Rafael Nadal’s last tennis match in Madrid: defeat, but victory

Imagine you’ve been doing the same thing for something like 30 years, being better than anyone else who’s ever lived, and then one day, it’s all completely new.

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

He could leave his courage on the field 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, he could start preparing to do it all again. And then, sometimes, he actually did it all over again.

Those days are gone, perhaps never to return. Almost a year and a half after his hip weakened, almost a year after major surgery to try to fix it, almost two years since he was a mainstay on the professional circuit, every match, every day, has become an experiment and an enigma for Nadal.

How much can I push? How long can it go? How does his body feel when he opens his eyes for the first time every morning, when he gets out of bed, when he bends down to pick up his 18-month-old son Rafa, when he steps onto the pitch for a warm break? preparation session and hit the ball for the first time?

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

It was about the latest of Nadal’s experiments.

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Just over 24 hours before he and Lehecka took the court, Nadal had played three sets and more than three hours against Argentina’s Pedro Cachin. In both matches, the the most important numbers on the board counted the elapsed time. How many spinning backhands and bullwhip forehands could Nadal endure, or indeed would he like to endure, with his lodestar, the French Open, which begins in 26 days.


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

The first set lasted 57 minutes, with Lehecka surviving three narrow service holds and capitalizing on a series of errors from Nadal in the 11th game to reach the break, before serving out the set. Lehecka then broke Nadal’s serve in the first game of the second set. Nadal’s balls began to fly long and into the net without it bothering him much, and it was hard not to think about how he had described his game plan going forward the night before, after the three-hour fistfight with Cachin.

“Try without doing anything crazy, but trying,” he said, as Lehecka’s 7-5, 6-4 victory that lasted just over two hours appeared.

A third set and another hour might have been considered crazy given the circumstances.

Cachin, a 29-year-old journeyman who knows the clay court, gave Nadal all he could handle and more than anyone expected, digging into long battles for points, forcing him to scramble to the baseline. A few years ago, this would have been another day of certainty for Nadal: the clay, the victory, looking forward to the next match knowing, by a very small margin, which version of himself would take the court.

Instead, he walked the halls 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’ve never recovered too badly after difficult matches, I don’t think even at 36 or 35,” said Nadal, now almost 38. “Today is a completely different story. It’s not just a matter of injuries. The first thing is injuries. The second thing is… I’ve never gone almost two years without playing tennis tournaments.”

Everyone knows what it means for Nadal: understanding whether it will be worth putting his name in the draw for the French Open, the tournament he has won 14 times, where his record at Roland Garros is ridiculous: 112. -3. He won’t go simply for an ovation and a bouquet, or to admire the nine-foot tall 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 sets tennis, on clay, and matches generally last about three hours, maybe more. His serve in its current version, slowed down by injuries to the central part, does not allow him to obtain many quick and easy points. Almost everything he gets, he has to earn the hard way. Towards the end of the second set on Tuesday night, 40% of Lehecka’s serves were unreturned, allowing him to quickly overcome service holds already made difficult by the booming of “Rafa, Rafa, Rafa” around his ears every time he got up to answer. the line. Asked how he dealt with them, the Czech world number 31 could only puff out his cheeks and say: “I don’t know.”

Nadal’s figure was 6%.


Nadal ultimately failed to prevail over Lehecka (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

He’ll have a day off between matches at the French Open, unlike the 24-hour shift from Cachin to Lehecka, but still, the days in Madrid have brought his first experience in what seems like an eternity of grind-recover-grind routine the sport requires.

Ten days ago in Barcelona he didn’t make it, winning a match and then practically abandoning after losing the first set by a second. If he had pushed harder then, perhaps he would have been back to where he was in January, in a preparation tournament in Brisbane before the Australian Open. There, in his third match, he pushed too early. He went to sleep with a pinch. In the morning, an MRI revealed it was a tear. Three months of recovery and many more dreamed moments of doubt.

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

Madrid was different. His strength has returned, but they cannot be classified: he still has no idea what will happen from one day to the next.

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

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In some ways, Nadal has been preparing for this moment for more than 20 years, ever since doctors discovered a congenital defect in his foot that nearly derailed his career before it even began. He therefore had to accept an extremely uncertain future. Everything that followed was a kind of gift.

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


Of course, Nadal would have preferred to win once again on this packed metal stage in front of 12,000 people who love him like little else. He is the greatest sporting hero this country has ever produced, and Raul Gonzalez Blanco, the legendary striker for Real Madrid and Spain, knows it well. He was there watching against Cachin.

But Nadal knew he had already won by answering the bell against Lehecka, something he could only hope he could do when he closed his eyes the night before. Picking up some easy points on serve marked another victory. Those classic “loop one ball and then smash the next” combinations, the quick turns for short jump winners, the perfect slice volley when he followed his serve into the net midway through the second set: win, win, win.

The moment he ran toward the baseline from his seat, one game away from defeat, and 12,000 people stood up and roared, and the noise reverberated all around the metal building: that might have been the victory biggest of all. They did it again on match point, then chanted his name when he sprayed a final backhand wide in what is probably his last game in town.


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

He described the evening as “very positive in many ways, not only from a sporting point of view but also emotionally”.

“It was a gift to spend 21 years here,” Nadal told the crowd during an on-court celebration after the match. “The emotions of playing in Madrid, of playing on this pitch, will remain with me forever.”

However, as much as Nadal has accepted the uncertainty of the future and absorbed the love, he is also making plans. Now he is getting back into shape, trying to pass the tests in every match so he can dream of magic, not only at the French Open but also after.

The Olympic Games are at Roland Garros. He at least wants to play doubles there with Carlos Alcaraz, who is on track to take Nadal’s place in the Spanish tennis imagination. Last week he committed to playing the Laver Cup, the Team Europe vs Team World competition created by his friend and rival Roger Federer. This is in September.

Real brought four matches in six days. Assuming his body gets through this, he will travel to Rome for the Italian Open next week for another series of tests. Then comes the decision on the French Open.

This is both imminent and distant. Nadal, who, in all his greatness, has somehow always managed to seem like a normal guy, is day to day, as the saying goes, just like the rest of us.

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