Watching Rafael Nadal lift the French Open trophy at Roland Garros for the fifth time, I thought about the little ways in which the Spaniard’s extraordinary clay-court performances in the past five seasons have intersected with — and injected a dose of stress into — my summer outings. In April 2007, on a cruise in Southampton, I managed to besiege the ship’s slow Internet connection for long enough to confirm that Rafa had won the Barcelona Open. In Kandy, Sri Lanka, the following year, I briefly eluded my vigilant spouse to get online and check the draw for the French Open…and then fretted for the next two hours about the dangerous David Nalbandian being in Rafa’s quarter. (I needn’t have worried. Rafa would win the tournament without dropping a set, beating his great rival Roger Federer by the unthinkable score of 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in the final.)
Memories of the marathon, four-hour semi-final Rafa played against Novak Djokovic at the Madrid Masters on May 16, 2009 still make me shiver: I had a flight to Germany the next morning and needed to sleep early; instead I stayed glued to my computer screen, scoreboard-watching (there was no TV coverage) until midnight, feeling nearly as physically and mentally drained as the two buccaneers assaulting the red dirt from every imaginable angle. Checking scores in Frankfurt the next day, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Rafa had lost the final to Federer. (This year, too,I had a flight to catch to Bhutan, but mercifully, it was the day after the Madrid final where Rafa reversed the 2009 result against Federer. It was, therefore, a very relaxed flight!)
The casual tennis fan tunes in exactly four times a year, during the second week of the Grand Slam tournaments. But the incurable tennis nutcase follows his favourite players through the season, in every Masters 1000, 500-level and 250-level tournament, while simultaneously participating in discussions with other nutcases on websites like Tennis World. I’ve been a Nadal obsessive since 2005, the year he brought such energy to the men’s game. By forging a winning head-to-head against the otherwise all-conquering Federer, he kept some interest alive in the tour — you might say he was the Spaniard in the works — but I loved his game for other reasons. The inexhaustible mental strength, of course, but also (and this is something that often gets lost in the pat, polarising narratives about Federer’s “natural talent” vs. Nadal’s “gritty determination”) the tennis skill: the matchless court coverage; the ability to turn a seemingly hopeless defensive position into an attacking one in the blink of an eye; the absurd passing shots from behind the baseline.
It’s been a difficult fandom, because Rafa’s matches tend to be long and tiring to watch. Outside of clay, he isn’t a fluid, efficient match-winner the way Federer is: he scrambles for every point, takes hours to win against tough opponents. If you’re invested in watching him, you need strong nerves and a good supply of eye-drops.
As any fan knows, storm clouds gathered last year. Rafa won three clay tournaments in consecutive weeks but already he was looking distracted and weary; whispers were spreading in media circles that knee tendonitis, a recurring injury, was starting to plague him again, and that he was unhappy about the divorce of his parents. There was something inevitable about his first-ever loss — a fourth-round exit to Robin Soderling — at Roland Garros, a tournament he had owned since he was 18. He then missed a couple of months because of injury and didn’t win another title for 11 months. My monthly expenditure on eye-drops decreased.
And then the clay-court season of 2010 began. Rafa won Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid — a unique sweep of the three clay Masters — and most importantly, reclaimed the French Open without dropping a set. His opponent in the final: Soderling, who had beaten him last year. I usually scoff at the common human tendency to look for patterns in everything — to search for meaning and order in a meaningless and chaotic world — but the way the cards aligned at Roland Garros gave me brief pause for thought. The circle had been completed in the most fitting way possible.
Not that I’m taking this as a portent of great things to come. Rafa’s strenuous playing style isn’t conducive to career longevity and there’s no telling how long he stays at his peak. Some people are already murmuring about his good chances at Wimbledon this year, but the one thing his fans know about is being pragmatic and taking it one match at a time. (As he says in his press conferences, “We gonna see, no?”) At least we know he’ll always have Paris.