What’s Next, Rafa?

Farewells in tennis, it seems, never work out the way we’d like them to. Juan Martín del Potro had to play his last professional match visibly hampered by injury; Federico Delbonis drop-shotted him right into retirement. Roger Federer played his swan song with an ailment severe enough that he couldn’t even play singles. Serena Williams had a glorious if brief run at the U.S. Open, but the lead-up to her retirement felt abrupt after a long layoff, like we barely had time to draw breath before saying goodbye to her.

Now Rafael Nadal is in his last act. He intends to return after this ongoing injury layoff, and we don’t know how his farewell tour will go — hell, maybe he wins his 15th Roland-Garros in 2024 — but today he announced that he will be missing the Parisian clay, a surface he has mastered beyond belief, for the first time since 2004. He has not played since January, and he has not looked remotely like himself since last July. With Nadal, a player who has been harassed by injuries throughout his career, you hoped that he’d be able to go out on his own terms, that when the brilliant tennis shots faded, the final impression would be his indomitable fighting spirit. Roland-Garros was always a bright spot in the calendar for him, an event he could always ensure he was in shape for, to the point that conspiracy theorists called the reality of his injuries into question. This year, his aging body broke down badly enough that he couldn’t fix it.

I try not to talk about my preferences between players very much. I spent the first couple years of my tennis obsession as a hardcore Fedfan, and though I don’t regret that period, I eventually realized my love for Roger was blinding me to other players and tilting my perception of the game more than I was comfortable with. I’ll happily admit to a soft spot for Sara Sorribes Tormo, and I’ll get swept up in the Carlos Alcaraz hype alongside everyone else, but admitting that I root for certain players has always felt too vulnerable to me, at least in a public forum. I like the thought of being objective, and besides, certain fans constantly lurk on Twitter to screenshot anything they see as evidence of bias.

But I’ll admit that Nadal has made me feel some things I haven’t felt since I adoringly watched Federer in my entry-level days as a tennis fan. I don’t watch Nadal’s matches without fail, and I don’t always root for him to win. The time he takes between points annoys me sometimes, as does his almost religious humility, which he often prioritizes over the truth. (Example: Nadal saying he’ll need to play his best before hitting a bunch of super-basic crosscourt forehands en route to demolishing Richard Gasquet for the 18th straight time.) As a competitor, though, he’s kind of irresistible. I wrote a profile of Nadal in early 2022 that I thought was the most accurately I had depicted a player before, and that’s down to Nadal’s best qualities being so damn great. When Nadal was on the doorstep of winning the 2022 Australian Open after I’d written 4000 words on his fraught history at the tournament, I cried a little in sheer stress during the final game against Daniil Medvedev.

The first time I got the Nadal Experience was watching him play Gilles Müller at Wimbledon in 2017, which I watched on a hotel room TV screen late at night in New Zealand. Müller went up two sets, and even after Nadal managed to even the match, clearly had the edge in the fifth set. Nadal would scrap his way to a gritty hold; Müller would bang down a quartet of big serves to immediately hand off the pressure baton. It was perfectly obvious to me that Müller was going to win. Even when Nadal saved two match points at 4-5, Müller kept firing aces, looking totally unflappable.

But then Nadal saved another match point, and another and another, eventually earning a few break points at 9-all in the fifth set. He didn’t take any of them, and Müller finally hit pay dirt with a break of serve at 14-13 to seal the win. Why was watching this match the Nadal Experience, you ask? Well, Nadal was clearly the worse player on the day. He could have lost in straight sets, and certainly should have lost earlier in the fifth set than he did. Yet he chose to ignore the fact that he just didn’t have it that day, instead dedicating all his energy to finding a better level whenever possible, and in doing so came within millimeters of pulling victory from the digestive tract of defeat. When Müller finally converted match point, I realized I was surprised — I’d gone from being positive of Müller’s win to expecting Nadal to find a way through. I hadn’t thought my ironclad certainty of Müller’s win could be shaken. Before the match, I saw Nadal only as Federer’s rival. After, I understood why he had a huge fanbase of his own.

