Rafael Nadal as a Spiritual Experience

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Photo by Getty

Bill Simons

Paris

Word was out. Rafa would be playing on Court Suzanne Lenglen. This would be like getting to hear Paul McCartney singing at your local cafe. 

Court Lenglen, which is much smaller than the vast Court Philippe Chatrier, is a celebration of intimacy. There isn’t a bad seat in the place. Rafa can’t stand back in Belgium to return serves. And, most important to me, it has the best press seats in the world – just 20 yards from the gorgeous clay court that is nothing less than a silken tapestry.

Not surprisingly, Lenglen is packed, 10,068 strong, with thousands waiting outside in hopes of seeing the greatest player to ever step onto a clay court. 

Atop the stadium, flags flutter in a welcoming breeze. White clouds puff high. Why is even the sky more elegant in France? 

Watching any master up close is a privilege. From the outset you feel you have to relish every moment, catch every nuance and embed it in your tennis memory. Never mind that today’s third round is a mismatch. Botic van de Zandschulp may be No. 1 when it comes to semi-unpronounceable names, but the appealing Dutchman is only No. 29. In his career he’s won three French Open matches; Nadal’s claimed 107.

Below me, from the third row of the press box, is an ode to athletic power. In Rafa we see a hint of Draymond Green’s intensity. Here’s a linebacker in sneakers. His focus doesn’t waver. He explodes into his shots. His muscularity is fluid.

Of course, we see all his rituals: kicking the clay off his Nikes, tugging at his shirt, tapping his face, pulling his wedgies. Up close, Rafa’s bald spot seems bigger, his fistpumps to his box seem fiercer. Between points his strides have a no-nonsense military intent. His ferocity shouts loud. He glares at a fan in a red Emirates hat who arrives late. His penetrating stare seems to say: “How dare you disturb my stage!” Shot after shot, his almost primordial grunt fills the French air – “Oohh-ahhh” or is it “Ehh-ahh”?

But it’s his athleticism that mesmerizes us. It’s said that the hardest thing to do in tennis is beat Nadal on clay in five sets. The only winning strategy against this guy is to hit all your shots on the line. 

The Spaniard is the whole package: invaluable experience, Nadalian aura, laser backhand, seamless defense, surgical focus, clear intent, and uncanny anticipation. Mary Carillo once asked, “Have you ever seen anyone who has the [same] sense of recognition of the rhythms of a clay court match?” 

Nadal’s underrated and vastly improved serve is not as gorgeous as Federer’s. It’s not as distinctive as McEnroe’s or as fluid as Edberg’s. It’s not nearly as imposing as Isner’s, as classic as Sampras’s or as flawless as Pancho Gonzales’s. Still, it has a certain toss-and-blast grace.

But it’s Rafa’s whiplash forehand that is his signature. No one in the history of this game has hit a forehand quite like this man. It’s an explosion that hisses. Cross-court or down-the-line, returning serve or deep into a marathon rally, it dips within inches of the baseline – an uppercut with topspin that drains the will out of his foes. Brett Haber said Rafa’s forehand “has so many RPMs on it that it creates its own wind.”

After losing early in his career to Nadal, Stefanos Tsitsipas confided, “My brain was used to certain angles. But tonight against Rafa I was always on the wrong foot…He has a talent to make you play bad…I felt empty in the brain.”

Today, after losing 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 in 2:08, Van de Zandsculp told Inside Tennis, “Rafa plays differently from the other players. The ball comes differently. He gives you the feeling you have to win the point six, seven times…You have to play a perfect game…Even when you go hard to the floor, he easily redirects it down the line…He makes so many balls…He plays the returns so high…He didn’t let go. It’s frustrating when you hit good shots and he still gets the balls back and, in the end, wins the point.”

Today the Spaniard enthralled the throng. Soccer superstar Zinedine Zidane, middle managers from Aix-En-Provence and Parisian children clinging to autograph balls all joined in to chant, “Rafa! Rafa! Rafa!”

After his win, the man who’s lost only three French Open matches was asked what holding so many records shows. The 35-year-old joked, “It shows that I’m old.” He added, “I couldn’t live without the special things tennis has given to me, playing in the best stadiums of all the world.”

Of course, it is Rafa who has given so much. As the sun begins to dip, Lenglen’s orange carpet takes on a golden hue. I ask myself, “Can watching a tennis player be a spiritual experience? “Heavens, no,” I think. Then I think again.

AMERICA WATCH: Karolina Muchova had No. 27 Amanda Anisimova on the ropes, taking the first set in a tiebreaker. But the Czech rolled her ankle midway through the second set and tearfully retired when she was down 3-0 in the third. In another third round match former US Open champion Sloane Stephens downed France’s Diane Parry rather easily, 6-2, 6-3. Fleet Coco Gauff, who is both 18 years old and No. 18, got past Estonian Kaia Kanepi, who is twice her age, 6-3, 6-4. Madison Keys, Jessica Pegula and Shelby Rogers hope to reach the fourth round on Saturday.

Spain’s Bernabe Zapata Miralles, who’s 25 and ranked No. 110, again downed a big, powerful American. This time he eliminated No. 23 John Isner in five sets. San Diego’s Brandon Nakashima fell to No. 3 Alexander Zverev, 7-6 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (3). No. 27 Sebastian Korda lost to No. 6 Carlos Alcaraz, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.  

DJOKOVIC ON BECKER AND FREEDOM: When asked about the imprisonment of his former coach Boris Becker, Novak Djokovic was moved, saying, “It breaks my heart to see him go through this…It’s terrible. I’m just very sad that someone I know so well, someone that is a legend…is going through what he’s going through…I just hope that he will stay healthy and strong.”

A reporter asked Djokovic his reaction to the released refugees who served time in an Australia detention center with him. “I stayed there for a week, and I can’t imagine how they felt for nine years. They haven’t done anything wrong, and they are asylum seekers and stayed for nine years…We underestimate freedom. Until you actually live something like that and see what the circumstances are, then you don’t really have an idea of what it feels like when somebody strips away the freedom from you.”

NOTHING BEATS FAMILY: In a curious twist, Rafa’s uncle Toni will not be in his nephew’s box, but in that of his fourth-round opponent, Felix Auger-Aliassime. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, if he’s going to stay in the box or not, but I don’t care,” Nadal said. “I have zero problem…I know what the feelings we have between each other…He wants the best for me…We are family…We are in the same village. We spend time in the academy together. We lived incredible emotions together. So he’s not only an uncle. He’s more than that.”

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