It’s Not a Magic Wand, Part 7

I watched a few minutes of Rafael Nadal’s practice session yesterday. His first few rallies with longtime practice partner Marc Lopez were what you would expect from a typical warmup — soft shots, not much intensity, both players half-volleying back strokes that the other hit long. Shortly after the practice started, Nadal started to crush the ball. It was hot out, so his shots trampolined off the clay. He was wildly aggressive, destroying forehand winners Lopez didn’t get within five feet of. He missed a bunch, but the sheer violence of the ballstriking was so breathtaking that the errors seemed inconsequential. Nadal was just brute-forcing his way through rallies, not constructing points a whole lot, and yet it felt impossible that anyone could go toe-to-toe with him. He looked at ease, exchanging brief thoughts with members of his team between points.

I left midway through the session to catch some of Casper Ruud’s practice. He was rallying with a lefty who hit with heavy topspin. They played ad-court rallies, with Ruud trying to hit penetrating enough backhands to withstand the forehand barrage. It was the correct way to prepare for a final with Nadal, whose modus operandi is to break down backhands with his topspin drives. Ruud wasn’t having the best time. First, he found himself pushed way behind the baseline by the heavy forehands. His depth inevitably suffered, and his practice partner even hit a couple winners past him. Ruud then tried to glue himself to the baseline to take backhands on the rise. While his timing is good, it’s not as pure as Novak Djokovic’s, so he started to shank balls. There was a play area for the fans one court over, and loud voices streamed through the air during his practice. He looked frustrated with how things were going; I was impressed he didn’t look angrier.

The practice sessions were a tidy preview of what the actual men’s singles final ended up looking like. Rafa hit his forehand to Ruud’s backhand, and Ruud cracked under the strain. There were footnotes to the match, but it was mostly about that central dynamic. Nadal imposed his favorite pattern, as he does, and Ruud could neither hold his own in the pattern nor impose a new one. He hit his forehand to Nadal’s backhand when he had opportunities, but didn’t get nearly enough mileage out of the exchanges. Nadal was shaky for the first hour of the match. Once he clicked into gear for good, down 3-1 in the second set, he won 11 games in a row.

There he is down there, lifting the Coupe de Mousquetaires for the 14th time. Look at him.

This title, Nadal’s 14th at Roland-Garros and 22nd major overall (both record-extending on the men’s side, and the former simply record-extending), was much more about the struggle that preceded the final than the coronation itself. He limped out of Rome — usually where he emphatically stamps his presence on the tour prior to Roland-Garros — figuratively and literally. He stomped through the first rounds in Paris, but against Felix Auger-Aliassime, the first opponent he couldn’t have beaten in a wheelchair, he was pushed to five sets. He had to play one of his best sets of the tournament to escape. Nadal then had to play Djokovic, which is a matchup balanced on a knife’s edge even at the best of times for Nadal. Despite not being favored, with Djokovic having dethroned him in Paris last year, and having played the five-setter in the previous round, Nadal won in four. He had some luck in the semifinal when Alexander Zverev had a nasty, match-ending fall, but the match had already taken over three slow, sweaty, hours at that point.

It’s tempting not to talk about Nadal’s spirit, because that is what everyone jumps to after he wins something. His physicality and topspin forehands are always at least as responsible for his success. His will is an undeniable key to his career, though. He pushes himself to unbelievable lengths at times — just listen to him talk about how he could barely walk after his second-round match and required numbing injections to be able to play normally. Nadal is saying this is not a sustainable solution, but even to try it this much is risking a hit to his post-tennis quality of life.

I think you have to go back to 2009 to find the clearest example of Nadal’s force of will. He played Djokovic in the Madrid semifinals that year. You may be familiar with it. (If you aren’t, I suggest sectioning off at least half an hour of your day.) Nadal had started 2009 on fire. Having won Roland-Garros and Wimbledon the previous year, he completed the surface trifecta at the Australian Open, beating Federer in the final yet again. The tournament was exhausting — five-setters in the semis and final — but Nadal didn’t stop there. He won Indian Wells, Monte-Carlo, Rome (which, back in 2009, was before Madrid). He beat Djokovic in the finals of the latter two tournaments, in matches that were attritional but not that close. Nadal had seized a death grip of an advantage in his two biggest rivalries.

