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How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Nadal

A card with a bunch of love items about Rafael Nadal. There's one of him picking his wedge, one of him screaming after a point and him, in a heart, smiling. Also there are drawings of tennis balls and tennis rackets.
Art: Dan McQuade; Images: Getty

My first response to Rafael Nadal was admiration, but that was short-lived. On a Sunday afternoon in 2005, I watched then-18-year-old Rafa lose a five-set Miami Open final to Roger Federer. Equal parts inspired and deluded, I briefly believed that I—a seventh-grader from rural Maine who trained at most twice a week, who was already maxing out his growth plates at 5-foot-6, and whose pedigree did not feature an uncle on FC Barcelona—had time to be just like Nadal. At the time I was in possession of the type of lefty looping game that Rafa was perfecting, but it wasn’t long before I veered from his example. I chose attempting bold winners over winning wars of attrition. I prized creativity (offense) over effort (defense), style (the glamorous one-handed backhand) over smarts (the drab, prudent two-hander). Strategy could not be artful, I thought; patience could not be virtuous.

This reaction—this rejection—stemmed, in part, from Nadal’s constant spoiling of Federer’s coronations, a bull stumbling upon a parade and proceeding to, well, act like a bull. Moreover, rooting for Nadal was a burden. He won a lot, but nothing about him made the fan experience easy. To support Nadal was to be an apologist. In addition to his horrendous white capris, every Nadal match was a barrage of tics and foibles. The try-hard warmups, in which he’d spring into the air and charge to the baseline after the coin toss, as if playing a minigame only he knew about. The stutter-stepping walk, to avoid a shoe ever becoming intimate with a line. The mid-set changeovers where he would sit and sip from two bottles and then arrange them just so, with a ferocious attention to detail previously exclusive to model train conventions.

And of course, the three-act play between every bit of action: the rabid toweling-off from the first point, the intricate nose-ear-nose-ear choreography of wiping and hair-tucking, and—Nadal’s signature flourish—the whole wedgie ... thing. It was all those tics and rituals, more than anything else, that turned me against Nadal. I was starting to recognize something in him that I had not yet fully recognized in myself.  

In 2008, Nadal beat my beloved Federer at Wimbledon. The next summer I read Jon Wertheim’s Strokes of Genius as a skeptic, refusing to believe that that battle had been “the greatest match ever” (as the subtitle claimed). I wasn’t expecting to enjoy reliving this five-set marathon. I was blindsided, though, when Wertheim not only discussed Nadal’s “knicker-picking” but carried water for it:

Nadal grows understandably embarrassed when asked about this tic, claiming that it’s unconscious, and though he’s tried to quit, he’s helpless to do anything about it. Unseemly as this habit is, it’s also weirdly endearing. At a time when athletes are meticulously marketed—some, including Andy Murray, keep an image consultant on the payroll—there’s something to be said for a global superstar who picks his ass in public.

Strokes of Genius

How could Wertheim defend something so nakedly disgusting? I fumed. I had no desire to try to imagine. Instead, I built a mental fortress, papering the walls with tin-hat theories of Rafa’s steroid use, forum-fueled ramblings about his patterns of convenient injury timeouts and unsporting early match retirements. I compiled shrines to legends like James Blake, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Juan Martin del Potro—hell, even Robin Soderling—who managed to look beyond the Nadal mystique and hold it together for three sets. I survived on the morsels of light they provided, hoping they were harbingers of change. For years, I lived there, waiting for Nadal to let me be.

I wasn’t playing much after high school. My love for tennis nevertheless increased, buoyed by a flexible college schedule and a fearlessness of viruses lurking on sports streaming sites. I woke up for 3 a.m. slugfests in Melbourne. I tracked previously obscure tournaments outside of the grand slam fortnights. Invariably, I would mark the semester’s end and summer’s launch not with a Memorial Day cookout but by rooting for Rafa’s demise in France. Every year, I was disappointed.

