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Orange Crush

It’s late May and hot out and lately I’ve been thinking about a specific weekend in 2008. This happens to me every year during tennis’s clay run through Monte Carlo, Spain, Rome, and then of course Paris, where the French Open begins soon—something about bright orange courts lined in flowers under a spring sun can make your mind wander. It’s all very pleasing to look at and this year promises more of the same, especially given that the title is more up for grabs than it’s been in about twenty years. We are going to have fun watching this, which is a bit of a paradox given that clay-court tennis is mostly about attrition. You can lose sight of that amidst the pastel colors and beautiful people—this shit is brutal. It’s why I always end up back at the 2008 Roland Garros men’s final, which had nothing to do with beauty and everything to do with punishment.

That was supposed to be the year. Top-ranked Roger Federer was mid-prime and had already won twelve majors, well on his way to catching Sampras’s fourteen and becoming everyone’s consensus Greatest Player Ever. Untouchable anywhere else in the world, the only hole in his resume was here, at Roland Garros. He’d had a close call in 2005, when he lost in the semifinal, and in 2006 and 2007, when he lost in the championship match but played well enough to beat just about anyone in the history of the sport. Calling Roger Federer “underrated” is largely silly but it applies here: he was an excellent, dominant clay-court tennis player. He grew up on clay, knew how to move on the surface, and was winning elite professional titles on it by this moment in 2008. It was his “weakest surface” only in that he was a demigod on grass and concrete. Watch it back and it’s not like he played poorly in this 2008 final either, and having played the same opponent the last three years here, he’d even shown up with a plan. Federer was ready.

All of this is to properly contextualize that Rafael Nadal humiliated Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 that afternoon, on the way to his fourth-straight French Open title.

You knew who this would be about, right? It’s who Roland Garros has been about for two decades, because if Rafael Nadal is there and he’s healthy he doesn’t lose. Tennis has all but settled its long debate of the greatest player of all time—anyone with sense can see that Djokovic’s resume is unassailable. But where in that calculus do we account for Sundays like this one in 2008, when a player who was already setting the clay-court standard achieves the most dominant, invincible level of tennis any of us have ever seen?

I can’t help myself; we’ve got to spend a minute on what it looked like. That lefty forehand on that surface—the scythe, the whip, pick your dangerous curved-instrument metaphor—was a singularly court-warping stroke. The spin and trajectory shoved Federer into his backhand corner and he never reemerged. If Federer did manage to come forward, Nadal would snap through it even harder and dip the ball into Federer’s ankles or past him entirely. He hit absurd running backhand passes and lobs for all three sets; Federer had shown up wanting, reasonably, to attack Nadal in the frontcourt rather than get sucked into rangy baseline rallies, and he even executed this plan pretty well, and it didn’t matter whatsoever. From the baseline Nadal would work the ad-side forehand into the inside-out rocket that would soon start winning him majors on every other surface. That’s one more reason this is my favorite Nadal match ever: his game hadn’t fully evolved yet. He didn’t really have a serve and he almost never came to net, two things he would eventually become quite good at. This was raw, primal Nadal, his natural tendencies unpolished and unrestrained and better for it.

Nadal made just thirteen unforced errors across those three sets. He put 90 percent of his returns in play against an all-time precision server. He gave up just fourteen winners and hit twenty-one of his own, a number that’s staggeringly high considering he played nearly every point from his comfortable defensive position. I am confident that for as long as I live I will not see mastery of a clay court or any court on that level ever again.

We have to hold these memories close though, because his tennis won’t look like that this week. Soon we will get to watch Rafael Nadal play on Court Philippe Chatrier, where he ruled like a tyrant for his entire career, at least one more time. He will do so while unseeded, injured, and on his way out. To get something out of the way, I do not believe Nadal can win this tournament. It hasn’t been the spring he’s wanted leading up to it, and he looks, more than anything, tired. This is a farewell, not a championship run. It’s a last chance to wave before stepping aside for players who haven’t yet eaten their fill.

That question is the other side of the Nadal coin here in Paris. If not him, who? Alcaraz is banged up, which is a shame since he keeps telling us this is the major he’d be best at (he’s wrong; that freak was built in a lab to play hard-court tennis). Djokovic just finished a truly perplexing spring: a bad loss at Indian Wells, then a withdrawal from Miami to get back to Europe, where he lost weird matches in Monte Carlo, Rome, and Geneva. Jannik Sinner, who started the year on an all-time heater, is nursing injuries of his own. Any of these guys could string together two healthy weeks and win it, or they could lose to basically anyone. We’ll see.

Sinner and Alcaraz though, these are guys with all the time in the world and major titles already in hand. The rest of the field is where we see the real results of Nadal’s era-warping dominance at this event. Here are some tennis players we were told would inevitably win majors and be considered the best player in the world: Grigor Dimitrov, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev. Tennis’s Big Three swallowed their potential energy whole, no more so than here, where Nadal spent nearly two decades taking one possible major title per year fully off the table. In essence, the sport skipped the era when these guys were supposed to be winning. We’ve moved straight from Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer immediately to this new crop of Zoomer-aged freaks of nature.

For these men caught between a finally dying era and the new one rushing toward us, this is it. The 2024 French Open is as wide open a chance at claiming a major and stopping the whispers as they are ever going to get. Tsitsipas and Zverev in particular have very clean-looking draws—

Wait, though. Speaking of Zverev’s draw: I just looked up some numbers on his unseeded first-round opponent, and you’re not going to believe this stuff. He’s apparently won this event a fake-sounding fourteen times, and has put together a 112-3 win-loss record while doing so. He didn’t play last year, which means the last time he was here he was steamrolling through the 2022 championship match against Casper Ruud. Zverev will be playing his first-round match in the big stadium, which will be sold out, and every last person in the crowd besides maybe his own father will be shouting at the top of their lungs for his opponent to win. Here is my advice to Alexander Zverev for Sunday: do not start slow. Do not let this opponent feel like the clock is winding backward; do not wake the ghosts in that building.

It’s intoxicating to imagine it, another Parisian springtime fantasy. I do believe it is a fantasy though, and I’m doing what I can to prepare for how that is going to feel when it shatters. Every part of my tennis brain tells me that, on Sunday, Rafael Nadal is going to lose in the first round at Roland Garros. I know how greedy it is to feel disappointed by this reality, and I know that I will be doing everything I can to talk myself into the upset, especially against a guy like Zverev who, to put it extremely diplomatically, does not inspire a lot of personal warmth.

When my level head prevails though, what I want is for Nadal to feel that specific dirt under his shoes one more time, and for us to watch him feel it, and for him to get a sendoff that at least draws close to what he deserves. It won’t; it couldn’t possibly. And once whatever planned post-match presentation for him concludes, he is going to walk out of that court, and that will be that. The first round will continue. The next scheduled match will take the court. Two more brutal, physical weeks of this event will happen and, with Rafael Nadal not a part of it, anything can happen and will.

And that’s where we find ourselves: for the first time in twenty years, the French Open is truly that—open. Once Nadal is gone, the whole sport becomes less legible. For those of us who spent our formative years watching his singular career, a whole lot of other things will make less sense too. Ready or not, it’ll be our job to sort out what he leaves in his wake.





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