In the 2009 Australian Open semifinals, Nadal won what I consider the best tennis match ever played: a five-hour, 14-minute gauntlet against Fernando Verdasco full of defense, angles, and endurance.

In Madrid, things finally started to catch up with him. He was tired. His parents were getting a divorce, which taxed him mentally. He lost the first set of the semifinal against Djokovic. Early in the second set, he took a medical timeout.

This match, and this specific moment, reduced Nadal from his tennis to a single decision. If he retired, he could rest up for Roland-Garros, a tournament where no one had ever beaten him, where he had beaten Djokovic and Federer in straight sets just the previous year. Given that he was defending champion at Wimbledon and had surpassed Federer in the rankings, surely that title was on the table as well. Nadal had never been past the semifinals of the U.S. Open, but if he won the preceding three majors in a row, who would bet against him? It was all out there for Nadal, more titles and glory and future bullet points in a GOAT argument. He just needed to retire from the Madrid semifinal against Djokovic to save his body.

He didn’t. He played on. And he won, in spectacular fashion. The match went four hours. Nadal saved three match points.

But it broke him to do it. Fewer than 24 hours later, Nadal lost the Madrid final to Federer. He lost at Roland-Garros for the first time in his career. He didn’t even play Wimbledon. He came back at the end of the year, but his momentum was shot and he didn’t play as well. He wouldn’t win another major until Roland-Garros the following year. Federer won Roland-Garros in 2009 for the first and only time, which until Nadal surpassed him over a decade later, was a huge factor in the GOAT debate for a long time.

I go into all this history because Nadal potentially chipping away at the quality of his post-tennis life reminds me of the decision he made that fateful day in Madrid. It was a dumb decision. He may have cost himself multiple big titles to finish a match against an opponent who, at the time, he had a 13-4 head-to-head against. Getting numbing injections in his foot may be similarly damaging — it’ll help him in the very short term, but when the matches are over and the clay has dried, Nadal could pay dearly. He is damaging himself in the long term to do better at tennis in the near future. That is how much he cares. Is this advisable? No. Is it healthy? No way. But it shows how much he cares.

Nadal isn’t concerned with the GOAT debate. He’s stressed that he doesn’t prioritize winning the major titles race for years, which he’s stuck to even after taking the lead this year. So why is he doing this?

He loves tennis. More specifically, he loves competing. “Maybe,” he said this week, “I like fighting more than winning.” The final today was an easy way to see the contrast between Nadal’s love for the fight and other players’. Ruud, after losing the first two sets, tapped out. To be clear, I don’t blame him. He was up against impossible odds (literally, if you consider the opponent and the setting). But had the roles been reversed, Nadal would have gone out in a storm of vamoses and tactical shifts. He’d prefer to win than lose, obviously, but he clearly relishes when an opponent forces him to adapt.

Nadal’s career, built on adapting time and again, is among the greatest in sport. Afflicted with injuries many times over, he could have even more accolades in another universe. It’s shocking to say about someone who is already a GOAT candidate, but it’s true — he’s outright skipped 11 majors in his career, some of them during his prime years. He couldn’t play the U.S. Open in 2012 or the Australian Open in 2013. Set to win the Australian Open in 2014, he hurt his back in the warmup before the final. He had to pull out of Roland-Garros in 2016. The what-ifs are saddening if you’re a Nadal fan, and they’re scary if you’re not. He has 22 majors, now two ahead of Djokovic and Federer, and it’s easy to imagine him with 25.

I was lucky enough to watch Nadal in person a few times this tournament. Quite simply, he has attributes that one else on the ATP has, besides Djokovic. He raises his game to meet the demands of a match or an opponent as if he has a switch in his brain. He swings for his forehand like he’s trying to scythe down a fifteen-foot-tall giant. His tenacity is matched only by his skill at the game of tennis. (Victory, as they say, belongs to the most tenacious.)

After the final, Nadal said that he couldn’t and didn’t want to continue playing in his current state. He talked about possible future ways to temper his foot pain. He discussed different treatments, then a possible surgery if the treatments didn’t work. He is already thinking about the existing and potential hurdles of the future and how he can get around them if he can’t outright jump over them. The end of his career is coming, but like with his few losses on the court, you can be sure it will only arrive after he has completely exhausted every other option available to him.

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.

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