By Giri Nathan
“I’m not comfortable with animals, not even with dogs. I doubt their intentions,” wrote Rafael Nadal in his 2011 autobiography, in what are almost certainly the only lines from anyone’s autobiography that I’ll ever be able to recite from memory. And yet there he was over the weekend, spotted on the streets of Georgetown, holding in one hand some baked goods, and in the other hand, between reluctant pinched fingers, a leash, which was connected to a dog. The dog was sitting and looking up at him. According to its owner, the dog too is named Rafa, in honor of the very man peering down at him with doubts about intentions. Maybe Nadal has changed and accepted an uneasy détente with the animal kingdom.
That’d be fitting, since it’s been a week of firsts for Rafa, who until this week had never been to Washington, D.C., nor played at the Citi Open, nor seen the Capitol Building (which he initially tagged as the White House), nor posed in front of the Lincoln Memorial (for a photo captioned “Yeah, it’s me wearing a helmet”). This is all new to him. And for a man visiting our capital heat swamp in the dead of summer, things are going surprisingly well. He loves the place: “What I saw, so beautiful. A very green city, lower buildings than most of the American big cities. I am enjoying the city, I am enjoying the people,” he told reporters ahead of the tournament.
There was room for one more first: He has never, until now, had too much trouble dispatching Jack Sock, his first opponent at the Citi Open. That they went to a third-set tiebreak is a testimony to where both men stand at this point in the season. Nadal hasn’t competed since June 11, a date when clay-court tennis was transported someplace far from Earth, as he fought and fell to Novak Djokovic in a four-set French Open semifinal that’s still ringing in my head. The next day the Spaniard was seen limping out of Roland-Garros into his car—a vision to shatter any Rafa lover’s heart—and he would not touch a tennis court for the next 20 days. He eased back onto the practice court, first with a half-hour session, then gradually adding more. Though Rafa ordinarily would never have missed events like Wimbledon and the Tokyo Olympics, “my body decided for itself,” and he chose to start his American hard-court swing a week earlier than usual to get some rehab reps in. Jack Sock, meanwhile, is newly back into the top 200 after almost two years spent well outside it, armed with the same wicked forehand and bearing a little more resemblance to the version of himself who was ranked No. 8(!) in the world back in 2017. The wild cards are now coming Sock’s way, and he’s making good on them, winning four tour-level matches in the last month, a windfall after months of Challenger battles.
In Rafa’s first match back, the rust and hurt showed. The balls often landed shorter in the court, shallow and spinny, the way they can when he’s still playing his way into form. Occasionally we saw even the unthinkable: giving up on a ball where retrieval was even faintly humanly plausible. That’s not how Rafa rolls—passivity is not an option—and it could only be attributed to the left-foot pain that visibly hindered him throughout the second and third set but did not keep him from winning in a tidy 7–1 tiebreak. That would be his only victory in D.C., as the South African world No. 50 Lloyd Harris pulled off a three-set upset on Thursday night. But Nadal did report that the foot felt better on his second outing. For all the novelty of this week, the 35-year-old is intimately familiar with returning to the tour after a lower-body injury layoff, and remembering once again how to whup everyone. As he said after Wednesday’s win: “You need matches like this to be fitter after a month without competing. But that’s part of the process, and I know the process.” This is just regular old foot pain, after all—not, like, an ill-intentioned dog.
Above: Mr. Nadal goes to Washington. (Getty)