Before two other men play in the Wimbledon singles final that an abdominal tear stopped Rafael Nadal from reaching, let’s pause for a moment to appreciate the career of one of the greatest sportsmen we’ll ever see.
In his combination of championship excellence with sportsmanship, Nadal ranks with golf’s Jack Nicklaus and baseball’s Willie Mays as the three athletic paragons of my lifetime.
Battling a slew of injuries, Nadal this year has spoken numerous times about a possible retirement. Because he is such a competitor, he probably won’t retire — but if he never plays another match, he will leave the game with a stunning peculiarity in his record. In the last time he played each of the four “major” tournaments, he never lost a match.
The last time he played the U.S. Open, in 2019, Nadal won it. The last time he played the Australian Open, earlier this year, he recovered from two sets down in the finals to win it. The last time he played the French Open, also this year, he dominated throughout to win his 14th Roland Garros title. And this year at Wimbledon, he won all five matches he played, including a semifinal as he battled through his painful abdominal injury to win in a fifth set tiebreaker.
If he retires, that would make quite a “Retirement Slam,” undefeated in his last go at each Grand Slam event.
Nadal would retire at age 36 as the current male holder for the record of most major (singles) championships won, at 22, plus an Olympic gold medal (and another gold in Olympic doubles). Apart from the majors, he has won more “Big Titles” than anyone in history, more individual outdoor matches (969) and titles (90) and a higher overall match-winning percentage (83.4%) than any tennis player in history, and he stands alone with 876 consecutive weeks ranked in the world’s top 10 and 579 total weeks in the top 2.
More than that, Nadal’s graciousness and personal decency are legendary. He has never broken a single racket in anger, always compliments his opponents, has developed notable friendships with on-court rivals, and is known for voluminous charitable endeavors. He has won tennis’s annual sportsmanship award five times and also won its Arthur Ashe Award as humanitarian of the year.
With Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, Nadal has formed the longest-lasting, most accomplished stretch of three-person dominance any modern sport has ever known — and done so while returning tennis to the status as a gentleman’s game it had enjoyed before Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe (among others) made it for a while a redoubt for expletives and churlishness.
And, oh — how Nadal plays the game! The Spaniard’s extravagant but self-punishing athleticism, his burning, churning effort on every point, his extraordinarily high pain threshold, and his mind-bending will to win: All of these qualities for nearly two decades have not just figuratively, but often literally been breathtaking to watch.
Again, Nadal being Nadal, he is likely to try to return from his latest major ailment and maybe win even more major titles. But if he doesn’t, he can know he won his last five matches ever at Wimbledon’s Centre Court, his last six at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, and his final seven at Rod Laver Arena in Australia and Roland Garros in France. Nadal would go out on top as the Mallorca Master, an exemplar of excellence, a role model youngsters could emulate as long as sports are played.