No one gets the Pete Sampras, except for Pete Sampras, obviously. It’s so rare to see a tennis player walk off the court for the final time having just won a Grand Slam, still capable of more but sated with what was already accomplished and unable to ignore the poetry of that particular signoff. The kind of competitiveness and drive that pushes a player like Rafael Nadal to win so much and overcome so much would never allow him to do that, and it’s what’s kept his remarkable career going for much longer than anyone would have guessed. But it seems to be happening more often now, where we watch him limp off the court after a loss and wonder if this isn’t the start of the end.
On Tuesday night, Nadal lost in straight sets to unranked American Mackenzie McDonald in the second round of the Australian Open. Midway through the second set, Nadal appeared to injure his left hip while chasing down a forehand, and he wasn’t the same after. He pretty much chucked the rest of the set, he was already down a break, and then through sheer stubbornness and respect for his opponent and game (or indifference to his long-term condition, depending on your view) gutted out the third set to its conclusion. To be fair to Nadal, his go-for-it-all game in the third set when he couldn’t move took him relatively far. He wasn’t broken until the 11th game, but this wasn’t Nadal. It was basically a diet Francis Tiafoe with the mobility of a walrus.
On the other hand, it’s not like Nadal was cruising before he got hurt either. He was down a set and a break before his injury, and McDonald certainly had him flummoxed. McDonald relentlessly attacked Nadal’s forehand, previously the game’s biggest no-fly zone. And on some of the longer rallies, sections of a match that Nadal has always used to kill an opponent’s legs and will, McDonald came out on top. McDonald won more of the rallies that went over 10 shots, which is unheard of. It’s like McDonald was happy to be dragged into the deep water and was able to punch the shark that usually is Nadal right in the nose.
It continued a worrying pattern for Rafa ever since he had that abdominal injury that caused him to withdraw from Wimbledon. He went 4-5 the rest of 2022, and has started this season 1-3. There was the core problem, now the hip, and those followed the degenerative foot problem. It’s adding up.
He’ll turn 37 this summer, and we know that no matter how long of a rally he has with time, he’ll eventually lose. He hasn’t ducked the subject of retirement in the past, and every time we watch him hobble around the court or look up to his box with that expression of worry and resignation he gets when something is wrong with his body, the feeling of foreboding only grows. Not that we could say Rafa hasn’t given us our money’s worth the past 20 years or so. Eventually, whatever’s bothering him isn’t going to go away.
One wonders if being Roger Federer’s partner in his last match, and the peace Federer had come to with leaving the game wouldn’t influence Rafa in some way too. The only person he has anything to prove to is himself, apparently.
We’re getting to the point, if we’re not past it, where we watch Nadal matches now not for the brilliance he almost always provides but just to see if he gets through it. That’s not where any of us or he wants to be. But when you’ve created the mountain of memories that Nadal has, the descent always feels that much harsher.
I’m always a sucker for a free kick goal. I’m an even bigger sucker for one in injury time to turn a match from a loss to a draw. I’m the biggest sucker when it costs Man United two points. So cheers, Michael Olise:
There’s something a little awkward about a goal that hits the underside of the crossbar before going in. Your whole body locks up because you’re not sure whether to be frustrated or elated in that second. The record just skips, and then when you see the ball rebound and hit the top of the net it starts again but the hesitation throws everything off its axis. Your celebration or dejection is reduced by 25 percent or so thanks to the pause. You haven’t let go of that brief second where you thought things might go your way. Too many synapses firing.