Saying Farewell to Rafael Nadal

“Playing sports is a good thing for ordinary people; sports played at the professional level is not good for your health,” Rafael Nadal observes in the first pages of his autobiography, “Rafa,” which was written with the British journalist John Carlin. “It pushes your body to limits that human beings are not naturally equipped to handle.” The book was published in 2011, and, by then, Nadal, with the unflagging physicality of his tennis, had already been testing those limits for some time. He had tendinitis in both knees, plus Mueller-Weiss syndrome, a degenerative and chronically painful disease that cuts off blood flow to the navicular bone, and which caused him to require injections before matches to numb his left foot. These are conditions commonly associated with aging. Nadal, when he wrote “Rafa,” had yet to turn twenty-five.

Fresh injuries were continually added to what would eventually be a long list; in his roughly two-decade-long career, Nadal has been sidelined for sixteen majors. But the list of victories would grow along with it: ninety-two singles titles, including twenty-two major titles and, among those, an astounding fourteen French Open wins. Nadal, who will turn thirty-eight next month, is in Paris once more to compete in what is likely to be his last French Open, and perhaps his last tour tournament as a singles player. For his ardent fans, it’s the stop that’s most freighted with remembrance on what has been, in fits and starts this spring, something of a farewell tour.

It was at the French Open, in 2005—his début at Roland Garros—that he came to the world’s attention, winning the championship as a nineteen-year-old in a sleeveless shirt that called attention to his herculean biceps. He’s always felt at home playing on the red clay of the tournament’s main show court, Philippe-Chatrier, with its pulverized-brick top layer creating high bounces, and with plenty of room behind the baselines for him to set up deep on service returns, and thus have time to take full cuts at the incoming ball. In Paris, where the withering long-rally grind that is clay-court tennis is extended in the men’s game to best-of-five sets, Nadal was able to fully express his in-match ethical philosophy: Juega cada punto como si fuera el último. His insistence on playing every point as if it were the last, using his speed to track down ball after ball and his strength to pummel each one, cannot be separated from his many injuries, and the suffering he has endured to play. The suffering, in turn, cannot be separated from the ardor of his fans.

But Nadal’s greatness was not simply a result of his relentless athleticism and near-unwavering competitive will. It was built on a foundation at once technical and tactical. I saw this clearly on an unseasonably cool afternoon in Paris twelve years ago, from what is called a Category Three seat inside Chatrier—two rows from the very top of the stadium. From that aerial vantage, tennis is all geometry, and Nadal, playing a round-of-sixteen match against the Argentinean Juan Mónaco, a good clay-court specialist, won point after point with a pattern of play that Mónaco was not surprised by but nevertheless could do nothing about. (He beat Mónaco 6–2, 6–0, 6–0, and, days later, won his seventh French Open title.)

Nadal’s technical advantage was a left-handed forehand that he sent crosscourt to his right-handed opponent’s backhand, lathered with topspin that was unmatched in his prime years. According to one researcher’s video evidence, the ball would fully rotate eighty times in the second or so between leaving Nadal’s ferociously buggy-whipped racquet and, after bounding high and wide, strike the racquet of his opponent with jarring gyration-created weight. (Think: hockey puck.) Typically, the shoulder-height backhand reply from his opponent was a weak crosscourt shot to Nadal’s forehand wing, which afforded him the opportunity to answer with an even more sharply angled crosscourt forehand. On it went, until the opponent’s backhand could take no more. And, when Nadal was especially feeling it, he could drive an opponent out wider and wider with crosscourt forehands; he could also suddenly change the direction of the ball and smack one inside out and down the line, unreachable for an opponent stranded beyond his backhand corner.

“This is when you knew he was confident,” Nadal’s best American contemporary, Andy Roddick, said recently on a podcast that he hosts, marvelling at Nadal’s ability to redirect a ball with his forehand and hit that clean winner down the line. “And this is when you also knew, on the other side, that you were fucking screwed.”

Roddick, who is just four years older than Nadal but retired more than a decade ago, won a U.S. Open title and reached No. 1 in the world on the strength of a very American game: huge serve, huge forehand. He knows as well as anyone that Nadal was much more than a clay-court specialist, having mostly met him on hard courts and mostly lost. Nadal has won six hard-court majors, despite never boasting a serve that could win free points. Grass robbed Nadal’s forehand of its high bounce, and yet he managed to win Wimbledon twice, playing unyielding defense to defeat Roger Federer in the 2008 final, which was ranked by many as the greatest of all Wimbledon finals. In the later stages of his career, Nadal developed a fine backhand slice, and learned to shorten points and finish them at the net. Younger players came along, and he relished the challenge, getting the best of almost all of them. (Croatia’s Borna Ćorić, who has gone 3–2 against Nadal, is the only player under thirty who, having played him more than once, has a winning record against him.) In 2022, at Indian Wells, on a windblown afternoon with sand swirling about the court, Nadal managed to best a phenom nearly half his age—the then eighteen-year-old Carlos Alcaraz—in a gruelling semifinal, playing much of it, we’d later learn, with a stress fracture in one of his left ribs.

Nadal’s career-long rival has been Novak Djokovic: they’ve played fifty-nine matches since 2006, with Nadal dominating on clay, Djokovic on hard courts, and the two of them, more often than not, leaving each other utterly spent. It took nearly six hours for Djokovic to outlast Nadal in their 2012 Australian Open final, the best match I have ever watched—or, perhaps, endured. Chairs had to be found for the two of them afterward, because neither player could stand during the trophy ceremony.

The statistics will show that Djokovic was the greatest men’s player of his era, and arguably of all time—he has the most Grand Slam championships, the most weeks at No. 1, and the most victories in his head-to-heads with Nadal and with Federer. But what of the things, deep and elusive, that data can’t capture? Nadal is something more than a great bested, in the end, by the greatest. He has brought a distinct temperament to the game, a vehement competitiveness with no trace of anger or rancor; a considerate ferocity. He pushed himself, placed punishing demands on his muscled-up, injury-plagued body, because he believed that’s what a sport ultimately asks, and what a champion is called to do. You felt his game, his struggles, his greatness. His fervor bound him to tennis, and us to him.

When Nadal was merely twenty-two, an interviewer for the Times Magazine asked him about the toll that the sport seemed to be taking on his body. “They were saying this three years ago, that I couldn’t last,” he said. “This irritates me, no? I’m tired of people telling me I can’t go on playing like this.” On he went. ♦

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