At the French Open, Players Look to the Tao of Rafael Nadal

PARIS — Roland Garros was shrouded in an existential fog so thick that many of the players couldn’t see past the end of their noses. As the French Open played out, the weather was cold and gray, the grounds were ghostly quiet and the cafes, boutiques and monuments that normally charm the players were blurred images from their courtesy car windows.

So much of what distinguishes Paris from, say, the Indian Wells tournament in California, was closed to them, stuck as they were in the hotel habitat meant to cocoon them from the coronavirus that France has struggled to contain.

“I’m going to be honest here,” Ons Jabeur of Tunisia, the 35th-ranked woman in the world, said in the tournament’s early days. “I was like, ‘Why are we playing?’”

And then, like an oracle delivering a message from on high, a voice rang out on Philippe Chatrier Court.

“The feeling is more sad than usual,” Spain’s Rafael Nadal said in English after his first-round victory against Egor Gerasimov. “Maybe that’s what it needs to feel like. It needs to be sad. Many people in the world are suffering.”

Every flock needs a cleareyed thinker, and tennis is blessed to have Nadal, whose plain talk throughout this year of the pandemic has been a model of humility, empathy and perspective. When Nadal talks — in his native Spanish, English or, more recently, French — his fellow players listen.

The Tao of Rafa resonated with Jabeur, who said, “If he’s a champion and he doesn’t complain, I mean, who I am to complain about it right now?”

Set straight by Nadal’s straight talk, Jabeur proceeded to become the first Arab woman at Roland Garros to advance to the round of 16.

Nadal, 34, has his sights set on his own page of history. Against Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s final, Nadal can secure his 13th French Open championship, a reality-defying achievement, and tie Roger Federer’s men’s record of 20 Grand Slam singles titles.

It would be a momentous milestone to go where only one other man has been. And yet Nadal is asked far less about his pursuit of Federer than Serena Williams is about being one major title shy of catching the all-time women’s leader, Margaret Court, at 24 Grand Slam singles titles.

Federer, sidelined this year after undergoing two knee surgeries, is not done competing so there is the sense that Nadal is chasing a moving target. That partly explains the discrepancy. But not to be discounted is the fact that Nadal maneuvers around the line of questioning as deftly as he does a ball to his backhand that he turns into a forehand winner.

In an interview in May with the Spanish daily La Voz de Galicia, Nadal said: “It doesn’t obsess me nor is it a great goal for me. I am only concerned about my own career and life. I am not worried if the one who lives next to me has a bigger house than mine, has a better car or earns more per month than I do.”

He added: “One has to be satisfied with what one does. And this is what I have done throughout my career, and I am very satisfied for that. Even if Federer or Djokovic finishes with more Grand Slams than me, it won’t affect my happiness 10 years from now.”

How’s that for perspective? Makes you wonder: Does Nadal’s waterfront home overlook the Balearic Sea or Walden Pond?

Nadal’s approach to his career, as a personal journey to be shared with those around him rather than an all-out crusade for total domination, belies the all-too-common belief in the modern world that he or she who dies with the most titles, toys or treasure wins.

Nadal’s path this year was supposed to be fraught with obstacles. Playing in autumn’s cooler weather, with a new brand of balls that Nadal described as “slow” and “heavy,” he didn’t figure to be able to use his punishing topspin forehand to its full advantage. Then there was the residual rust in his game, a byproduct of having not practiced from mid-March until May while he stayed in Mallorca with his family during the worst stretch of the coronavirus pandemic.

“What you need is the right energy to accept every single thing, no?” Nadal said last week. “That’s what I am doing. Just staying positive, knowing that the conditions are not perfect for me, maybe not for others, either.”

The Tao of Rafa is not just talk, as Nadal demonstrated by not losing a set in his first six matches.

Was it easy? Nadal only made it look that way. Did he harbor doubts? Of course.

“If you don’t have doubt, it probably means that you’re being arrogant,” Nadal told Jon Wertheim in a “60 Minutes” interview that aired in January.

Nadal’s apprehension was on high alert in the third set of his semifinal on Friday when Diego Schwartzman forced a tiebreaker. Nadal responded by reeling off seven straight points for a 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (0) victory.

“You have to suffer,” Nadal said with a shrug. “You can’t pretend to be in a final of Roland Garros without suffering. That’s what happened there. But I found a way, no?”

Elina Svitolina, who bowed out in the quarterfinals, said Nadal’s wisdom is seeing the big picture and not just the 78-by-27 foot rectangle that is a singles tennis court. Iga Swiatek, who won the women’s final on Saturday, is such an enthusiastic student of Nadal’s that one day she wandered over to the court where he was practicing and studied him.

The Tao of Rafa is all the more impressive considering that wisdom is often dished out in English, which he didn’t speak 20 years ago. Though fluent now, he prefers to conduct interviews in Spanish. Like a wily returner, Nadal will occasionally change direction, taking a question lobbed to him in English and returning it in rapid-fire Spanish. He regards his English the same way he does his serve. A work in progress.

On Friday, Nadal said it was frustrating when he joined the tour in 2001 and couldn’t express himself to English-speaking reporters, who would ask questions that rushed past him like 150 m.p.h. serves. “I was not able to understand and to answer the questions the right way,” Nadal said. “Happy that today the situation is a little bit different. That’s it. Here we are. Keep trying our best.”

The Tao of Rafa stresses controlling what you can and letting go of the rest.

“My goal is just to be every day at my 100 percent,” he said, adding, “Give my best until the end.”


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