By the summer after my junior year, my distaste for Nadal had metastasized into something personal. The stylistic gripes were still there. But I saw something too familiar in the way he moved around the court. 

Something was developing in me, the waves of nervousness I had long felt becoming stronger and more encapsulating. I had a habit of losing things while out, so I built mental checklists. I had begun sweating in social settings, breaking out in hives at the prospect of having to participate in class, so I restricted my wardrobe and speech. And subletting in D.C. for the summer, cohabiting with cockroaches in the basement of a rowhouse that had once faced a break-in attempt, I started repeatedly locking doors.

The cool persona I wanted in high school had long ago slipped my grasp. Now, my goal was just to not be noticed. I couldn’t let anyone spot the tics, the patterns, the repetition of things in multiples of four above all else. Sure, it was bad to get halfway to the metro and have to double back for an imagined concern, to trip up your entire day because your brain went rogue. What was worse was retracing those steps and then running into a roommate, a friend, a co-worker, a crush, and having to forge explanations for why you were going against the flow of traffic. Once these behaviors were in public, with witnesses, they were a Problem.

Did Nadal not know this? I wondered, watching him dismantle poor David Ferrer at Roland Garros. I wasn’t furious that Nadal seemed afflicted similarly to me; I was furious that we had to witness it. That Nadal hadn’t the decency to hide the routines—to hide himself—from onlookers.

What did I want? An attempt to change. Or a visible patina of shame. Spitefully, I hoped that Nadal would begin to struggle, to be weighed down by these inane behaviors. Maybe his opponents would knock over his water bottles to ruin his focus. Chair umpires would call time violations, enforcing increasingly stiff penalties.

They didn’t. Which became the bigger, more troubling injustice: His routines—far more overt, obvious, and embarrassing than mine—actually seemed to work.

My senior year, I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. I was lucky that things hadn’t gotten worse. My OCD hadn’t courted tragedy, didn’t lead to firings or breakups stemming from my inability to act. But it was persistent, creeping, and insurgent. OCD operated at the margins, sapping my time and energy in exchange for stress. Mostly it caused me paralysis, because no action could ever be completed sufficiently, conclusively. A process or tic might work briefly. Soon enough, it became insufficient. I would find a flaw in my initial system and expand it, or realize it was improperly administered and have to restart.

At the disease’s root is a desire for control, especially over phenomena that refuse it. I would try to build a world in which I was, or could be, perfect. When I failed, I never felt it was because the task I gave myself was impossible. It was because I could have been more thorough in my world-building. After all, before I left, I always could have checked the door just one more time. 

The mental struggle of tennis is well-documented—it is no accident that so many coaches and athletes alike draw from Timothy Gallwey’s half-century-old The Inner Game of Tennis. In the first chapter of Rafa, Nadal’s autobiography, he acknowledges this: “Tennis is, more than most sports, a sport of the mind; it is the player who has those good sensations on the most days, who manages to isolate himself best from his fears and from the ups and downs in morale a match inevitably brings, who ends up being world number one.”

I’ve often thought tennis is the sport best equipped to accommodate the peccadilloes of OCD, to allow a player the greatest arena of control. Beyond the sole, unaccountable foe in a singles match, everything else is pliable. From point to point, there’s sufficient time to return to a familiar ritual: reset the strings of your racket to a perfect Manhattan grid system, or swap out for a whole new stick. When serving, you choose which ball to hit, finding the proper fluffiness and even manufacturing dampness to suit your strategy. On red clay, Nadal’s preferred medium, you can smooth out the dirt to your liking before play.

Moreover, tennis is a game of infinite repetition: It’s dynamic, but a given point can arise from just one of two setups (deuce or ad court). If you find a strategy that works, you should be able to repeat it. And most points aren’t finished triumphantly—they end with errors, meaning the player who controls the ball better and refuses to miss will almost certainly be the winner.

