Thursday September 3rd, 2015

NEW YORK – They filled up the old place Wednesday afternoon, but discount the ones with nothing at stake, the casuals who come to the U.S. Open these days in heels and cool hats come because it’s a hot New York ticket and you never know when you’ll bump into a camera. You could see the fans who cared, perhaps too much, speckled among the 10,600 at Louis Armstrong Stadium, all decked out in their “Vamos Rafa” t-shirts or Rafael Nadal bull-logo’d hats or simple day-glo green to match the color of the man struggling down on the court.

Three days of swelter had broken. The stands were dipped in shadow and into the evening breeze the Rafaelites flung their pleas: “Let’s go, Rafa!...Vamos!...Allez, Nadal!” and, best of all, one singularly rich and imploring, “Ra-faaaaaa….”

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​Nadal heard them. “I feel that love. I feel that energy,” he said after wrestling himself free of No. 74 Diego Schwartzman, 7–6, 6–3, 7–5, for a place in the third round of the 2015 U.S. Open. “I always felt that energy when I’m playing in New York and a lot of places around the world, no?”

Yes. Nadal’s fans lack the cultish breathlessness of Roger Federer, but they are legion, too. Nadal even thinks he understands why. “I was always nice with the crowd,” he said, “trying to do as much autographs, as much photos with them. On the tennis court normally I have been doing the right things during my career—not breaking the racket one time in my career, not saying stupid thing on court, celebrating the point, saying bad things when I am not playing well.”

Of course, that seeming niceness is just part of the Spaniard’s appeal, and only because it was incongruously bound to perhaps the fiercest competitive will the game has ever seen. Naysayers might rank Pancho Gonzales, Jimmy Connors and Monica Seles higher, but consider: The greatest player ever is 2-9 against Nadal in Grand Slam events, 8-10 on his preferred grass and hard courts, 10-23 overall. Even the great Federer wilted before Nadal’s fire, so it was easy, once, to envision it burning for many years more.

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Not now. The Rafa who appeared in Flushing Meadows this week was reduced, different. Since winning his record ninth French Open in 2014, the 29-year-old has became a curious version of himself—still well-muscled, still possessing those heavy, hyper-spinning shots, but missing something vital. Nadal admitted in the spring to anxiety, “nerves” that he’d never felt before, and then went on to prove it: The “King of Clay” lost twice on the dirt to Fabio Fognini–his next opponent in New York—lost to Andy Murray in straight sets in Madrid and to Stan Wawrinka in Rome. If being dethroned by rival Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros wasn’t bad enough, journeyman Dustin Brown sent the 14-time Grand Slam champ crashing out of Wimbledon.

Things got only marginally more promising in Nadal’s two Open tune-ups, but this week’s wins over phenom Borna Coric and Schwartzman aren't enough yet to signal a trend. “He’s much better than he was six months ago,” said Boris Becker, Djokovic’s coach. “Rafa was asking himself a lot of questions and very open about it to the press, which is very unusual. Maybe he wanted the feedback. Lately he’s been talking more positive and more excited about this play.”

Asked if he sees improvement, Becker said, “He goes in and out. He has moments when he plays like Rafa of old, and moments when he plays like Rafa not so good. He goes in and out a lot more than he used to.”

Though his drop, numerically, is hardly horrific (“I am No. 8 in the world,” Nadal said, “I am not No. 100. Seems like I am No. 200 in every press conference.”), such malaise set off alarm bells. He has shown no sign of injury, so some suggest a coaching change, a new voice to replace that of his uncle, Toni Nadal. But on Tuesday, Nadal doubled-down. “I believe in my team,” he said. “We are working a lot to find the right way.

“I don’t know what’s going on in the future, but if I have to change something it’s myself, not the people around me. If I am able to change myself, to play again with confidence, to play again with less nerves than I played for a lot of moments this year, I am able to touch the ball the way that I am touching the ball this week of practice before the U.S. Open, I will be again where I want to be.

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“So it’s not a question of coach. It’s not a question of physiotherapist or physical trainer. It’s a question of myself. I am really decided to work hard to find my way.”

Tennis fandom is one odd, revealing exercise. The 23-year old Schwartzman had few rooting for him Tuesday, and Nadal had what all the greats have: An army, a constituency, and—truth be told—a mass of folks defining their place in the world. Anyone who’s been around the game recalls the U.S. Open when goateed balding men started wearing bandannas on their heads. It wasn’t just fashion. There were Agassi people and Sampras people then, just as there were Borg and McEnroe people before them. Just as there’s a Federer/Nadal divide now.

But the draw is large enough, the personalities and ethnicities kaleidoscopic enough, so that everyone can find a type with which to identify: Attacker, counterpuncher, showman, sweetheart, clown. Fighter. Punk. Artist. Years of drama engender a one-way devotion—extending beyond career’s end—in which the player is the fan, the best version of ourselves distilled to a competitive essence.

“That’s why everybody loves Roger Federer,” says tennis historian Joel Drucker, author of the book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life. “Because we want the world to be like that— smooth, graceful, effortless; it should even be Swiss, a neutral country that never goes to war. Federer shows us what we think life could be. But Nadal and Connors and players like that show us what life is really about: Life is fighting. Life is raw and rough. Life is zero-sum, and some guy trying to take food out of your mouth.”

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Indeed, Nadal’s manner of play, at its best, had the feel of a street fight. No matter how polite off court, on it he had a Terminator’s focus, a grinding need for supremacy that bordered on punishment. Part of his appeal was a commitment so total, strokes so demanding, that injury was all but guaranteed. His body might break down, but no one could doubt his full mental presence.

Now? Rafa is Hamlet. He has more questions than answers, a perspective at odds with the world he once ruled. His implacable force has gone missing, maybe forever; all those exhortations on Armstrong were shouts from the search party. For the first time, it’s possible to imagine him never winning another major.

“That’s part of the career,” Nadal said Tuesday. “Don’t forget that for everybody is a start and for everybody is an end. We still here, but tomorrow we not going to be here. Sampras was here; he’s not here anymore. Connors, McEnroe: Everybody pass. The sport continues.”

He didn’t seem saddened by the thought, but Rafa’s fans will be different. Total commitment, you see: They’ll be calling his name until the moment he goes.

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