The last shot that Rafael Nadal hit in his 6-1, 6-0, 6-3 win over Mackenzie McDonald on Wednesday looked like it was going to sail wide. Instead, it dropped just inside the sideline for a winner. That’s what Nadal’s shots tend to do at Roland Garros.
The Spaniard and the American both stopped for a split-second and waited for a call. When none came, they began to make their way to the net, as the few fans scattered around Court Philippe Chatrier politely applauded. After a few steps, Nadal seemed to decide that the moment needed a little oomph, a little zing, a little showmanship—something to mark the occasion, and to remind himself that he was through to the third round. So he clenched his left fist and stuck out his arm. Some people in the crowd clapped a little louder.
“The only thing I can do is just stay positive, do my job, try my best every single day,” Nadal said after his first-round match at Roland Garros on Monday. “That’s what I did since I arrived here.”
Nadal the player and star has done everything he can at Roland Garros to make the world seem normal again. While many of his colleagues are dressed in black for this cold-weather edition of the tournament, Nadal and Nike have stuck to his traditional bright colors—this year he’s in ice blue with orange and pink. And as he says in each of his press conferences, he has worked overtime to adjust to the late-September temperature, which has hovered in the high 40s; the heavier balls that the event has debuted this year; the new roof over Chatrier; and the absence of the knowledgeably raucous French fans in that arena’s seats. Those fans have never universally rooted for Rafa, of course, but at least they served as an obstacle for him to defy and overcome.
This year the conditions in Paris will have to serve as Nadal’s obstacles, and so far he’s done a good job of using them as motivation and a way to stay focused. After looking slightly lost in Rome two weeks ago, he was his normal self against McDonald on Wednesday. Rafa achieved his first goal, which he says is to serve well. He hit 31 winners, including a few from the backhand side. He slid and scrambled and leaped and smashed and passed as well as ever. He even playfully tossed his racquet in the air, in a vain attempt to return an overhead of McDonald’s. You know Rafa is feeling good if he’s playing to the crowd like that.
According to him, the milder weather helped.
“Today was not that cold, so that’s the main thing,” Nadal said. “Not that cold, the conditions not that bad.”
He may have more ups and downs against stronger opponents, and on chillier days to come. But if there were any worries about how Nadal, who turned 34 in June, would bounce back after six months on the sidelines, he allayed them for today.
But even as Nadal the player has worked to make life feel normal, Nadal the person has been careful to acknowledge that this tournament, and sports in general, can’t offer an escape from the realities of 2020. After his first-round win, he was asked if he thought Roland Garros was “important for the people” because “the players have a chance to fight against the virus and give the world something to be inspired by.”
Nadal, who has never tried to wish away the pandemic or act as if playing tennis will help defeat it, wasn’t going to go that far.
“I will not say it’s important,” Rafa said of Roland Garros, “because in the world there are things much more important than a tennis a tournament, no?”
The return of tennis can’t be seen as a return to normalcy, because there is no return to normalcy yet—the empty seats at Roland Garros prove it. Sports right now are as much a reflection of reality as they are an escape from it. The “economic situation worldwide is unpredictable, so difficult,” Nadal says, and the tennis court is just another workplace where people are trying to muddle through this moment. All he can do is his job.
“The only thing that I can guarantee is I gonna be here,” Nadal said on Monday, “try my best every single day fighting, and trying to give to the people my best every single day, because in some way sport helps the people, no?”
Sport can help, because it can give us examples of people who are finding ways to become stronger during the pandemic. One of those is Naomi Osaka, who spent the lockdown figuring out what she really wanted to do with her career, and then did it at the US Open.
So far in Paris, Nadal’s determination to accept the realities of 2020 and make the best of them can also be seen a model for the times. We’ll see how far it gets him over the next two weeks. For me, the sight of the Spaniard stepping up to the service line again, bouncing the ball slowly, gathering himself and blocking everything and everyone out of his mind as he prepares to go to work, has already helped. If anything is going to make us feel normal or inspired for a few hours, it’s Rafa at Roland Garros.