Nadal’s whole career is the best demonstration of this, especially on clay, where the ball bounces higher. His style lets fans see the risk-reward calculation inherent in a tennis match and, simultaneously, wonder if it has ever been so favorable toward one player. His routine forehands and backhands trampoline off the dirt, the heavy topspin taking the threat of the net out of the equation, while taking the ball far out of the opponent’s strike zone. The long rallies common to the surface are a death sentence against Nadal.

How is Nadal 112-3 at the French Open? Because as Nadal’s easy offense and impenetrable defense coalesce and apply pressure, his opponent must redline his shots via increasingly hopeless vectors, knowing that, if he’s too passive or patient, Nadal’s hitting will soon overwhelm. Anyone versus Nadal thus isn't a stylistic contrast but a matter of competing across completely different activities, like men racing across a tightrope and a zipline. Yes, the pair have the same endpoint in mind, but their methods, and the margins of those methods, are incomparable.

In Rafa, Nadal describes how, before the 2008 Wimbledon final against Federer, his slew of rituals protected him from “the emotions that would assail and overwhelm” him:

Something else might fail me, my knee or my foot, my backhand or my serve, but my head would not. I might feel fear, the nerves might get the better of me at some point, but over the long haul my head, this time, was not going to let me down. 

Nadal, at his mental and physical best, could exert more control on a point than any other tennis player, and his tics were part of that. I was infuriated. His routines appeared to be mere preludes, pre-point hurdles to be cleared such that nothing could befall him during the match. They weren’t just ridiculous, I concluded. They were cheat codes.

But routines take time. While Nadal has never been the most expedient player, at his slowest he made golf look like hockey. During a point, he would expend so much energy and then immediately downshift. He would slog through his steps—toweling, then tugging, then ball-bouncing—and nearly a minute would pass.

In summer 2018, pro tennis invoked a serve clock, forcing players to serve a mere twenty-five seconds after the prior point’s conclusion. I assumed this long-overdue development would finally trip Nadal. His gravitas had enabled him to coerce chair umpires, daring them to ding him with subjective time violations. For fourteen years, Nadal could control the tempo. But surely, in 2019, he'd no longer be able to wriggle out of the penalties that his routines caused: He’d sacrifice his routines, his mental game would dissolve, and his breakdown would be reflected in his results at the four majors. 

That year, he went to the Australian Open final, won the French, reached the semis at Wimbledon, and won the U.S. Open.

Nadal, unencumbered in the slightest, was even exploring other methods of expanding his control. Facing down big servers like Kevin Anderson in the 2017 U.S. Open final and Daniil Medvedev in 2019, he’d stand so far behind the baseline he was rubbing shoulders with line judges, maximizing his likelihood of making contact, knowing that as long as the ball didn’t pass him, his opponent would miss first. 

By now, Rafa had begun wearing me down. I had started working on myself, but mostly I had observed Nadal adapt his routines to this constraint and still thrive. 

And I had picked up the racket once again, playing in mid-level USTA leagues and gaining an appreciation for the difficulty of Nadal’s “just don’t miss” strategy. Competing in the North Carolina summer heat for the first time, in front of no audience, the sun bouncing off the hardcourt to assault every inch of me, I was experiencing the delirium, and solitude, of tennis. 

As I drifted through matches, I began to grasp for lifelines: comforts, places I could always return. Routines.

I still cheered for Federer to triumph over Nadal at Wimbledon in 2019. But following Federer’s swan song in London two years later, the vacancy in my heart grew larger and more suggestible. I considered an option long-ago discarded.

Does Nadal have OCD, anxiety, or some combination therein? I don’t know. It’s ridiculous, and meaningless, to glibly diagnose someone who has never claimed any of it. Nadal doesn’t want to be the face of OCD; in his book, he even bristles at calling his rituals “superstition.” Regardless of how they’re classified, they've always been part of his success. Perhaps this is regressive, mental gymnastics—a belief that a physical warrior couldn’t harbor some Achilles amygdala. But I find Nadal’s evasion of a diagnosis refreshing. It’s nice to see someone treat their oddities as eccentricities and avoid needless self-pathologizing. 

