TURIN, Italy — There was a moment Sunday night when Rafael Nadal was suddenly Rafael Nadal again.
This was throughout the first set of his first match on the ATP Finals, where Nadal entered as the highest seed, despite the fact that he had played just one singles match since his September loss on the U.S. Open. The entire sequence took roughly 4 seconds: a chase from deep within the backcourt to catch a drop shot from the American Taylor Fritz near the web just before the second bounce, followed by a ridiculous, backhanded snap overhead hit on the sharpest of angles.
Cue Nadal’s signature hop-skip and roundhouse fist-pump, and a roaring crowd. Members of Nadal’s overflowing player box, which included his parents, coach, Carlos Moya, sister, wife, agent, and a couple of others, leaped from their seats, screaming “Vamos,” still thrilled by their boy wonder in spite of everything these years.
The moment was fleeting, though. Inside the hour, Fritz was drilling Nadal, riding the momentum of winning the first-set tiebreaker and his nearly untouchable first serve to complete him off, 7-6 (3), 6-1. For a 3rd consecutive match, Nadal, a 22-time Grand Slam singles champion, had lost to a member of the so-called next generation of Americans, a bizarre streak for him and one other disquieting detail at the tip of a 12 months that included a back-from-the-dead revival and his first child, but one more series of unsettling injuries.
“Six tough months in all ways,” Nadal said on Tuesday after losing his second match of the tournament.
By the tip of the Fritz match on Sunday, Nadal, known for never losing his temper or giving up, was whacking balls across the court after his errors and halfheartedly swatting a few of his final shots, seemingly accepting that defeat was inevitable.
There was more frustration Tuesday afternoon, when Nadal over again showed glimpses of the old magic, the searing forehands and rifling backhands. But too often within the crucial moments against Felix Auger-Aliassime, the rising Canadian, he either found himself playing defense or making sloppy errors that betrayed his inactivity — just eight singles matches since July. Playing him for the third time on tour, Auger-Aliassime cruised to his first win against Nadal, 6-3, 6-4, ending Nadal’s hopes to advance past the round-robin phase.
Strangest of all, perhaps, is that the competition, even young players who once crumpled after they saw Nadal across the web, has sensed his vulnerability.
Fritz knew higher than to think about himself as the favourite against Nadal, who had beaten him in a fifth-set tiebreaker in a Wimbledon quarterfinal in July despite an abdominal tear so severe that his family begged him to depart the court. When it was over, Fritz said the loss hurt a lot he felt like crying. Nadal withdrew from the tournament the subsequent day.
But in Turin, on a slick and fast hard court and with Nadal playing just his second singles match since early September, Fritz liked his odds.
“I felt like I had a very good likelihood of winning,” he said.
Auger-Aliassime, who has won three tournaments this fall, said his confidence grew as he and Nadal traded service games in the primary set on Tuesday.
“I used to be like, ‘Look, I even have an actual likelihood of winning this,’” he said. “I used to be comfortable in certain situations. I definitely believed that I could win.”
A couple of days earlier, Fritz had made Nadal feel things he rarely has against someone aside from Novak Djokovic — rushed and under pressure, as if in some way Fritz had on a regular basis on the planet to do whatever he wanted together with his shots while Nadal had no time in any respect.
“The whole lot was going so fast,” Nadal said Sunday.
He tried to slow things down Tuesday afternoon, drifting farther behind the baseline, but that just allowed the powerful Auger-Aliassime to push forward.
In some ways, the sense of being short on time has pervaded Nadal’s entire 12 months in ways each big and small. At 36, he knows the tip of his profession shouldn’t be far off, that each appearance at an event is likely to be his last go-round there. So does his family, which could help explain why his box is so full in Turin, just a couple of weeks after the birth of his first child, and the way downcast they became because the matches wore on, though they yelled “Vamos” to the tip.
After missing many of the second half of 2021, he ventured to Australia in January, just seven weeks faraway from being on crutches, figuring it is likely to be his last time playing there given his deteriorating physique and chronically injured left foot. He got higher with each match, fell two sets all the way down to Daniil Medvedev of Russia in the ultimate and in some way won the 12 months’s first Grand Slam tournament.
He played the finals of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., with a cracked rib. He took a shot to numb his foot before each match of the French Open. He left Paris on crutches over again but together with his 14th French Open singles championship.
He entered Wimbledon, his first official matches on grass in three years, without playing a tuneup tournament. He won all five matches he played.
He couldn’t practice his serve for weeks and arrived on the U.S. Open having played only one hardcourt match. He was removed from 100% physically or mentally. His wife was in the ultimate stretch of a difficult pregnancy. Frances Tiafoe beat him 4 sets within the fourth round, becoming the primary American-born player to beat Nadal at a Grand Slam since he was a youngster.
At one other time in his profession, Nadal may need called it a 12 months. As a substitute he partnered with Roger Federer within the Swiss champion’s final competitive match, then tried to get healthy for this tournament, a gathering of probably the most successful eight players of the season.
By the point he was able to compete, the season was practically over. He needed to return on the Paris Masters as a substitute of at a smaller tournament with lesser players. Tommy Paul, who grew up training with Fritz and Tiafoe, beat Nadal in his opening match in three sets.
The young Americans, after which Auger-Aliassime on Tuesday, caught Nadal in the game’s Catch-22. Winning requires a level of comfort with playing matches, however the only approach to get comfortable playing matches is to win and play more of them.
“You must be quicker in your legs, quicker in your mind,” Nadal said. “You must win matches to make that occur.”
Nadal will likely must wait for that. After this event, he won’t compete again until tennis begins its 2023 season in Australia on Latest 12 months’s weekend. He has signed on to represent Spain within the United Cup, a round-robin, mixed team event that can guarantee him a handful of matches against top players before he tries to defend his 2022 Australian Open singles title.
Aging and ailing physique and latest baby aside, he has not lost his desire.
“I don’t know if I going to achieve that level again,” Nadal said Tuesday. “But what I don’t have is any doubt that I’m going to die for it.”
Also, since Australia’s tennis summer follows the off-season, nearly everyone else needs to be as rusty as he’s.
They could just have more time.