Rafael Nadal Was the Immovable Object
Here are some body parts that Rafael Nadal has torn: his hamstrings, and his quadriceps. His left patellar tendon, abdomen, and left costal arch. His abdomen again. He’s dealt with tendinitis, arthritis, and repeated issues with both wrists. He has hip problems. Last year, at Indian Wells, he broke a rib midway through his semifinal match. He won that match, and then went out and played the final. “I could barely breathe but I decided to play the final because they told me it was probably a muscle spasm,” he said afterward. Normal stuff.
After getting a second opinion and a correct diagnosis, Nadal took six weeks off. He returned midway through his beloved clay season, and lost uncharacteristically early at tournaments in Madrid and Rome. Then he went to Paris, creaky and torn and held together by athletic tape, and beat four top-10 players to win the French Open for the 14th time.
Nadal paid dearly, it turned out, to win that 14th French Open. With the hopes of winning the Grand Slam still, somehow, intact after the first two majors of the 2022 season, he dragged himself to Wimbledon, white-knuckled his way to the semifinals and then did something nearly as un-Nadal-like as smashing a racket or declining to tinker with his water bottles: he withdrew. An abdominal tear. Again!
Since then, Nadal’s ranking has dropped out of the top 10 for the first time since 2005. He didn’t have his best stuff at last year’s U.S. Open—he reached the fourth round and lost to an inspired Frances Tiafoe—but things have only gotten worse as he’s taken time to rest. Now, it’s May and he’s won one match this year. He’s only played four. What’s wrong this time? Does it even matter? Or have we moved beyond targeted rehab and particular diagnoses? Perhaps it’s now just understood that once he steps on the court, something is going to give way.
Since he broke through on tour in the mid-aughts, it’s been impossible to watch Nadal and not think two things: Holy shit, how did he get to that ball? and oh boy, that’s going to catch up to him. He played tennis with stunning, infuriating physicality. His game was all loops and slides. No sharp angles, and yet somehow still so fast. But each time he blasted a forehand, whipping the racket over his head as he does, you could practically feel something tearing in his shoulder. He got to every ball, especially on the clay, where he had that extra split second to slide to that just-out-of-reach shot, but that was going to come at a cost, right? Now, finally, the bill is coming due.
In mid-April, Nadal released a statement saying that because he was still recovering from injuries sustained at the Australian Open, he would have to withdraw from the Madrid Open, a tournament he has won five times. He’d already missed the clay court tournaments that are usually a part of his schedule in Barcelona (12 titles) and Monte Carlo (11 titles). Then he withdrew from Rome (10 titles). In mid-May, he finally pulled the ripcord. His abdomen and his right leg were still in bad shape, and he had no interest in showing up to Paris without a chance of winning. It would be the fourth time that he was forced to withdraw from a major where he was the defending champion. He suggested that 2024 would be his last season on tour. The end is finally near.
It is at once fitting and jarring that the post-Nadal era seemingly now has a start date. For somebody whose game was so defined by strain, he was also always the picture of defiance. He turned winces into an art form. He always made the extra movement, turned the extra degree. It was what made him so compelling and like such a temporary commodity: He did the unwise thing, made the future-compromising move so that he could win here and now, and then kept fighting through that compromised future for longer than anybody could have imagined. Now that Nadal is finally reaching the end that was always forecasted—a brutal, bruised one—it is hard to comprehend because he delayed it for so long. The immovable object is budging. The body always wins.
The first time it seemed that Nadal’s knees and shoulders and back were truly giving way was about seven years ago. Starting midway through 2014, Nadal suffered first through a dreadful stretch for him (six majors without a victory) and then a pretty bad year for any top player (a 2016 major season that included a first-round exit, a pre-tournament withdrawal, and no quarterfinal appearances). Around then, I (an idiot) was ready to call it. Nadal looked like a shell of his former self—and that was when he could even drag his body to the starting line. But, obviously, he had much more tennis to play: Since then, Nadal has won eight more majors. He has lost one—one—match at the French Open.
We sort of glossed over the whole 14 French Opens thing. Let’s put this into perspective: Novak Djokovic has won the Australian Open 10 times. Martina Navratilova won Wimbledon nine times. That’s as close as anybody has gotten to winning the same major 14 times. Pete Sampras won 14 majors across all four tournaments. And that accomplishment, believe it or not, was a pretty big deal at the time.
At the French Open, Nadal has been as close to infallible as any athlete has ever been over such a span: three losses in 115 matches. The bad, great, and transcendent have all gotten their shots, and only two men—Djokovic twice and, more shockingly Robin Soderling once—managed to crack the code. Three losses since a week in 2005 when Revenge of the Sith was the highest-grossing movie in America. Three losses since “Hollaback Girl” was at the top of the charts. It’s a joke. Literally.
All this has rarely even looked difficult. I would love to recount a historic final—some duel like the 1980 Wimbledon final that would help frame Nadal’s career, perhaps provoke a silver-screen dramatization in 40 years. The problem is that Rafa Nadal has never played a close final at the French Open. At all. He’s won all 14 of them, and never had to go to a fifth set. Half the time, he’s won in three. If you’re looking for a classic match, probably the closest you’ll get is his 2013 semifinal win over Djokovic, a brutal, nearly five-hour five-setter that saw him still sliding around, tearing his body apart, and finding impossible angles at 8-7 in the deciding set.
Here is what has happened in the finals: he’s trounced everybody. After that grueling battle against his chief rival, Nadal played David Ferrer for the 2013 trophy. Ferrer was fresh—he hadn’t lost a set all tournament. Then he lost three in about two hours. In 2020, before the French Open final, Djokovic had not lost a match all season. Then, against Nadal he suffered a 0-6, 2-6, 5-7 drubbing that was so lopsided that it made you want to look away.
Then, of course, there’s his 2008 matchup with Roger Federer—not so much a match as a public humiliation. Nadal had played Federer in each of the three prior French Opens, and beaten him in the previous two finals. None of the matches were particularly close, but each had gone four sets. This one didn’t. The match took an hour and 48 minutes, and Federer won a total of four games. It was so uncomfortable that Nadal didn’t even fall to the ground after winning match point. "Given my relationship with Roger I did not want to celebrate too much,” he said.
Here’s how good Nadal has been at the French Open: it might have helped him win Wimbledon, too. Just about a month after the 2008 Roland Garros final, Nadal raced out to a two-set lead in another championship match against Federer, this time on the grass in London. At that point, Federer hadn’t so much as trailed in a match at Wimbledon since losing the first set of the 2004 final to Andy Roddick. But here the Swiss was, desperately looking for a foothold at a tournament where he hadn’t lost in more than five years. What was the explanation? He admitted, later, that even as he stood on his turf, the thrashing in Paris was on his mind. Nadal won in five sets—the most famous match in the history of the sport.
The body always wins. Even after that win at Wimbledon in 2008, there were questions about how well Nadal’s knees would hold up. He was 22. My old colleague Jon Wertheim wondered at the time whether he’d be “sufficiently healthy to play at this level for many more years.”Evidently, no matter the pain he’s been in for the last 15 years, he’s been able to play major-winning-level tennis. Perhaps until now.
There is a statue of Nadal at the entrance of the Stade Roland Garros. That it was revealed in 2021 should highlight just how unusual Nadal’s competitive relationship with the tournament is: not only was he still active when he was memorialized, he went out and won the tournament again the year after he received, basically, a lifetime achievement award. It is about nine feet tall and made of steel, capturing Nadal as he wails on a forehand, both feet off the ground. To support this pose, a series of metal cables hold his form afloat. His metallic body is full of holes, and still, he is striking.
Originally Appeared on GQ