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



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

Imagine that you’ve been doing the same thing for about thirty years and are better at it than anyone who’s ever lived, and then one day it’s all completely new.

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

He could leave his guts 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 prepare to do it all again. And sometimes he actually did it again.

Those days are gone and may never return. Almost a year and a half since a debilitating hip injury, almost a year since major surgery to repair it, almost two years since he was a mainstay on the professional tour, every match, every day, has become an experiment and a mystery for Nadal.

How much can he push? How long can he go? How does his body feel when he first opens his eyes every morning, when he rolls out of bed, when he bends over to pick up his 18-month-old son Rafa, when he walks onto the track for a hot meal? up session and stroke the ball for the first time?

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

This was all about Nadal’s latest experiments.


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Just over 24 hours before he and Lehecka took the court, Nadal had played three sets and over three hours against Argentina’s Pedro Cachin. won in both matches The most important numbers on the scoreboard were counting elapsed time. How many rolling backhands and bullwhip forehands could Nadal endure, or even want to endure, with his main event, the French Open, starting in 26 days.

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

The first set lasted 57 minutes, with Lehecka surviving three tight service holds and taking advantage of a series 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 flying long and into the net without bothering him much, and it was hard not to remember how he had described his game plan the night before, after his three-hour fistfight with Cachin.

“Trying without doing anything crazy, but trying,” he said, this is what Lehecka’s 7-5, 6-4 victory, which lasted just over two hours, ultimately looked like.

A third set and another hour might have qualified as something crazy given 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 expected, digging himself into long battles for points that left him scrambling over the baseline. A few years ago, this would have been another day of certainty for Nadal: the clay, the victory, looking ahead to the next match, knowing – within a very narrow margin – which version of himself would appear on the court.

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

“I have never recovered so badly after tough matches, I think even when I was 36 or 35,” said Nadal, who is now almost 38. “Today is a completely different story. It’s not just about injuries. The first is injuries. The second point is about… I have never gone almost two years without playing tennis tournaments.”

Everyone knows what Nadal is all about: figuring out whether it will be worth putting his name in the draw for the French Open, the tournament he has won fourteen times, where his record at Roland Garros is a ridiculous 112 . -3. He won’t just go for an ovation and a bouquet, or just stare at the three-metre 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 close to three hours, maybe longer. His serve in the current version, slowed by injuries to his abdomen, prevents him from getting many quick and easy points. Almost everything he gets, he has to earn the hard way. Late in the second set on Tuesday night, 40 percent of Lehecka’s serves had not been returned, allowing him to quickly rush through serve, which had already been made difficult by the pounding of “Rafa, Rafa, Rafa” around his ears every time he stood up . the line. Asked how he dealt with them, the Czech world No. 31 could only puff up his cheeks and say: “I don’t know.”

Nadal’s figure was six percent.

In the end, Nadal was 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 move from Cachin to Lehecka, but still the past few days in Madrid have provided his first experience in what feels like forever of the grind recovery -grind-routine. the sport demands.

Ten days ago in Barcelona he couldn’t do it. He won a match and then folded after losing the first set by a second. Had he been aiming for more at the time, he might have been back where he was in January, at a tune-up tournament in Brisbane ahead of the Australian Open. There he pushed too early in his third match. With a tap he went to sleep. This morning an MRI showed it was a tear. Three months of recovery and many more moments of doubt followed.

Maybe this was it? He could swing a racket, but anything that came close to replicating the intensity of top-level competition was out of the question. The same goes for an intense three-hour training session. He just wasn’t strong enough.

Madrid was different. His power is back, but it’s uncharted: he still has no idea what will happen from one day to the next.

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

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In a sense, Nadal has been preparing for this moment for more than two decades, ever since doctors discovered a congenital defect in his foot that almost derailed his career before it ever started. He then had to accept an extremely uncertain future. Everything that followed was a gift of sorts.

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

Certainly, Nadal would have preferred to win again in this packed metal band box in front of 12,000 people who love him like they love little else. He is the greatest sporting hero this country has ever produced, as Raul Gonzalez Blanco, the legendary Real Madrid and Spain striker, knows well. He looked at Cachin there.

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. Taking some easy points on his serve meant another win. Those classic run-one-ball-and-crush-the-next-one combinations, the quick turns for the short hop winners, the perfect slice volley as he followed his serve into the net midway through the second set – victory , win, win.

The moment he sprinted from his seat to the baseline, one play after a loss, and 12,000 people were roaring, the sound rattling through the metal building – that might have been the greatest victory of all. They did it again on match point and then chanted his name as he fired a final backhand wide in what would likely be his last match in the city.

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

He described the evening as “very positive in many ways, not only sporting but also emotional.”

“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, playing on this pitch, will stay with me forever.”

But as much as Nadal has accepted the uncertainty of the future and absorbed love, he is also making plans. He is now playing himself into shape and trying to pass tests in every match so that he can dream of magic, not only at the French Open, but also afterwards.

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

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

That is both imminent and far away. Nadal, who in all his greatness has somehow always managed to come across as a normal man, is from day to day, as the saying goes, just like the rest of us.

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