It feels like quite an oxymoron to say that a 17-time major champion had a pivotal career match on the tips of his fingers.
It had been seven years since Rafael Nadal had reached the semifinal round of Wimbledon. After a streak of five finals in a row, Nadal experienced a drought in the place which nurtured his boyhood dreams. Who could have imagined that the tournament which is most resistant to challengers outside the Big Three realm would keep one of its biggest stars relegated to its first week? Back in 2011, Nadal already held 10 majors, the career Golden Slam, and had finally overtaken Roger Federer as world number one — again — after chasing him a second time. If Nadal had retired even then, his credentials would have firmly placed him as one of the all-time greats.
Yet here we were seven years later. Much was still at stake for Nadal. His return to the Wimbledon semifinals pitted him against Novak Djokovic, the familiar foe who shared Nadal’s last Wimbledon final and ultimately bested him in four sets. Back then Djokovic was beginning to assert himself as a dominant force on the ATP Tour. In the present, Djokovic was once again trying to reestablish himself as a dominant figure within the most storied arena in men’s tennis history. Once again, something had to give in the matchup that has unfolded more times than Nadal-Federer in the Open Era. The hallmark of the “Rafole” rivalry is clear: These two men are so evenly matched when they compete that at their best that they seem to reinvent a 200-year-old game.
Nadal and Djokovic met 14 times in major tournaments and split their last eight meetings exactly down the middle. Even their Wimbledon matches coming into this contest were locked at one apiece. If Nadal had won, he would have tied the career head to head with Djokovic at 26 wins apiece. He would have stayed undefeated in Wimbledon semifinals. He would have had a chance to close in on Federer’s all-time record of 20 major titles. With an 18th title, Nadal would have been the closest to Federer in the major count since Federer had won two majors to Nadal’s zero in 2004. Most importantly, another Wimbledon would have been a chance for Nadal to stand in the sun victorious at one of the majors where he has been the most snake-bitten by health. Australia is No. 1 in that regard, but Wimbledon is second.
With those facts in mind, it is hard to avoid saying that Nadal let a pivotal moment in his career go to waste, 10-8 in the fifth set after having set point in the third-set tiebreaker and break points to then serve for the match in the final set. This was his most manageable draw of matches at Wimbledon in quite some time. Nadal would have had to defeat only one member of the Big Three to hold the trophy, a rare opportunity in an era that has seen the same four men win almost 90 percent of the major titles since 2004.
Nadal appeared to be the better player for portions of the third and fifth sets. He came repeatedly close to knocking the door down, but Djokovic’s clutch serving and brave play on the biggest points of the afternoon — following the resumption of play from Friday night’s curfew-based suspension — denied him a return to the Wimbledon final, where he would have been a heavy favorite. Nadal wiped away Kevin Anderson at last year’s U.S. Open. With Kando physically suffering after playing a 6:36 semifinal against John Isner, a vibrant Nadal — even with a two-day match against Djokovic which lasted over five hours — stood to be the beneficiary in a possible Sunday final. Now, Djokovic will stand in that favored position. Nadal played well enough to come close, but Djokovic did well to stand in the way.
This loss would be devastating for the Spaniard if we knew Nadal as a man who defines his success based off others, but we know that is not true. After Nadal broke his own record for his 11th Roland Garros title, he was asked about getting closer to Federer’s record of 20.
“I never have been crazy about all this kind of stuff,” he said. “No, you can’t be frustrated always if somebody have more money than you, if somebody have a bigger house than you, if somebody have more Grand Slams than you. You can’t live with that feeling, no? You have to do your way.
“And then you have to be happy with the things that are happening to you, no? Because if you are looking next to you, you can be frustrated thinking that people have more things than you in general terms. I am not this kind of person. I happy that other people have things, and I am very satisfied, and I feel very lucky with all the things that happened to me.
“Of course I would love to have 20 like Roger in the future or even more, but being honest, is something that is not in my mind.”
The most difficult part of analyzing this era as a writer is that the players of this generation, especially the Big Three, keep getting better. They keep extending the boundaries of what is possible as a professional tennis player. It is unimaginable that we could potentially see three men pass Pete Sampras’s holy grail of 14 majors before the 20th anniversary of his last U.S. Open title.
Whether off the court or on it, Nadal’s legacy will be his impenetrable will. He may lose. He may win, but he rarely gives anything away even in the face of better competition. That is the joy of Nadal. As the man himself would say after his loss to Djokovic, “Today just wasn’t my day. It was his and I congratulate him.”