Rafael Nadal's 2018 Slam season ends in defeat, but it was an epic run

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Rafael Nadal's five-set win over Dominic Thiem, a US Open classic:

NEW YORK—It was four games into his semifinal with Juan Martin del Potro, and Rafael Nadal had just won a point after an extended rally. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary, except that when it was over, he shot a look of concern up at his team, and muttered a longer-than-normal stream of words in their direction. He had, he said later, felt pain in his right knee. Unfortunately, after years of feeling exactly that same pain, he knew what it meant, and he knew that his US Open was probably over.

“After that, I was just trying to see if in some moment the thing can improve during the match,” a downcast Nadal said later, “But no, was not the day.”

Nadal prolonged the inevitable for two hours. He had his knee taped, untaped, and taped again. He had his quadriceps massaged. He looked forlornly toward his team, and even bounced one his water bottles off his legs in frustration. Ignoring the pain, he won eight straight points and pushed the first set to a tiebreaker. But he couldn’t push any farther.

“I waited as much as I can,” Nadal said. “You could imagine very difficult for me to say good-bye before the match finish. But at some point you have to take a decision. It was so difficult for me to keep playing at the same time that way, having too much pain.

“That was not a tennis match at the end, no?”

Rafael Nadal couldn't continue against Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals. (Photos by Anita Aguilar)

Coming into this semifinal, Nadal had logged more than 15 hours on court in his first five matches. He had survived three punishing battles against opponents—Karen Khachanov, Nikoloz Basilashvili and Dominic Thiem—who were throwing everything they had at him, often on intensely hot and humid days. Rafa and Thiem dueled until 2:00 A.M., and a fifth-set tiebreaker. It’s hardly surprising that over the course of the first week Nadal felt some twinges of knee pain, telltale signs of the tendinitis that he has suffered from for much of his career.

“The knee is always very similar,” he said. “When that happens, yeah, just accept it.”

Accepting it is still hard, though. By the end of his press conference today, Nadal had begun to tear up. “It’s OK,” was his last answer in English.

“Is not about losing,” he said of his disappointment. “Is about [not having] the chance to fight for it.”

So ends Nadal’s Grand Slam season, not with a season-capping triumph, like 2017, but with a twinge and a tear. It’s a disappointing conclusion to what has been a memorably dramatic season for him. He won his 11th French Open, reached the semifinals at Wimbledon and the US Open, and the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, where he was also forced to retire. He’s 45-4, has won five of the nine tournaments he’s entered, and for a second straight season he’s No. 1 in the world.

“I’m having two great years,” Nadal said. “Last year was a fantastic year. This year have been a fantastic year, until this moment. I lost four matches.”

The best part of Rafa’s 2018 for me hasn’t been his win-loss record; it has been the classic Grand Slam matches that he has had a hand in creating. Those included the three best men’s contests of the year—a five-set win over Del Potro in the Wimbledon quarterfinals; a loss, 10-8 in the fifth, to Djokovic in the Wimbledon semifinals; and a win over Thiem, 7-6 in the fifth, at the Open. All of them neared or crossed the five-hour mark.

This hasn’t been Nadal’s very best year, but together those three matches may make it his most characteristic one—they’re a microcosm of what has made him the competitor he is. By this point, he has won enough and lost often enough, in the most nerve-wracking moments and on the most important stages, to have learned to appreciate victory and defeat in equal measure; he has learned to ignore them, as far as they can be ignored. “To treat them,” as the poem says, “just the same.” That’s what we ask of every athlete, but how many can find that perspective? Judging by his words this year, Nadal has come as close as any.

After losing to Djokovic at Wimbledon, Rafa said, “I can say he deserve it, because he deserve it. In my opinion, he deserve it. I deserve it, too. Both of us deserve it. As I say the other day against Del Potro, anyone could win. Today I say the same. The other day was for me, today was for him. That’s it.”

After beating Thiem at the Open, Nadal said, “You know, winning, losing, I lost in Wimbledon a match like this. Today was for me. In some way when you give everything that you have, win or lose—is just that someone have to lose, someone have to win, that’s part of the game. But the personal satisfaction when you give everything and you play with the right attitude is the same.”

These are the types of high-minded words that many of us might say to rationalize a loss, and make it sting a little less. But Rafa also says them after he wins a dramatic match. Coming from him at this stage of his long, illustrious, topsy-turvy career, they no longer sound like platitudes. They sound like the hard-earned truth.

For some, Nadal’s runs at Wimbledon and the Open won’t mean anything, because they won’t add to his Slam-title count—even after 10 combined wins and nearly 30 hours on court at those two events, he’s still at 17. But that just shows how much of a great player’s career, how much effort and emotion, isn’t included in the Slam total. Nadal has won more majors in other years, but few athletes have proven the value, and thrill, of competing for its own sake the way he has in 2018.

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