I’ve watched Nadal inject quality into matches countless times now, either live or in old highlights. He’s participated in more epics than, I think, any other player in history, and we have his tactical and mental tenacity to thank for that. Here are 12, and these are just off the top of my head:

  • The 2005 Rome final (trailed by a double break in the fifth set; lasted over five brutal hours on clay as an 18-year-old)
  • The 2006 Rome final (saved two match points)
  • The 2007 Wimbledon final (pushed the match to a fifth set from two sets to one down)
  • The 2008 Wimbledon final (closed the match in five after failing to win the third and fourth sets despite golden opportunities)
  • The 2009 Australian Open semifinal (won in five after another fourth-set tiebreak loss. Also, for my money, the best match ever played)
  • The final two days later (won in five on exhausted legs)
  • The 2012 Australian Open final (pushed the match to a fifth after getting steamrolled for the best part of the first four sets)
  • The 2013 Roland-Garros semifinal (won in five after ANOTHER fourth-set tiebreak loss)
  • The 2017 Australian Open semifinal (ditto)
  • The 2018 U.S. Open quarterfinal (ditto again)
  • The 2018 Wimbledon semifinal (forced a fifth after trailing by a set and two sets to one in arguably the best men’s match of the 2010s against an astonishingly good Djokovic)
  • The 2019 U.S. Open final (won in five after almost blowing a two-set lead)
  • The vast array of very good four-setters Nadal has played against Federer, Djokovic, and others.
Here is a great highlight package of the best tennis match I’ve ever seen: the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Nadal and Fernando Verdasco. For five hours and 14 minutes, two Spanish lefties blasted each other with angles, spins, and violent pace on a molasses-slow court. Pure glory ensued.

As a fan of tennis, I want to watch epic matches, and Nadal has delivered them, more brilliantly and more often than any other player I’ve watched. Most tennis players, if sufficiently overmatched, succumb to their fate. Nadal does not. Most go through spells in a match when their motivation appears to flag alongside their game. Nadal does not. And as his opponents are forced to match his intensity, Nadal produces epic match after epic match. Federer has a legacy as the pioneer of the Golden Era, Djokovic has a legacy as the master of it, but I think Nadal, more than either of the others, was the player who made it. (I firmly believe Djokovic is a better player than Nadal, but considering Rafa’s 14 Roland-Garros titles, his career might be the more difficult to replicate in the future.) Nadal’s the lynchpin, the inflection point — Federer-Nadal and Djokovic-Nadal have produced more relentlessly fantastic matches than Federer-Djokovic. The latter is a brilliant rivalry in its own right, and it’s produced plenty of fierce drama (2019 Wimbledon) and good quality (2014 Wimbledon), but there’s a certain layer of intensity that you miss when Nadal’s not on the court: a bad set here, a poor miss on a huge point there. Here’s Brian Phillips on Nadal in a 2013 Grantland article:

Win or lose, no one pushes the other top players to new heights like Nadal does, which is why he’s been involved in a disproportionately large share of great matches over the last … well, eternity. Wimbledon ’07, Wimbledon ’08, Australia ’09, Australia ’12; that’s just scratching the surface. Federer’s the greatest player ever, but I’m increasingly convinced that Nadal is the key to the greatness of this whole era.

Brian Phillips, “Black Toenails and the Atmospheric King,” Grantland (2013)

The piece is about the 2013 Australian Open final between Djokovic and Murray — a match, and indeed a tournament, that Nadal didn’t even take part in. But Phillips dedicated a big section of the article to Nadal, and how much more exciting the tour was with him on it. (The last line: “Get well, Rafa!”) Nadal promptly got well, went undefeated on hard courts until after the U.S. Open, won Madrid and Rome and then Roland-Garros for the eighth time, and grabbed the #1 ranking back from Djokovic.

Getting to watch the 59th edition of my favorite rivalry in tennis, Djokovic-Nadal, from the stands, ranks at the very top of my tennis experiences.

There’s a strange poetic brutality to the fact that as his career winds down, Nadal’s tenacity will be the only trait whose quantity resembles that of his prime version. The movement has been long diminished (though Nadal did pay the devil for enough youth required to out-defend Novak Djokovic in the Roland-Garros quarterfinals less than 12 months ago. Time moves quickly, doesn’t it?), and when Nadal can’t move properly, the rest of his game slows down with him.

*****

Watching players progress through the last chapter of their careers scares me a little bit. Not because I have to imagine a tennis tour without them; nothing lasts forever, and there are always more than enough characters to sustain my entertainment, if not constant wonder at the quality of play on display. What’s scary is seeing an athlete become a version of themselves that bears no resemblance to their peak self. When I watched Federer wind down his career at the Laver Cup, I had a hard time enjoying the spectacle, despite the scene being set to perfection — the doubles partnership with Nadal, the presence of Djokovic and Murray, Ellie Goulding calling the event “Lava Cup” on Twitter — because I couldn’t recognize the man hitting the ball. The event might have been fun, but Federer didn’t choose it; he was forced into a consolation prize because he couldn’t play singles even after almost a year and a half of inactivity. The most nostalgic part of his actual performance in his final match, the contest itself, was that he failed to convert a match point on serve.

