, but his accomplishments seem more in line with the Greatest Opponent Of All Time (a title suggested by @PusherT7 on Twitter) than the Greatest Player. Think of this: Djokovic is a — the — bad matchup for Nadal. He has the all-time-great return game to regularly punish Nadal’s serve. He has the peerless backhand to go toe-to-toe with Nadal’s forehand, suffocating it the time it needs to be menacing. His own forehand can bully Nadal’s backhand, and he’s more patient in sticking to this pattern than others with better forehands. He’s the only one out there who’s as good at defending as Nadal. It’s just very tough for the Spaniard to play his game the way he wants to, to get a tactical foothold besides “hit to the open court.” Toni Nadal told his nephew that they had a problem after watching an 18-year-old Djokovic practice exactly one time. Yet despite all this, Nadal won 14 of his first 18 matches against Djokovic (the Serb went to a new gear in 2011, but already had enough going for him to beat Nadal in their second meeting way back in 2007, so I don’t think there’s much of a gluten asterisk here). Even now, the record stands at 30-28 in favor of Djokovic — despite Nadal having all kinds of matchup issues to deal with, he still clambered his way to a nearly even head-to-head, having led until early 2016. No one else has beaten Nadal even as many as 20 times; Federer is second on that list at 16.

Nadal might be known as a big match player now, but he used to be a big match winner. After the 2014 Australian Open, he had a combined 18-5 record against Djokovic and Federer in majors. His overall record against them was 45-27 (if any of you “take away clay” folks are still here, 41 of those 72 matches — 56.9% — were on grass or hard courts). These are monstrous numbers. His resume has grown in many ways since, but it’s also lost some of the records he had in his prime, those having been steadily taken away by Djokovic in the last few years. Nadal lost the 2017 and 2019 Australian Open finals, the 2018 and 2019 Wimbledon semifinals, and the 2021 Roland-Garros semifinal. That’s as many losses in majors to his two main rivals in four and a half years as he weathered in a time period twice as big from 2005 to 2014. His big-match record doesn’t have the shine it used to, but when an earth-shattering match takes place at the top of the men’s game, more often than not, he’s still part of it. His unmatched desire to win has outlived his unmatched actual winningness.

Nadal has also always seemed more driven to win individual matches than to chase down records. When Djokovic screams in triumph mid-match, you feel it’s because he’s drawn closer to a goal he has set — he wants to win a tournament or break a record, and he can see himself moving closer to his objective. Nadal’s screams are pure competitive ecstasy. He talks about contending for tournaments rather than winning them, about fighting rather than conquering. Nadal has racked up more weeks at #2 in the world than any other player in tennis history. He’s never been able to really dominate a season. He won three majors in 2010, the one year he kind of had to himself, but he hasn’t had a year nearly as violently impressive as Federer’s 2006 (or 2004) or Djokovic’s 2015 (or 2011). On hard courts and grass, which comprise three of the four majors, he’s far more vulnerable than he is on clay — in 2011, Djokovic beat him in the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals. He’s also been cursed with injuries dating all the way back to the start of his career, and is usually a rattling bag of bones by the end of the season. This isn’t a knock on Nadal. Dominating a season is very hard, and his body makes it no easier for him. But regarding the whole calendar, not just his beastly rule over the red clay, Nadal’s abilities are more in line with a gladiator than an emperor.

*****

I’ve watched a lot of Rafael Nadal matches. Having waded into the waters of the unhealthily obsessed tennis fan only as recently as 2018 or 2019, I wasn’t around to watch young Nadal live. I discovered Nadal’s propensity to play epic matches through highlights and old matches on the modern joy that is YouTube. I’ve come to understand what a physical beast he used to be. Watching him in his young days, on legs that could run so fast for so long they more than made up for the fact that for years, he didn’t have much of a serve or a backhand, contrasts sharply with how he plays today. Some of his most salient talents have been inverted, his serve and backhand improving as his physicality has declined. Watching young Nadal on the highlight reel as older Nadal plays in the present has created a bit of a misguided expectation for me that he will do 2009 things in 2021 or 2022. Obviously my 2022 self watching a clip of him from a decade ago doesn’t change the fact that his body is totally different now than it was then, but I can’t quite convince my brain of that. When he neglects to chase a ball now or bails out of a long rally, a small sense of surprise persists, like trying to get used to a friend’s new qualities following a life-changing experience they had. They’re still the same person. Aren’t they?

But I think I finally understand how best to appreciate Nadal in the twilight of his career. Sure, the stamina in his legs has waned, fading into the history of the sport along with the ghosts of his three-quarter pants. His desire to compete, though, is still here. He took part in several of the best men’s matches 2021 had to offer. That indescribable quality he has which allows him to elevate his level to match that of a peaking opponent, yet oddly seems to sometimes help his rivals play exceptionally well, is far from burning out. He still plays matches in which the tennis pulses with such combative rage that the participants begin to feel irrelevant, giving way to the athletic gauntlet on court. He still relishes the wins and tries to hold off the losses as if there’s a cliff on the other side of finishing second.

So, ahead of this year’s Australian Open, I will hope that Nadal helps produce yet another one of these duels, drawing the focus onto spirit and strength rather than his diminished endurance. As he leaves more rubber from his shoes and tendons from his heart on the bluer-than-blue court, I will forget that my eyes are itchy from sleep deprivation and instead shake my head in awe. I think that in the end, it won’t matter and has never really mattered whether Nadal kills or is killed as long as he gets to battle worthy adversaries. And I think, even if it’s only in the very corner of the competitive engine that is his brain, Rafa will know that too.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

14 thoughts on “The Fighter

  1. As a huge Rafa fan, I thoroughly enjoyed this amazing piece and it perfectly encapsulates the essence of Rafa. Following him through his high/lows gave new dimension to professional tennis never witnessed before, and I can only wish that he sticks around for several more years to come. Vamos!

    Like

    1. Very glad you liked it, HY! Here’s hoping he has plenty of epic matches left in him. I can’t wait to watch him play at the Australian Open.

      Like

  2. Wonderful article. You captured most, if not all of the reasons why people like me became his fans. Great job! Ironically, his best slam win IMO is the 2009 Aus Open, partly because its his only win in Melbourne, but also because of the quality of tennis he produced in the semi-finals and the finals.

    Like

    1. Glad you liked it, Sudhir! I would agree on the 2009 AO. He had to overcome two fantastic opponents in the last two rounds and each match was a total marathon. That win seems more and more important with every passing AO, since he’s yet to win a second.

      Like

  3. Great article, perfectly encapsulates what Rafael Nadal is all about. As a Nadal fan, I want to thank you for writing this. It has always bothered me that despite such a sparkling career, people will always consider Rafa as the second best (or even the third best). Maybe that will change, maybe it won’t. But Rafa will always be involved in epic matches, he will always compete, and that is something that will never change.

    Like

    1. Thanks for reading, manasikasande! I do think that more people will appreciate his propensity for playing epics after he retires.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: