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Rafael Nadal's Enduring Legacy of Determination, Grit & Humility

There will be no magical run, no age- and injury-defying push into the deep end of the competition; instead their will be an enduring legacy of humanity, kindness and humility that accompanied the world's most-famous Spanish tennis player throughout his illustrious career.


Rafael Nadal, who ruled the red clay of Roland Garros as no one ever imagined someone could, exited the French Open for what is likely his final time early Monday evening, May 27, showered with an outpouring of love and admiration he earned during a nearly two-decade reign, over a tournament that became as much a part of his identity as anything in sport has for any athlete.

The end officially arrived at 6:28 p.m., with a final miss off the Spaniard’s racket, forced by Alexander Zverev, who prevailed 6-3, 7-6, 6-3.

In reality, it was over far earlier than that, during the first shots of the match when it became clear that, despite all the talk of magic and possibility, this version of Nadal, though still capable of flashes of his old self, was something far different than the one who won 112 of 115 matches and 14 championships here.

An emotional Nadal addressed the capacity crowd at Stade Roland Garros, his voice brimming with the mixed emotions of achievement, disappointment, acceptance and gratitude.

“I’m happy that I finished healthy, and I was ready for more,” said Nadal, not long after the match. He battled injury after injury the past two years. He has endured hip surgery, tears and strains to muscles in his hip and abdomen.

“I wake up one day and feel like a snake bit me, the next day a tiger,” he said. Nadal, who started playing tennis at age 4, became of the King of Clay and ruled the Roland-Garros tournament for years. That larger-than-life title and incredible legacy coupled with his storied humility and determination have fueled his popularity among tennis fans for years.

Nadal, the champion, became very much Nadal, the human, last Monday afternoon at Roland-Garros. But the once-untouchable tennis star's very public moment of self-realization - injuries, aging, pain and loss - didn't end in defeat, personal or professional.

Rather it was the culmination of his preparation to play the French Open one last time. He never gave up hope that all the work he was putting in might somehow allow him to get his body in shape to play at the tournament that means more to him than any other. And he did that.

“If it’s the last time I play here, then I am at peace with myself,” he said. “I tried everything for two years to be ready for this. I lost, but that is part of the business.”

More than 15,000 fans packed into every nook of Court Philippe-Chatrier. Novak Djokovic was there. So was Iga Swiatek. Carlos Alcaraz came to watch as well.

A clump of two-dozen that is used to getting choice seats clogged the entryway to the president’s box. In the upper reaches of the stadium, fans crouched on stairways. In the fancy areas, the luxury suites and club rooms, the bartenders had little to do, their customers too focused on the thing everyone wanted from this day — the last glimpses of Nadal bull-whipping his forehands, short-hopping volleys off the dirt, and skipping his way into those roof-raising windmill fist-pumps in the court where he has had more occasion to do them than anywhere else.

For more than an hour, there wasn’t much of any of that, then suddenly there was plenty, a glorious burst of vintage Nadal running around his backhand to blast a forehand and push Zverev deep, perfectly set up for the soft drop shot into the open court. There was an ace down the throat of Chatrier. And here he was, serving at 5-4 to draw even at a set apiece, ready to send the message that he was prepared to “die on the court,” as he always put it.

Prior to the match, Nadal had spoken about his biggest concern facing Zverev — the world No. 4 and the most fit and in-form player at the top of the sport — in the first round. He’d been playing well in practice, moving with a freedom he hadn’t felt in months, and feeling in moments like he had the level of the best players in the world.

Practice sets, though, are one thing. Making the right decisions and executing the shots under the pressure of a Grand Slam with the eyes of the world watching, knowing the consequences of the slightest misses — that’s something that only comes with the kinds of matches Nadal has not played in nearly two years.

Ultimately, that is what doomed him on a chilly and dreary afternoon and evening under the roof on Chatrier. In the moments when he’d nearly always found his best tennis and made the right decisions and the most courageous of shots — when he served to draw even, then battled into a do-or-die tiebreaker — they weren’t there.

He hit serves that became easy chances for Zverev to go on the defensive, and groundstrokes into the middle of the court that Zverev pounded for winners. The big German needed just four points to square up the set at 5-5, then rode his killer serve and jumped on two ill-advised drop shots from Nadal to take a two-set lead and turn the end into a matter of time and details.


“For me it was difficult to show a much better level than today,” said Nadal. “But that’s something that is 100 per cent normal when you are not playing tournaments in a row, when you are not playing these kind of matches since almost two years, it’s normal that your level is not like this, because in the end you need to practice this, and the only way to practice this is competing.”

When Zverev rocketed a backhand service return past a charging Nadal to get the crucial break of serve in the third set, a stadium that had throbbed only minutes before as the Spaniard fought to extend his French Open life just a little longer, fell nearly silent. Respect for the champion; love for the human.

It was end of something, not a life, but something that felt like a vital part of so many people’s lives for so long, was coming.

Then, the match was over, but the man - the human - will long live on. His humanity and humility converged as he struggled to find the right words to address the press and fans.

“Bonjour a tous... The feelings that you made me feel here are unforgettable,” he said to the adoring crowd. “Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart. Merci beaucoup.”

After a long ovation, and more chants of “Rafa…Rafa…”, he gathered his bags and slung one over each shoulder and started for the tunnel, pausing near the baseline for a wave in each direction before moving on.

If all goes as planned Nadal will be back at Roland Garros before too long, to play the Olympic tournament in July.

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