Rafael Nadal puts on a classic act once again in Madrid

Rafael Nadal after win
Rafael Nadal after win (PC: X)

Was Rafael Nadal missing clay, or was clay missing the connoisseur? On Saturday evening in Madrid, a city better known for its football teams and Bullfighting and where tickets are sold at massive prices, Nadal rolled back the years.

This is the Nadal tennis fans have missed for over 16 months, the one who had muscled his way past rivals. Against Alex de Minaur, an opponent Nadal had lost to a week earlier, he was in beast mode. Before animal-rights activists get annoyed, this was the Spaniard fired up. His eyes had lit up even as he was walking through the tunnel on to the bright clay court, where the ambience resembled an ancient amphitheatre.

Nadal is loved, fans are dying to see him, and each appearance seems like a last one. These days, one man is a show-stopper on the ATP Tour. Boy, the tennis which Nadal churned out was reminiscent of a glorious past where the left-hander would show extreme physicality while executing strokes on either flank.

If ever one needed to see Nadal again reproduce the clay-court punch and chalk out the geometry in his stroke production on a surface which he almost owns, it was Saturday night. The way he strung points together was, indeed, classic. There was no fear. For once, after January 2023, when his body almost broke down, Nadal did not seem worried about his body.

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Rafael Nadal celebrating aggresively
Rafael Nadal celebrating aggresively (PC: X)

There was no fear of disintegration, physical or mental, as he sealed a first set tie-break to send the audience into raptures. Tennis is about charisma and characters. Nadal had been missed, but he made up for months of absence with a show which was potent and poetic. The commentators were going gaga, be it in English or European languages. There is only one language which Nadal communicates in – the thwack of the racquet head striking the ball and court coverage which has balletic grace.

Where was all this for such a long time? Well, he has worked hard to try and mend his frame, even if it has been a painful exercise. Doctors, physios, trainers and the superstar himself have slogged. To come out smoking against de MInaur, an opponent he had recently lost to, must have felt liberating. On Saturday night, he played full throttle. It was adrenaline-fuelled, and the tapestry of tennis he produced oozed class. 

How long he can continue with this, nobody knows. For, a body which has been pushed beyond human limits at 37 can never be the same as it was a few years ago. The winner of 22 Grand Slam titles wants to kiss glory, and make fans happy. And it is that inner, burning desire which saw him turn on the heat against de Minaur.

“The atmosphere here is just a joke so just can’t thank enough everybody here,” Nadal said after the crowd rose to thank their idol. “Super happy to be able to be competitive against a great player like Alex, and play over two hours, it means a lot to me.”

Rafael Nadal with an outrageous stroke
Rafael Nadal with an outrageous stroke (PC: X)

He explained how physicality has been a problem for him these last 16 months. “If I’m able to play weeks in a row and if I’m able to play tennis, then I’m going to see how far I can go and how competitive I can be,” said Nadal. “But that’s not the case yet, just step by step and let’s see how I recover.”

One thing is sure, Nadal will do whatever it takes to be present for the Paris Olympics. In the old days, around 1999 and 2000, when this writer sat in the Centre Court press box at Wimbledon, talk was of how Pete Sampras would win The Championship if he could just stand on one leg and rifle in his first and second serves.

The same goes for Nadal. He may not be ready for the grind of the French Open but he is craving Olympic glory. For a moment, forget what the ranking criteria is, as laid down by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) for Paris 2024. Exceptions can be made for Nadal. Then again, Rafa has himself spoken about how he will be more than thankful to play doubles with Carlos Alcaraz at the Olympics. Modesty? That’s how the Spanish champion is, despite winning 22 Grand Slam titles in an incandescent career.

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