Whether or not he has these compulsions, all we have to go on is performance. What we have seen, for two decades, is the greatest fighter tennis has known. No one was better than peak Nadal at scrambling all over the court, evaporating the open space, exhausting opponents by making them hit one extra ball. No one was more reluctant to conserve energy and more zealous to crawl back from the brink. That he only has four comebacks down two sets to love is a testament to how much he fought in the short-term; he made micro-comebacks to crush his opponent’s spirit before such a recovery was needed.

But in the 2022 Melbourne final, Nadal dropped the first two sets to Medvedev. Serving in the third set, at 2-3, love-40, Nadal was a single error away from certain defeat.

It’s astonishing, watching the video now. Nadal can’t control what his opponent does. But for the remainder of the game, Nadal doesn’t miss a single rally ball. Medvedev starts to slip, and the match turns. From that precarious point, Nadal makes just two unforced errors the rest of the set. He takes the third, going on to win the match.

That inward focus is maybe the best encapsulation of what makes Nadal so tough to beat. It dovetails with the most succinct summation in Rafa, which comes not from Nadal himself, but from his longtime PR manager. “He is a person who needs to be in control of everything,” says Benito Pérez-Barbadillo. “But since this is impossible, he invests all he has in controlling the one part of his life over which he has the most command, Rafa the tennis player.”

I still check doors, test locks. I doubt that’ll change soon. Before leaving for a tennis match, I expect I’ll still count to 12—the smallest shared multiple of four, my safe number, and six, the number of games in a set. If I miss a first serve, I’ll still never hit a second serve with the same ball. If my shoes seem loose, my arms dewy, or my headband askew, I’ll take a moment for myself, pace of play be damned. Nadal has taught me to embrace these elements of my mind, and to not let them affect what I can control: my effort, my focus. There’s plenty of cause for self-loathing on the tennis court already; my rules, however logical or illogical, don’t have to add another reason.

By the 2022 French Open, I’m completely in the tank for Nadal against Djokovic in the quarters. I study him at the 4-1 changeover in the third, observing how he jiggles his feet in his chair, rooting for him to get his water bottles in order. In the fourth, after he saves set points on Djokovic’s serve at 5-3, I smile as he earns the break three steps inside the baseline, and then turns around and stutter-steps over the centerline—away from his chair—to maintain his concentration. I stan a weirdo, I guess. He beats Djokovic, winning the fourth set 7-5. In the semis, he scraps for three hours against Sascha Zverev before an ankle injury befalls his opponent. Onto the final.

A brief scene from the docuseries Break Point can decode that match. Casper Ruud, appearing in his first major final, is standing in the back halls of the stadium alongside Nadal. Ruud isn’t doing much of anything, but Nadal is, unsurprisingly, well into one of his routines. Maybe eight feet from his opponent, Nadal is shadowing full forehand rips with his racket, then exploding into quick-steps that probe every corner of the hallway. The stationary Ruud tries to ignore Nadal, averting his eyes, but he’s everywhere, and it’s clear that Nadal’s actions are registering when a resigned Ruud mimes a single backhand with one hand. (He hits a two-hander.) When the match starts, Ruud is in a funk, and Nadal steamrolls, getting to bite La Coupe de Mosquetaires for a 14th time. 

How many times has this happened in Rafa’s career? How many matches has he won before they started, his routines not just allowing him to play well, but even contributing to victory via intimidation? It would be dishonest to say Nadal has been hampered by the routines he feels he requires to compete successfully. If anything, he has found a way to channel them, to weaponize them, on his way to 22 major titles.

In May, ahead of the French Open, Nadal announced a long absence from the tour to recover from a hip injury he suffered in January. The rest of the majors this year, including Wimbledon, are a wash. He anticipated that the 2024 season would be his last. If Rafa competes at the French Open next year, he’ll be 37. He’ll need improvement in that hip; the degenerative condition that afflicts his left foot will require mitigation.

He won’t be able to control these things; no one can. But I’m hoping his body cooperates, so we can watch his mind work once more.

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