‘Rafa, Rafa, Rafa’: Encouragement and valediction at Nadal’s last match in Madrid

‘Rafa, Rafa, Rafa’: Encouragement and valediction at Nadal’s last match in Madrid

Imagine having done the same thing for something like 30 years, being better at it than just about anyone who has ever lived, and then one day, it’s all completely new. 

And so it is for Rafael Nadal in this through-the-looking-glass spring. For years, no place felt more like home than a red clay court. He could lose matches sometimes. Everyone does. But he almost never played poorly.

He could leave his guts on the court with an effort that would leave most of the population unable to walk for weeks. Then he would wake up in the morning and, within a few hours, be able to start preparing to do it all over again. And then, sometimes, he really would do it all over again.

Those days are done, perhaps never to return. Nearly a year and a half since a debilitating hip injury, nearly a year since major surgery to try to fix it, nearly two years since he was a mainstay of the professional tour, each match, each day, has become an experiment and a riddle for Nadal. 

How much can he push? How long can he go? How does his body feel when he opens his eyes for the first time each morning, when he rolls out of bed, when he leans over to pick up his 18-month-old son, Rafa, when he walks onto the court for a warm-up session and strokes the ball for the first time? 

The latest test came Tuesday night against Jiri Lehecka, the talented young Czech with the limber physique and easy power that Nadal, always the brutalist, never had. But nothing about the match really had anything to do with the contrasts he and Nadal presented, or really even the score. 

This was all about the latest of Nadal’s experiments.

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A little more than 24 hours before he and Lehecka took the court, Nadal had gone three sets and more than three hours against Pedro Cachin of Argentina. In both matches, the most important numbers on the scoreboard were counting the elapsed time. How many rolling backhands and bullwhip forehands could Nadal endure, or even want to endure, with his lodestar, the French Open, starting in 26 days.


Nadal is balancing fitness and pride in his final season (Mateo Villalba/Getty Images)

The first set went 57 minutes, with Lehecka surviving three tight service holds and capitalizing on a cluster of Nadal errors in the 11th game to break, before serving out the set. Lehecka then broke Nadal’s serve in the first game of the second set. Nadal’s balls started to fly long and into the net without it bothering him all that much, and it was hard not to think of how he had described his game plan moving forward the night before, after his three-hour fist-fight with Cachin. 

“Trying without doing crazy things, but trying,” he said, which is what Lehecka’s 7-5, 6-4 win that lasted a little over two hours ultimately looked like.

A third set and another hour might have qualified as a crazy thing under the circumstances.

Cachin, a 29-year-old journeyman who knows his way around a clay court, had given Nadal as much as he could handle and more than anyone had expected, digging in for long fights for points, forcing him to scramble across the baseline. A few years ago, this would have been another day of certainty for Nadal: the clay, the winning, the looking ahead to the next match knowing — within a very small margin — what version of himself would take the court. 

Instead, he walked the corridors of the Caja Magica Monday night, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head, and telling everyone who would listen that he had no idea what the future held. 

“I never recovered too bad after tough matches, I think even at 36 years old or 35,” said Nadal, who is now nearly 38. “Today is a completely different story. It’s not only about injuries. First thing is injuries. Second thing is about… I never spent almost two years without playing tennis tournaments.”

Everyone knows what this is all about for Nadal — figuring out whether it’s going to be worth his while to put his name in the draw at the French Open, the tournament he has won 14 times, where his record at Roland Garros is a ridiculous 112-3. He’s not going to go merely for an ovation and a bouquet, or to gaze at the nine-foot statue of him outside Court Philippe Chatrier.

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He knows his tennis is there, but he will only go if he believes his body will be there, too. This is best-of-five-set tennis, on clay, and matches are affairs that generally last close to three hours, maybe longer. His serve in its current iteration, slowed by injuries to his midsection, isn’t allowing him to grab many quick and easy points. Nearly everything he gets, he has to earn the hard way. Late in the second set on Tuesday night, 40 per cent of Lehecka’s serves had gone unreturned, allowing him to speed through holds of serve already rendered tricky by the booms of “Rafa, Rafa, Rafa” about his ears every time he stood up to the line. Asked about how he dealt with them, the Czech world No 31 could only puff out his cheeks and say, “I don’t know.”

