Even the greatest champions eventually tap out against Father Time. There are no exceptions to the rule, but for now, 35-year-old Rafael Nadal soldiers on, undiminished, yet ever changing. In 2022 he is defying the odds as he continues to add chapters to his legacy while simultaneously rewriting tennis’ record books.
The Spaniard is a revolution that morphed into an evolution.
First recognized as shocking physical specimen, the Nadal of today is more of a mental fortress. He fights through pain, just as he fights past his opponents: with fortitude, wisdom and the nuance that comes from age and his vast wealth of experience.
On Sunday at the BNP Paribas Open, in the midst of his career-best start to a season, Nadal will fight to remain undefeated as he bids to become the oldest champion in tournament history.
Only Taylor Fritz, bidding to become the first American men’s singles champion in the California desert since Andre Agassi in 2001, stands in his way.
Fritz won’t be favored against the mighty Nadal, but the 24-year-old has proven that he can rattle the cage of the tour’s best players over the last six months, with his booming serve and attacking style.
The 20th-ranked California native has won nine of his last ten matches at Indian Wells, and backed up his breakout run to the semifinals in 2021 with an even more momentous achievement this week. By defeating No.7 seed Andrey Rublev 7-5, 6-4 on Saturday afternoon Fritz became the first American to reach the Indian Wells final in a decade. If he can manage a victory on Sunday, he’ll snap a 21-year title drought for the stars and stripes in the California desert.
Fritz faced Nadal for the title in the Acapulco final in 2020 and was defeated in straight sets. He remembers Nadal hammering away at his forehand and says he made too many mistakes in the 6-3, 6-2 defeat. Two years later, the Rancho Sante Fe, California native believes he has more tools in his bag to cope with the relentless Spaniard.
“I kind of beat myself trying to fire off winners against him,” the American said. “I think my level is so much higher than it was then, so I maybe won’t be feeling like I need to pull the trigger so much, need to do so much. I can kind of just play more within myself.”
If Nadal is being forced to play with more aches and pain than he would like these days, the 21-time major champion more than makes up for fatigue with wisdom, heart, and discipline. To Nadal, competition is a simple yet limitless art.
To watch him conduct an early morning practice inside an empty Stadium 1, as he did several times this week, is to watch a professional in pursuit of perfection. At 35, in the midst of his best ever start to a season, he approaches every practice with zeal. It’s that salt-of-the-earth love and respect for the sport and its rituals that keeps him perpetually humming forward.
“I always have a very basic point of view and it’s to do the things that are going to help you to play better or to win more,” he deadpans, before reiterating: “I enjoy the challenges.”
As he seeks to make more history on Sunday, Nadal will do as he has always done: turn over every rock in his quest for his fourth BNP Paribas Open, 37th Masters 1000, and 92nd overall title. The years on the calendar change, but the resolve never does.
“I know tomorrow I need to be ready physically, mentally, in terms of playing at a very high level of tennis because he’s playing well,” Nadal said of his next challenge. “I am going to try to do the work that I need to do to be ready for tomorrow and then let’s see.”