On Inevitability

While it feels like this era of men’s tennis has no ending, I do think it has a distinct point of origin. April 3, 2005, the championship match in Miami. Roger Federer, already a four-time major champion at the time and drifting into the conversation about all-time greats, took the court against an upstart teenager ranked outside the top thirty in the world. It was shocking then to watch that child go up two sets to none and even a break in the third against Federer. Something was happening: he moved like he was in fast-forward while Roger looked dazed, or surprised that shots of his that ordinarily went for easy winners were coming back with bite. We were watching not just an upset but a beatdown of a player we otherwise thought might be invincible.


It’s hard to capture what happened next in that match. Down two sets and tied deep in the third, Federer played an aggressive point and got in position to smash away an easy lob—but he missed. The ball caught his frame and sailed long, and as he walked toward his chair for the changeover he took a full pitcher’s windup and spiked his racket into the ground. The crowd booed; Roger sulked. But when the players retook the court a minute later, something palpable in the air had snapped. Federer appeared to be completely transformed while his opponent suddenly looked wide-eyed and out of gas. Even watching it again now, it's as though he suddenly woke up from a fugue state and realized he was about to finish dominating Roger Federer, which is a bit like stepping out over a cliff in a Looney Toon and looking down—the gravity only kicks in when you remember it's there. It did. Federer would win that third set and then dominate the next two for a five-set comeback win.


I thought about that old match a lot this morning while watching Federer’s opponent that day, Rafael Nadal, play in the championship match of the 2021 Barcelona Open. Even more than Roland Garros, this event is Nadal’s home. He’s won it twelve times now after today, the Spanish crowd heavily favors him, and the court itself is literally named Pista Rafael Nadal. This is where he traditionally rounds into unbeatable form for Paris a few weeks later. And for most of today’s championship against Stefanos Tsitsipas, he was noticeably the worse player.


So what do we call it when this keeps happening? Gravity? Inertia? I don’t know how Nadal beat a player today who looked faster, younger, and more explosive from start to finish than he did, beyond just the self-reinforcing truth that this is how it goes. Tsitsipas broke serve early in both the first and second sets, and even fought off some match points in the second set before winning it. This felt like his day. His body language never dipped, he played great the whole way through, he showed up with a game plan that mostly worked. While Rafa looked stuck in neutral all tournament, Tsitsipas carried his energy from a breakthrough Monte Carlo championship last week into a dominant tournament in Barcelona, and he definitely looks good enough to win in Paris—and none of it mattered, because on this surface and in this situation, Rafael Nadal does not lose.


I don’t think laws of physics like that pop into existence overnight. In 2005, Nadal saw firsthand what playing better than one of the greats gets you: nothing, unless you have the stomach to finish the task. That relentlessness will now be the trait we remember him for more than any other part of his game, that way time and time again he has transformed himself into an inevitability no matter what other details are in play.


I can’t say that I particularly enjoy watching Rafael Nadal play tennis on an aesthetic level, especially when he’s on the court with someone as fluid and exciting as Tsitsipas. I also think Nadal is probably the greatest player of all time specifically because of this, because the aesthetics of his game are secondary to his sheer force of will. If you’re looking for something about him to be intrigued by as we head toward Paris, this is it: by his standards Rafael Nadal is not playing very well right now, and we are about to learn the extent to which that even matters. As he ages and his body diminishes while the younger generation of players comes into its own, the sense of inevitability he cultivates will only be put to the test more frequently.


Whether any of this matters will depend on how quickly the younger players like Stefanos Tsitsipas internalize that same lesson. I have to say, I’m unabashedly optimistic; more than his breathtaking forehand today the thing I noticed most from Stef was an air of belief, combined with some refined details to his game. I am rooting these days for a changing of the guard that is as abrupt and violent as possible—I want one of these young players to beat these dudes while they still think they can’t be beaten. It didn’t happen today, just like it didn’t happen for a teenaged Rafa that day in Miami. But we remember that match because of what changed after it. I have a hope and suspicion we might someday look back at today in that way too.