For those of us who love sports, witnessing the decline of our icons is, in a way, assuming that time passes for all of us; that we are getting older. Those phenomena that dazzled us leave an indelible mark on our memory and, at the same time, are transformed into images that we idealize. Suddenly, we realize that we miss to the point of melancholy those who, through such hegemony, became remnant figures, of an almost tedious superiority.
Sport is full of examples in this regard.
Can’t we imagine some fanatic sitting in the stands of the Water Bucket eager to see who would be able to prevent Michael Phelps from reaching the golden medal that, finally, he achieved? That same fan would probably pay twice as much today for a ticket to see the Baltimore phenomenon jump into the pool in Paris 2024.
Perhaps the same thing happened in Tokyo when the loss of notion of her jumping routine condemned Simone Biles and a little of us all to enjoy the impotence of one of the most formidable athletes who crossed the history of gymnastics: seeing her win was less news than seeing her lose; today, we all miss her.
Nothing different happened at the Olympic Stadium in London when a tear in the last relay of the World Athletics Championship ended Usain Bolt’s career.
Even the most skeptical of spectators knows that, without the Jamaican, no one would be able to generate such electricity and omnipresence on the tracks.
Beyond the logic that each of these examples assumed when it came to taking a step aside -cracks don’t always abandon high competition before it leaves them-, it is common that, only at the moment of goodbye, we are aware of their real dimension. It happens to us when we start to miss them.
For nearly 20 years, men’s tennis went through an unprecedented phase.
Between Wimbledon in 2003 and Australia in 2023, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic shared 64 of 75 Grand Slams. Even more. Since Federer won his first British Open, the three of them have divided 28 of the 29 major tournaments played, only interrupted by Juan Martin del Potro and his 2009 US Open. And even more so. To give a historical dimension to this due appropriation of the throne of tennis, it is enough to remember that, in order to reach the number that the three of them had of great titles, those achieved by Pete Sampras, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Bill Tilden, Ken Rosewall, Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors must be put together in the same bag. Anyone who is a fan of this sport will understand what such names mean in history.
The end of the cycle was evident with Federer’s retirement: it was enough that he lost in the Wimbledon 2021 quarterfinals against the Polish Hubert Hurkacz - a number 15 in the world that is not negligible - for the Swiss to decide that, if he could not continue to be the owner of the garden of his house, no other tennis effort would make sense.
And, in case anyone had doubts about it or hoped that any of that would still be alive, this week cleared up any speculation. Nadal’s announcement that his physique would not allow him to face the next Roland Garros with a certain level of competitiveness sounded like much more than a circumstantial absence to me.
Wimbledon is to Federer what the Bois de Boulogne classic is to the Spanish. Since his last injury at the Australian Open, in January, it seemed that all of Rafa’s efforts and tests pointed to a new gala performance at the French Open. That a competitive animal of its size is resigned to not giving itself the supreme pleasure is frankly symptomatic. The feeling is that, if we were to have one more Mallorcan show, it would be like those farewells that are chosen pointlessly. A farewell show of those that dispense with rivals and results. Hopefully it’s just a bad perception.
Selfish as we are when it comes to demanding that our idols guarantee us eternal enjoyment, we stop taking into account that those who spent a lifetime turning into news that, from time to time, someone beats them rarely endure the sunset passing over them.
And Nadal is one of those. A phenomenon of perseverance and improvement capable of winning by superiority, by knowledge of the game, by power but, also, by persuasion. There were not a few times when, on those days when things didn’t go the way you wanted, Rafa ended up solving everything with whatever badge, shirt, last name or figure you want. We saw a lot of very good players feeling that the urgency was still theirs even though they had a clear advantage. Thus, they went from being “those who have nothing to lose” to being those who “let’s see if they dare to beat me”.
I think that of all this fascinating and unrepeatable period, what we are going to miss the most were the duels with Federer. It is still an interesting fact considering that, of the possible crosses between triumvirs, it is the one that was played the least often. It is also a feeling between unfair and unfriendly with respect to Djokovic, who is the one who won the most in those head-to-head.
But nothing more distinguished the circuit than such a duel of styles. On one hand, the craftsman, the one who did everything with Nureyev’s aesthetics, the one who never sweated. On the other hand, the fury, the one who couldn’t play without body aches, the one who seemed to face each game as if the one in front were about to steal his wallet. Not only did Nadal win more than he lost to the Swiss, but he was left with one of the most wonderful stories this sport ever witnessed when he won 9-7 in the fifth in the memorable 2008 Wimbledon final. The king of dust dethroned the king of grass in a game that we started watching with breakfast and found us screwed to the TV at snack time. Things that I very much doubt will happen to us again.
Once, sitting in the press box on the center court of All England, I understood that being a Grand Slam champion is a matter of life. It was in 1987 when Australia’s Pat Cash won his only Major. One Roland Garros was enough for Guillermo Vilas to become an eternal idol for Parisians.
Multiply that feat by 14. Although it sounds too cold for such excellence, perhaps behind that statistic lies one of the strongest reasons why Rafael Nadal decided to leave us a little more orphans of tennis. Perhaps also because of that same greatness he will leave us without even a farewell performance.