Rafa Nadal: The End Of An Era?


Bill Simons and Vinay Venkatesh


Except for a wretched authoritarian or some cruel criminal, there’s rarely such a thing as pure good versus pure evil, right? And certainly it’s not the case in any sporting event.

But don’t tell that to the rabid Rafa Nadal fans who packed Court Philippe-Chatrier and screamed mightily, hoping against hope that the eminently lovable icon (who, BTW, has an asteroid named after him) would go on forever blasting his way to Roland Garros glory. 

Famed Hollywood director Alfred Hitchcock observed, “The more successful the villain the more successful the movie.” Without the likes of John McEnroe or Nick Kyrgios, tennis has few villains these days. 

So, dare we note, that leaves the sport with Alexander Zverev as a candidate for the ATP’s villain du jour. He’s been the focus of not one, but two domestic violence cases. The details we’ve read are grim. Friday a hearing will be held in a Berlin court relating to the mother of his three-year-old daughter. Plus, the guy brutally whacked an umpire’s stand in Mexico and early in his career became ensnared in unhappy legal battles with his management. 

But not so fast. Sascha is a charmer with a beaming smile – he’s smart, and a locker room favorite. It’s no accident the quietly charismatic veteran was elected to the ATP Players Council. And on court, the 6’ 6” 2020 Olympic champ is fun to watch. After Daniil Medvedev, he’s the best big man ever, and the best player to never win a Slam. Clearly, he’s courageous. He eventually overcame a gruesome ankle injury he suffered when playing Rafa in the 2022 French semis. 

Now, unlike all the other top guns in the men’s draw, Zverev, who’s 27, came into Roland Garros without a major headache. While Sascha had just won the Italian Open, Nadal was aging and rusty. Djokovic hasn’t won a tourney all year. Alcaraz has been nursing an injured arm. Sinner managed to hurt his hip while lifting weights, and, not to be harsh, the appealing Monte Carlo winner Stefanos Tsitsipas, as usual, is as uneven as his social commentaries and his social life.

Simply put, today’s Nadal-Zverev match was unlike any other in memory. An all-time icon meeting up with the No. 4 player in the world in the first round. We’re talking crazy – a blizzard in the tropics or Biden and Trump sitting down for a friendly chat over tea.

This would not be Lindsay Davenport crushing a hapless wannabe 6-0, 6-1. A match like this never happened to Sampras and Agassi. Venus never met Serena in the opening round. Novak versus Roger battles always happened deep into tourneys. 

Questions swirled. Will Nadal inexplicably suffer back-to-back losses on clay or will he improve on his incredible 112-1 record in the first rounds of clay tourneys? Will the Spanish matador defend his home turf in France or will the German who just won in Italy end his run? Will this be Rafa’s last Roland Garros?

The most extraordinary first-round match in tennis history opened up with a resounding trumpet fanfare. Flags flared, drums pounded. 

Nadal, 37, pounded a few of his strokes at first. But his topspin was modest. His feared forehands lacked depth. His signature ferocity was a bit muted. This was not business as usual. Something was missing. And Rafa wasn’t playing some scrub from Slovakia. There was no margin for error – no way to round himself into form.

Plus any hopes that Zverev would be nervous or tentative soon vanished. The German was aggressive and confident. He attacked Rafa’s backhand and pinned him in the corners. Nadal’s defense-to-offense was not what it used to be. 

At the start, Rafa flubbed a drop shot, double faulted and dropped his first serve. Broadcaster Markus Buckland observed, “He’s right away in a spot of bother.” 

Perhaps surprisingly, Zverev didn’t seem to be bothered by the moment. He served big, his decision-making was crisp, his big-man movement amazed. He took it to the legend. He held his nerve and saved two break points in the opening set. He had fifteen winners, to just five from Rafa, and broke twice. He went on to win the set 6-3 in 50 confident minutes.

Outhit and outplayed, Rafa was perplexed. A small snarl emerged. At one point he raised his palms to the heavens. Another time we saw the king with his hands on his hips as if he were saying, “What can I do?” An array of champions, including Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz and Iga Swiatek had come out to watch the epic battle. But now all seemed lost. 

But wait. This was Rafa. The greatest competitor in tennis history (well, along with James Scott Connors) would not be rolled. Nadal raised his resistance and his level. In the fifth game of the second set, he unleashed a wicked winner and skipped with joy. His fierce fistpump ignited the crowd. With a delicate dropshot, Rafa broke, going up 3-2.

After 74 minutes, game on. Hope springs eternal. Rafa soon unleashed the most dazzling 111 mph hook serve you’ll ever see, an astonishing volley and a laser backhand crosscourt winner on the line, as he captured the lead, to go up 5-4.

But Zverev didn’t blink. He raised his level and broke at love, to even the set at 5-5. He used his consistently imposing serve to prevail in the second set tiebreak, en route to his 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-3, 3:04 win.

Not that Nadal didn’t have his chances. He served for the second set, had an opportunity in a tie-break, was up a break in the third and squandered two break points in the third set. 

But even for superhumans, age and injuries take their toll. As the crowd chanted, “Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole! Rafa! Rafa!” one last time, no one, not even Rafa himself, knew if this would be his last French Open. 

After the match, he indicated he wouldn’t be playing Wimbledon. He said, “Because of tennis, I’ve lived experiences that I could never have imagined. I’ve had successes I could never have dreamed of. I’m so grateful.”

In his poignant, heart-wrenching speech, Rafa showcased his deep love of this place and its people. He did say he would be back for the Olympics – that things might be better in two months. But he added there’s a high likelihood that this will be his last rodeo. 

Rafa’s 15,000 once delirious but now deeply touched and appreciative French fans hoped fervently that there would be another day for the King of Clay.



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