There is a phase before the last chapter, the space Federer hung out in between 2011 and 2019, Nadal occupied from 2017 to 2022, and Djokovic is still in the thick of now, where champions are physically diminished from their prime versions but still motivated and healthy enough to play world-beating tennis. It’s delightfully fun to watch, and though you always know the all-time-greats aren’t immortal, it allows you to feel like they are for a few years. But it always comes to an end, and what follows is often brutal.

I owe a lot, maybe most of my time following tennis, to Nadal. When I joined Twitter, the first people I properly interacted with were Nadal fans — their enthusiasm was infectious. I’ve written about him a lot, from that overlong profile to thoughts on his injury return to recaps of his matches. When I want to show a friend who knows nothing about tennis a glimpse of the magic of our sport, I fire up highlights of the 2009 Australian Open final and show them the famous rally at 2-all in the fourth set. He’s anchored me through a lot of my tennis obsession, and I’m very grateful for that.

Nadal’s career has featured moments — too many to count — that felt perfect. Wins and losses. The 2008 Wimbledon final was the peak of an impeccably constructed story arc (the Federer rivalry, the losses in the 2006 and 2007 Wimbledon finals). Even though Nadal was hampered towards the end, the 2021 Roland-Garros semifinal felt kind of perfect too: a brutal loss to his biggest rival in Djokovic after years of dominating him in Paris. Endings are never perfect. They sneak up on you when you’re not at your best. They wake you up when you’re smack-dab in the middle of deep sleep like an errant fire alarm. (This happened at my apartment a few months ago, and when I opened the door to check on one of my roommates before evacuating, he sat up straight in bed and said with absolute seriousness, “dude, I don’t feel good.”) They go off-script.

And I’m really concerned that Nadal’s farewell is going to go off-script as badly as Federer’s and Delpo’s, that his lack of confidence from 2015 and injury-impaired performances from parts of 2021 that I had to watch with gritted teeth will form a kind of hellish mash-up. I’m not worried about the state of the tour — Djokovic seems to have a couple years left, Alcaraz is clearly a generational talent, Jannik Sinner is a great rival, Holger Rune is constantly getting better — and I’ve had months to get used to a Rafa-less tour. What I’m most worried about is a pale ghost of Nadal being the last Nadal we get to watch on court, something even worse than the version that surrendered a breadstick to Tommy Paul a few months ago, which is why I’ve apparently written a career eulogy for Rafa even though he’s not retiring. For that reason, underneath the sadness I felt initially, I’m relieved to hear Nadal is skipping Roland-Garros this year. Even if we have to watch the clay without its king.

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Published by Owen

Owen Lewis 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.

4 thoughts on “What’s Next, Rafa?

  1. Great piece, Owen. Funny you mention Nadal being the inflection point. For me, that point was the 2007 Wimbledon finals, when I really realised all that Nadal was about – the intensity, fight and the sheer ability to play each point as if it were his last.

    Regarding not ‘rooting’ for any single player, I suppose that comes with the turf of a journalist. But, as a serious fan, across sports, I have found it difficult to follow tournaments and entire seasons when ‘my player’ or ‘my team’ is not in the mix. Indeed, if the player or team that I am supporting is in the fray, I end up closely following the entire tournament – even after my favourite has been knocked out. Now with Nadal reaching his end, I need to have a new muse – else, I’ll need to change track and follow your lead!

    Like

    1. Thanks so much, Yashasvi. The 2007 Wimbledon final was such an awesome match; with Federer closing things out so emphatically in the last four games, it’s easy to forget that Nadal really looked to have his measure for long stretches of the match (there were LOTS of backhand passing shots). I remember Nadal writing in his autobiography that he thinks if he had been a bit mentally sharper at 2-4 or even 2-5 in the fifth set, he could have won the match. I disagreed, but thought that line was a great example of Nadal’s undying belief.

      It’s funny, especially since I could never have imagined rooting for anyone else during the thick of my Fedfan days, but kind of just following the sport has been easier than I thought. I’m so far from a perfect neutral — watching matches, I root for one player over another all the time — it just depends more on the match dynamic and rarely carries over to future matches. I do understand rooting for someone being a necessary motivation kick to watch a tournament, so I’m sorry that you’ll need to move on from Nadal! But if you give it time, another player will catch your eye, or the love for tennis will just take over.

      Thanks again for reading!

      Like

  2. Thank you, Owen. I think I will open my notes app one day to write about why my heart doesn’t feel good about the tour without Nadal, but for now I am impressed with reading this one.

    And you are right. Nadal is the bridge between Federer and Djokovic, it’s hard to imagine where these guys will be without what Nadal brought on the court. 🙏🏽

    Like

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