Rafa, It’s Time to Come Home
An examination of Rafael Nadal’s greatness through an Aussie recap.
Rafa, it’s time to come home.
There is a creeping, occasionally slow-moving endgame that comes for most of us. It’s an inescapable outcome. It is neither good nor bad – it’s natural. But the sooner it’s accepted, the quicker you’ll have peace of mind.
Rafa, it’s not just an awkward camera angle. The light did not cause an odd reflection in the mirror. Don’t lie to yourself. It’s just your time.
You’re not the untamed upstart teenager wowing crowds anymore. Gone are the flowing locks. Gone are the capri pants. It’s okay! The same wisdom that allowed you to move on the unkempt look, has propelled you to one of the greatest careers in the history of sport.
If Agassi can find his way, you can too.
Rafa, it’s time to come home.
The blazing blue courts at Melbourne Park are oceanesque. They are bright enough to light up a dark room ten thousand miles away. The courts shimmer and the players sweat under the Aussie sun. The Australian Open is a symbol that my cold Pennsylvania winter will have to end eventually.
Despite streaming and scheduling issues, I was impressed by ESPN’s coverage of the tournament this year. The network was able to take advantage of the striking images created by the setting. The sun, the shadows, and of course the blue courts provide an intense visual spectacle. ESPN was also the beneficiary of some attention-grabbing storylines. The Slam began with Novak Djokovic’s provocative back-and-forth-and-back-again saga and it was able to end on a high note of Australian victories.
But it was Rafael Nadal’s run to his 21st Grand Slam title that became the talking point of the tournament. It became a celebration of his comeback and a conversation about his place in history. Rafa eclipsed all else.
Nadal’s Australian Open technically began with a first-round victory over a 28-year-old American named Marcos Giron. That match was followed by a win against the 30-year-old German Yannick Hanfmann. Both were straight-set affairs and the results were never in doubt. Neither will be given much mention in any retelling of Nadal’s 21st.
Rafa finally dropped a set in the 3rd round to the tall Russian Karen Khachanov. Still, the match inspired little debate. Nadal’s tournament really began in his 4th round matchup against Adrian Mannarino – specifically the first set tiebreaker that ended 16-14 in Nadal’s favor. Up to that point, Rafa had nothing to stress about. He had been steady, almost reserved in his first three matches. This tiebreaker dragged the emotion out of Nadal and the crowd. It was a rollercoaster of a tiebreaker that inspired fist-pumps, yelling, strange dance-like celebrations, as well as visible disappointment after important misses. It was a visceral television experience; I could not imagine how it must have felt to be there. Eventually, Nadal was able to take the 21-minute tiebreaker, the first set, and the match. The sleeping giant was awakened.
While Rafa beat the Frenchman Mannarino at Rod Laver Arena, another lefty was winning to set up a potentially thrilling matchup in the quarters. Denis Shapovalov won a decisive straight-set victory over Alexander Zverev that would send him to his first Aussie quarterfinal.
As a teenager in 2017, Denis beat Rafa in Montreal in a dramatic match that signaled Shapo’s arrival to the tour. Shapovalov has a one-handed backhand that is one of the most sensational and skillful shots in tennis. Though Nadal is historically spectacular against fellow lefties, Shapovalov has the goods to beat him.
The match went five sets and over four hours. What makes Shapovalov fun is his youthful exuberance. He has no fear in attempting a spectacular winner. This also means he can be quite erratic and Rafa was able to capitalize on enough moments of inconsistency to complete the victory. And though he won, Nadal’s age was evident at points in the match. It was an impressive win, but one that inspired questions about the 35-year-old’s ability to make it through to the final. Shapovalov would only be the first young star on Rafa’s journey to a second title down under.
Rafa was the tournament favorite at this point, but the five-set match against Shapovalov was a reminder of his age. At 35 years old, he was still more than willing to scramble across the court for a ball, but he would also “manage” his effort in games that began to favor the opponent – occasionally letting a winner fly past him in an attempt to conserve energy.
Our other reminder of his age came in the form of wisps of hair that would sneak over his Nike headband. These wisps seem to have been allowed to grow longer so they could be combed over any thinning spots. Nadal is not the only one to do this. People all around the world try the “lengthen-and-cover” method, I just don’t know why. I would imagine it’s a combination of pride and hubris, but it presents itself as one last feeble attempt before giving in… before going home.
Once again, Rafa, it’s time to come home.
If this expression is unfamiliar, not only will I excuse your confusion, I’ll apologize. I’ve used the phrase three times and alluded to it on a fourth occasion without an explanation. “Going home” is an idiom that refers to a person with thinning hair acknowledging reality and shaving their head. It was best described and defined through banter between Sportscenter’s Scott Van Pelt and golfing legend Tiger Woods. Van Pelt, a bald man who accepted his follicle truth long ago, jokingly poked fun at Tiger’s receding hairline and asked when he would make his way home.
Rafa could use that same pep talk.
Of course, this is in jest. His thinning hair doesn’t deserve this much discourse. It better serves as a sign of how long Nadal has been so good. Following the Shapovalov match, Rafa went on to defeat Matteo Berrettini in the semifinal. Then, after beginning the final down two sets to Daniil Medvedev, Nadal found a way to mount an incredible and victorious comeback. It was a tournament final filled with enough MacGuffins and plot twists to make a Hollywood screenwriter blush.
Rafael Nadal has now won 21 Grand Slams. That is an unfathomable accomplishment. What’s almost as unbelievable is that he won his first 17 years ago. His range of Grand Slams spans an entire generation. When he won his first French Open the biggest movie in the world was Star Wars: Episode III. The 2nd generation of the iPod mini was released that year – the iPhone did not yet exist. Nadal’s first Grand Slam title was closer in time to the fall of the Berlin Wall than to our current day and his 21st title. Take a moment and let that resonate.
For so long we viewed Rafa Nadal as the likable spoiler to the sublimity of Roger Federer. But now, not only has Nadal caught Federer in the Slam count, he’s eclipsed him. It’s confounding. Rafa was the little brother who became a peer, but we could never eliminate that previous conception. Does that mean we underestimated Rafael Nadal for his entire career? I do not believe it is possible to underestimate a man who has won this many titles. If someone has underestimated Nadal, they simply weren’t paying attention. We’ve learned to love his idiosyncrasies. We’ve watched in amazement his ability to find a balance between smooth and power on the court.
This 21st Grand Slam has brought about a new question – is Rafa now the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time)? Almost immediately after Nadal lifted the trophy in Melbourne, Nike released a video celebrating the 21st title and claiming Rafa as the “GOAT in the men’s game.” Unfortunately, its presentation felt more like a snarky swipe at Federer than a true celebration of Nadal. Nonetheless, it was a pretty cool video.
So is he the best ever? I don’t know and nobody else knows either. Who cares? What we do know is that Rafael Nadal is greatness personified and he’s not done yet.
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