WATCH: Isner once took Nadal to five sets on the clay courts of Roland Garros, but the Spaniard had no such problems in Rome.

If you’re a tennis fan, you can probably hear these words being spoken in the voice of their originator as you read them:

“What happened in Monte Carlo happened, what happened in Barcelona happened, what happened in Madrid happened. And here we are: We are in Rome.”

The speaker was Rafael Nadal, and the year was 2019. What exactly “happened”—or “happa-ned,” in Rafa-speak—to him in all of those places that season? He lost, on clay, in the semifinals, at three straight events leading up to Roland Garros. This was, in men’s tennis terms, an earth-shattering series of events, and Nadal was obviously tired of hearing about it. But it turned out he was right: We were in Rome, a tournament he had won eight times before, and he won it again in 2019. More significantly, he also went on to win Roland Garros for a 12th time. What happened in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Madrid was quickly forgotten.

One of the great things about Nadal’s quote is that, as long as the tennis tours exist, it will never not be true. We can say it over again each May, when play begins at the Foro Italico. And Rafa can say it over and over, whenever he comes back there. Which he did in his pre-tourmanent interview on Monday.

“Is true that I went through—again—a tough period of time,” he said, referring his recent rib injury, which sidelined him for two months. “But I am here. I am here to enjoy and to give myself a chance to play well here in Rome, and of course to try to be ready for Roland Garros in a couple of weeks, no?”

This year a little less has happened to Nadal during the clay season. He missed Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and was rusty in Madrid, where he nearly to lost to David Goffin, and then did lose to Carlos Alcaraz in the quarterfinals. More important, according to Nadal, the rib injury kept him off the practice court for a month and a half. Coming back from that kind of break doesn’t get easier over time, even for Rafa.


My body is like an old machine. To put this machine on again it already again takes some time. Is not the same when [you’re 19] than when [you’re] almost 36. Rafael Nadal

“When you are six weeks without touching a racquet and without having the chance to move your body,” he said. “My body is like an old machine. To put this machine on again it already again takes some time. Is not the same when [you’re 19] than when [you’re] almost 36.”

“You need to build again the confidence on your body, on your movements, then you are going to start feeling again comfortable with your tennis, no?”

Nadal didn’t waste any time getting the old machine revved up on Wednesday against John Isner. Between points, he moved with uncharacteristic dispatch; on changeovers, he jumped back on court even before the chair umpire called time; during rallies, he didn’t try anything fancy or risky. He knew that, against a server like Isner, stringing just a couple of errors together could be fatal.

As hard as Rafa tried to avoid them, those errors did come. Serving at 3-3 in the first set, he netted a volley and two nervous-looking forehands, and went down break point twice. But both times he escaped when Isner, with the first set suddenly in his sights, got a little jumpy and made two errors. That was essentially it for the match. Nadal broke in the next game when Isner put an easy volley into the net, and lost just one more game for a 6-3, 6-1 win.

This may not have been the demanding test that Rafa needs; he’ll likely get that in his next match, against Denis Shapovalov. But Isner did force Rafa to be on his guard and focusing on every point. In the past, we’ve seen Nadal go from similarly modest beginnings to hoisting the winner’s trophy in Paris. He knows that much of the attention and pressure is on Alcaraz right now, and maybe that’s not a bad thing.

“He is young, he is new, and all the new things are much more interesting than older things, without a doubt,” Rafa said of the Alcaraz phenomenon, with his usual matter-of-fact sense of perspective. “When you see a new car, always looks better. When you see a new phone, always looks better than the old one. It’s something that it’s normal in this life. I can’t complain at all about that.”

But Nadal knows his old machine well, and he seems to think it has another Roland Garros run in it, even if it doesn’t start in Rome.

“I am confident I can play well, honestly, no? I need some time, maybe this week can be a positive week, maybe not. Who knows? The only thing that is sure, I going to keep trying.

“I going to give myself a chance, and then we’ll see what’s going on.”

We are in Rome. For Rafa, that means anything can happen.