Rafael Nadal’s Battle Against Time

TURIN, Italy — There was a moment Sunday night when Rafael Nadal was suddenly Rafael Nadal again.

This was during the first set of his first match at the ATP Finals, where Nadal entered as the top seed, even though he had played only one singles match since his September loss at the U.S. Open. The whole sequence took roughly four seconds: a chase from deep in the backcourt to catch a drop shot from the American Taylor Fritz near the net just before the second bounce, followed by a ridiculous, backhanded snap overhead hit on the sharpest of angles.

Cue Nadal’s signature hop-skip and roundhouse fist-pump, and a roaring crowd. Members of Nadal’s overflowing player box, which included his parents, coach, Carlos Moya, sister, wife, agent, and a few others, leaped from their seats, screaming “Vamos,” still thrilled by their boy wonder after all these years.

The moment was fleeting, though. Within the hour, Fritz was drilling Nadal, riding the momentum of winning the first-set tiebreaker and his nearly untouchable first serve to finish him off, 7-6 (3), 6-1. For a third consecutive match, Nadal, a 22-time Grand Slam singles champion, had lost to a member of the so-called next generation of Americans, a bizarre streak for him and another disquieting detail at the end of a year that included a back-from-the-dead revival and his first child, but yet another series of unsettling injuries.

“Six tough months in all ways,” Nadal said on Tuesday after losing his second match of the tournament.

By the end of the Fritz match on Sunday, Nadal, known for never losing his temper or giving up, was whacking balls across the court after his errors and halfheartedly swatting some of his final shots, seemingly accepting that defeat was inevitable.

There was more frustration Tuesday afternoon, when Nadal once more showed glimpses of the old magic, the searing forehands and rifling backhands. But too often in the crucial moments against Felix Auger-Aliassime, the rising Canadian, he either found himself playing defense or making sloppy errors that betrayed his inactivity — just eight singles matches since July. Playing him for the third time on tour, Auger-Aliassime cruised to his first win against Nadal, 6-3, 6-4, ending Nadal’s hopes to advance past the round-robin phase.

Strangest of all, perhaps, is that the competition, even young players who once crumpled when they saw Nadal across the net, has sensed his vulnerability.

Fritz knew better than to think of himself as the favorite against Nadal, who had beaten him in a fifth-set tiebreaker in a Wimbledon quarterfinal in July despite an abdominal tear so severe that his family begged him to leave the court. When it was over, Fritz said the loss hurt so much he felt like crying. Nadal withdrew from the tournament the next day.

But in Turin, on a slick and fast hard court and with Nadal playing just his second singles match since early September, Fritz liked his odds.

“I felt like I had a really good chance of winning,” he said.

Young players like Felix Auger-Aliassime, right, now believe Nadal is beatable.Credit…Alessandro Di Marco/EPA, via Shutterstock

Auger-Aliassime, who has won three tournaments this fall, said his confidence grew as he and Nadal traded service games in the first set on Tuesday.

“I was like, ‘Look, I have a real chance of winning this,’” he said. “I was comfortable in certain situations. I definitely believed that I could win.”

A few days earlier, Fritz had made Nadal feel things he rarely has against someone other than Novak Djokovic — rushed and under pressure, as though somehow Fritz had all the time in the world to do whatever he wanted with his shots while Nadal had no time at all.

“Everything was going so fast,” Nadal said Sunday.

He tried to slow things down Tuesday afternoon, drifting farther behind the baseline, but that just allowed the powerful Auger-Aliassime to push forward.

In some ways, the sense of being short on time has pervaded Nadal’s entire year in ways both big and small. At 36, he knows the end of his career is not far off, that every appearance at an event might be his last go-round there. So does his family, which might help explain why his box is so full in Turin, just a few weeks after the birth of his first child, and how downcast they became as the matches wore on, though they yelled “Vamos” to the end.

After missing most of the second half of 2021, he ventured to Australia in January, just seven weeks removed from being on crutches, figuring it might be his last time playing there given his deteriorating physique and chronically injured left foot. He got better with each match, fell two sets down to Daniil Medvedev of Russia in the final and somehow won the year’s first Grand Slam tournament.

He played the finals of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., with a cracked rib. He took a shot to numb his foot before each match of the French Open. He left Paris on crutches once more but with his 14th French Open singles championship.

He entered Wimbledon, his first official matches on grass in three years, without playing a tuneup tournament. He won all five matches he played.

He could not practice his serve for weeks and arrived at the U.S. Open having played just one hardcourt match. He was far from 100 percent physically or mentally. His wife was in the final stretch of a challenging pregnancy. Frances Tiafoe beat him four sets in the fourth round, becoming the first American-born player to beat Nadal at a Grand Slam since he was a teenager.

At another time in his career, Nadal might have called it a year. Instead he partnered with Roger Federer in the Swiss champion’s final competitive match, then tried to get healthy for this tournament, a gathering of the most successful eight players of the season.

By the time he was ready to compete, the season was practically over. He had to return at the Paris Masters instead of at a smaller tournament with lesser players. Tommy Paul, who grew up training with Fritz and Tiafoe, beat Nadal in his opening match in three sets.

The young Americans, and then Auger-Aliassime on Tuesday, caught Nadal in the sport’s Catch-22. Winning requires a level of comfort with playing matches, but the only way to get comfortable playing matches is to win and play more of them.

“You need to be quicker on your legs, quicker on your mind,” Nadal said. “You need to win matches to make that happen.”

Nadal will likely have to wait for that. After this event, he will not compete again until tennis begins its 2023 season in Australia on New Year’s weekend. He has signed on to represent Spain in the United Cup, a round-robin, mixed team event that will guarantee him a handful of matches against top players before he tries to defend his 2022 Australian Open singles title.

Aging and ailing physique and new baby aside, he has not lost his desire.

“I don’t know if I going to reach that level again,” Nadal said Tuesday. “But what I don’t have is any doubt that I’m going to die for it.”

Also, since Australia’s tennis summer follows the off-season, nearly everyone else should be as rusty as he is.

They may just have more time.

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