“He’s writing checks that his body can’t cash,” Andre Agassi said of a 19-year-old Rafael Nadal back in 2005.
It has been a decade and a half since Agassi spoke those not-so-prescient words, but during that time Nadal has done everything he could to make sure they’re never forgotten. With each successful season, he proves the American a little more wrong.
Agassi’s words were trotted out in 2013, when Nadal returned from a six-month layoff to win two Grand Slams and finish No. 1. We heard them again in 2017 when Nadal became, at 31, the oldest year-end No. 1 in ATP history. And I’m quoting them one more time today, because Rafa just broke his own record by finishing this season at No. 1, at age 33; it’s the fifth time he’s earned that honor, the same number as Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. In short, Nadal is still cashing those checks, still lifting those Slam trophies—19 of them so far—and still showing no signs of slowing down. He’s won 12 titles at Roland Garros, and it’s not a stretch to imagine him ending up with 15 or more there.
To be fair to Andre, Nadal’s body has seemed to be on the verge of declaring bankruptcy numerous times. Knees, foot, wrist, adductor, abdominals, elbow: Rafa has injured them all. As he has pointed out, he’s missed more time and more majors over the years than Federer or Djokovic. Earlier this season at Indian Wells, when a flare-up of his knee tendinitis forced him to withdraw from a highly anticipated semifinal against Federer, Nadal sounded as if he might not want to continue playing, if he had to keep dealing with these types of setbacks.
But Nadal does continue. He has long played a minimalist, mostly mandatory tournament schedule. This week’s ATP Finals was his 17th event of 2019; his opponent on Friday, 21-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, was playing his 28th. Over the years, Rafa has done what he can to play shorter points, and he doesn’t indulge in as many leaping celebrations as he did as a teenager.
Yet he still plays essentially the same, highly physical game, with the same exuberance and point-for-point intensity he always has. Against Tsitsipas, Rafa didn’t hold back on the fist-pumps or the boxer-style shuffle steps after he won a point. In the end, it was the 33-year-old Nadal, rather than his younger opponent, who had a surge of energy that pushed him across the finish line.
At the beginning of the week, after his one-sided loss to Alexander Zverev, Nadal looked as if he would be lucky to win a set in London, and lucky to keep his top ranking from a fast-closing Djokovic. By Friday, Rafa had two wins, he had clinched No. 1, he had a chance to reach the semifinals, and he had the crowd on its feet. He was back, again.
What keeps Rafa going? The three-way Grand Slam title race between himself, Djokovic and Federer has motivated all of them over the last few years; together, they’ve won the last 12 major titles. Yet no matter how much any of them wins, their competition only gets tighter. All three of them have finished five seasons at No. 1, and when you add up their titles at the majors, Masters 1000s and year-end championships, their race stands at 55 for Djokovic, and 54 each for Federer and Nadal.
The GOAT race and the trivalry aside, I was struck by something Nadal said after his win over Daniil Medvedev on Wednesday. Rafa had come back from 1-5 down in the third set to steal that one, and he was asked afterward if his performance was a message to young players that they “should never quit, should fight until the last point.”
Nadal’s response was honest: He said that he was lucky to win, and that at 5-1 he expected to lose. He also admitted what every player who makes a miraculous comeback secretly knows: He didn’t start playing better because he maintained his intensity; he started playing better because, believing that the match was basically over, he relaxed and loosened up. For Rafa, the more important message was that he accepted the possibility, the inevitability, of defeat.
“Examples are not for one day,” Nadal said. “Examples are every day. And in my opinion, the example is not the comeback, because the comeback is—of course you need to be there and you need to keep fighting, but the example, in my opinion, is not break a racquet when you are 5-1 in the third or not be out of your self-control when the things are not going the right way.
“Just staying positive, staying on court, accepting that the opponent is playing a little bit better than you and accepting that you are not that good. That’s the only example, no? Because sometimes the frustration comes when you consider yourself too good, and you don’t accept the mistakes that you are doing.
“For me, that’s the only example I can try to tell the guys. Don’t consider themselves too good. Accept the mistakes, because everybody have mistakes and you need to keep going after the mistakes. That’s the only way.”
“Accepting that you are not that good.” Those words fly in the face of every rah-rah halftime pep talk ever given. Most athletes are taught from Day 1 that we need to believe that we are that good, and that we can and should defeat our opponents. We hear all the time about a “champion’s arrogance,” and how the greats can will themselves into invincibility.
Nadal offers a different, more realistic, but just as effective way. Rather than block out the idea of losing, he acknowledges it, even welcomes it. Rather than seeing himself as superior to the regular run of humanity, he sees himself as normal—i.e., someone who can lose.
This stoical philosophy doesn’t work to his benefit every time. Nadal has let his doubts and nerves get the better of him in matches that he could have won. But in the long term, it’s a big part of why he is still at the top of the sport. It has helped him bounce back from two fifth-set losses in Australian Open finals; from a two-year Slam drought in 2015 and 2016 when he regularly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory; from long losing streaks to Djokovic; from years of early-round losses at Wimbledon; from months on the sidelines with injuries.
Agassi wasn’t the only person who thought Nadal’s career would be short-lived in 2005; most of the tennis world wondered how long he could withstand the pounding he puts himself through every time he walks on court. Fourteen years later, Rafa is No. 1 in the world. Did we underestimate his body? No, we underestimated his mind.