Nadal’s figure was six per cent.


Nadal was ultimately unable to impose himself on Lehecka (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

He will have a day off between matches at the French Open, unlike the 24-hour turnaround from Cachin to Lehecka, but still, the past days in Madrid have brought his first experience in what feels like forever of the grind-recover-grind routine the sport demands. 

Ten days ago in Barcelona, he couldn’t do it, winning a match then essentially folding after losing the first set of a second. Had he pushed for more in that moment, he might have been back where he was in January, in a tuneup tournament in Brisbane ahead of the Australian Open. There, in his third match, he pushed too soon. He went to sleep with a tweak. In the morning, an MRI revealed it was a tear. Three months of recovery and many more moments of doubt ensued.

Maybe this was it? He could swing a racket, but anything close to trying to replicate the intensity of top-level competition was out of the question. Same with an intense three-hour training session. He just wasn’t strong enough. 

Madrid has been different. His strength is back, but it’s not chartable: he still doesn’t have any idea what will happen from one day to the next. 

“It’s unpredictable, that’s it, and you need to accept the unpredictable things today,” he said earlier this week. “I need to accept that.”

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In a sense, Nadal has been preparing for this moment for more than 20 years, ever since doctors detected a congenital defect in his foot that nearly derailed his career before it ever got started. He had to accept then an extremely uncertain future. Anything that followed was a kind of gift. 

The experience begat ‘Zen-Rafa,’ the player who years ago compared an opponent’s aces to the rain, something he had no control over and simply accepted. Now he was back where it all started and not just because he said Madrid is where he felt for the first time, back in 2003, that he could compete at the highest level.


Sure, Nadal would have preferred to win once again in this packed metal bandbox in front of 12,000 people who love him as they love little else. He is as big a sports hero as this country has ever produced, which Raul Gonzalez Blanco, the legendary Real Madrid and Spain striker, knows well. He was there watching against Cachin.

But Nadal knew he had already won by being able to answer the bell against Lehecka, something he could only hope he would be able to do when he closed his eyes the night before. Picking up some easy points on his serve marked another win. Those classic, loop-one-ball-then-crush-the-next-one combinations, the quick bends for the short-hop winners, the perfect slice volley when he followed his serve into the net midway through the second set — win, win, win. 

The moment when he sprinted to the baseline from his chair, one game from defeat, and 12,000 people stood and roared, and the noise rattled all around the metal building — that may have been the biggest win of all. They did it again on match point, then chanted his name when he sprayed a final backhand wide on what is likely his final match in the city.


Madrid’s tribute to Nadal after his defeat (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

He described the night as “very positive in many senses, not only sporting but also emotionally.”

“It’s been a gift to spend 21 years here,” Nadal told the crowd during a celebration on the court after the match. “The emotions, of playing in Madrid, playing on this court, are going to stay with me forever.”

Still, as much as Nadal has accepted the uncertainty of the future and soaking up the love, he is also making plans. He is playing himself into form now, trying to pass tests with every match so he can dream of magic, not just at the French Open but after, too. 

The Olympic Games are at Roland Garros. He wants to at least play doubles there with Carlos Alcaraz, who is well on his way to taking over from Nadal in the Spanish tennis imagination. Last week he committed to play the Laver Cup, the Team Europe vs Team World competition that his friend and rival Roger Federer created. That’s in September. 

Madrid brought four matches in six days. Assuming his body comes through all this, he will head to Rome for the Italian Open next week for another series of tests. Then comes the decision about the French Open.

That’s both imminent and a ways away. Nadal, who, in all his greatness has still somehow always managed to come off as a normalish guy, is day to day, as the saying goes — just as we all are.

(Top photo: Manuel Queimadelos/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

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