The first time Rafael Nadal won the French Open, he didn’t know how to serve, or volley, or really even hit a standard backhand. But watching that tape now, you could see what was coming. The way he moved with the slippery red clay instead of fighting it, the way he used that movement to stretch the court into exotic shapes before putting his whip of a forehand to work within that new landscape—it was all there, waiting. If you can muddle your way through a demolition of Roger Federer, he did, in 2005. That was one. And then the next year his serve was a little stronger, his backhand more of a weapon, his offensive game more developed. And then he won the French Open nine more times.
It’s tough to know what else to say at this stage, and that’s the problem. What superlatives are left? Let’s get the boring stuff out of the way: Rafael Nadal is the greatest clay-court tennis player ever. He’s the greatest player on any single surface, ever. The level of tennis he reached at Roland Garros in the late 2000s is the best we’ve ever seen the sport played. And so on and so on, ever upon ever. He is such a certainty at this point that people barely have the heart to preview the men’s draw of this tournament anymore; if he’s healthy he’s unbeatable here, and that, supposedly, is boring.
But here we are in 2018, and Rafael Nadal is the top seed and defending champion at the French Open once again. Federer isn’t playing, Djokovic looks diminished, Sverev looks—this is pointless, discussing the rest of the field. Nadal is playing against only himself. It all begs asking what he’s getting out of this. In this Golden Era of tennis that lends itself so willingly to history and grandiose narrative, why does the story of Rafael Nadal in Paris suddenly seem to lack stakes?
One of the reasons it feels like we’re floating through an epilogue is that few people thought Nadal would still be playing right now. He was the crackling flare to Federer’s slow burn; the energy and sheer violence Nadal employs has always felt unsustainable, especially on less forgiving surfaces, and that was supposed to mean he would lose Legacy Points based on some notion of longevity. His knees and shins should be shot from the way he slides like he’s on clay even when he’s on concrete. A decade of hitting forehands with that much torque should have turned his shoulder into hamburger. And at certain points he has been injured, and he’s taken time away from the game, but perhaps the most remarkable thing about Rafael Nadal is that even though he refuses to pace himself—he’s got one gear—he refuses to burn out.
If Rafa has found a way to keep playing the only way he knows how, maybe these aren’t the twilight years we thought they were. The prospect of winning an eleventh Roland Garros title really might matter to him, on a level beyond his typically canned answers about being a competitor. The question, then, is why.
One possible answer is simpler and more human than tennis: it matters to him because it just does. We all have places we are so intertwined with that our reasons for being there have disappeared. Eventually, you just keep showing up; the gravity of your life pulls you there, and you let it. Rafael Nadal has become one and the same with Court Philippe Chatrier—forget the tennis and just watch him move across its surface after all these years. He basically channels it, the way he senses when to be patient on the soupy, humid afternoons and aggressive when the wind has dried the court into dust. This place is his. It’s him. Tapping into that once a year must be a sort of spiritual joy in itself.
But that sounds an awful lot like rationale meant for the twilight years, which, again, he seems to be refusing to have. This is why it’s important to remember that, along with a specific court, Rafael Nadal’s tennis life is also entangled with a person.
Miami, 2005. A hardcourt event just a couple months before that first trip to Paris. If you’re someone who believes in origin stories, you’ll find his—theirs—here. The funniest part of rewatching this match between him and Roger is the commentary, because no one yet knew what to make of this misshapen teenager with bad hair and capris. He’s standing so far back, Mary Carillo says, confused like we all were. Normally when Federer hits that shot, it’s a winner.
The first two sets of this match served as Nadal’s popular introduction to the wider tennis-viewing world. The next three reminded us who was still in charge. Federer won, dramatically, but something had happened. You could feel it, and could tell they felt it. We had finally found someone for Roger to play against, and Rafa had found his target to chase.
It turns out they both got far more than they bargained for. Think of all the weeping on the podium Roger’s had to do while this other guy bites the trophy like an animal. And think of how Rafa must feel, steamrolling this person again and again only to still be trailing in the trophy count, to still see Roger referred to as the greatest to ever play.
But it’s closer right now on that cumulative grand scale than we ever thought it would be, which means we’ve found our stakes. They both still need to win majors to settle this, despite their age and despite the emergence of yet another generation of players billed as their replacements. They’ve far outpaced everyone but each other; problem is, in this conversation, they’re the only two involved.
(By the way: you know who else definitely thinks like this? Roger Federer. I’ll go out on a limb and bet that whatever ailed him enough to make him skip this year’s clay season somehow clears up nicely in about a week. He knows he needs another, and he knows he won’t find it here; some fights can't be won. He’ll see you in Britain.)
Back to Paris though, where as we speak Rafael Nadal is carving up another second-round opponent. Ho-hum, another spring at Roland Garros, the march toward the inevitable has begun once again. But even this is mesmerizing to watch in its own way, the way he throws the kitchen sink at every opponent like he’s chasing his first title here, not his eleventh. Repetitive as it’s gotten, Rafael Nadal needs this, and that in itself is a thing to behold. He needs to keep pace; he, like Federer, needs another. Luckily for him, he’s here.