The world’s number one tennis player is into the second week of the Australian Open. It’s an outcome that might sound predictable and therefore insignificant to casual fans. But it’s fair to say it isn’t so for the Rafa Nadal camp and for his diehard fans who’ve been following his every move over the last few months. They will all be relieved to find him in the quarterfinals and now playing well enough to be a serious title contender.

As for me, having followed Nadal’s career – with all the drama therein – avidly for the past twelve years from a distance, having admired his game and spirit on TV, this weekend I finally got an opportunity to see him play live at the year’s first Grand Slam. And there was nothing insignificant about that either.

I have been an unapologetic Rafa Nadal fan since he burst onto the world stage at age nineteen with his trademark sleeveless shirts and long, bandanna-wrapped, hair. The way he played every single point as if his life depended on it, the efforts he made to keep adapting and improving his game to suit different surfaces, and the miraculous comebacks he staged over and over, offered life lessons to even a non-athlete like myself.

Nadal with his uncle Toni. AFP
Nadal with his uncle Toni. AFP

Over the years, I’ve watched as Rafa metamorphosed from a clay court specialist into a Wimbledon champion and subsequent career-slam winner. I tracked his journey from the highs, where he made the great Roger Federer cry after matches, to the lows where he withdrew from tournament after tournament with injuries. I cheered for him when he rose to the top and mourned when he began a losing streak against Novak Djokovic and slipped from the rankings.

Like many fans, I assumed, more than once, that his career was over, that he was headed for the twilight of retirement. Even last year, when Rafa came back from a long layoff to reach the final of the Australian Open, even as we Rafa fans rejoiced, it became clear that he was going to be second-best all year – behind his greatest rival, who was enjoying an even more astonishing resurgence.

Yet, somehow, incredibly, Rafa ended 2017 as world number one, and as the French and US Open champion. This of course made him the top seed at this year’s Australian Open, for the first time since 2014. It would seem to make him a firm favorite for the men’s championship. And yet, if you really think about it, a win here for him would be quite remarkable.

Only one Australian Open

Rafa has won the Australian Open only once, back in 2009, when he defeated Roger Federer in the final. At the time, many of us may have expected him to come back and win multiple titles Down Under. But the Happy Slam has proved to be less than that for the Spaniard. Always vulnerable to injuries, he has been especially unlucky at this particular major. His attempt to defend his title in 2010 was unsuccessful when he had to retire in the third set of his quarterfinal match against Andy Murray.

The following year, once again in the quarterfinals, against compatriot David Ferrer, Nadal suffered a hamstring injury and hobbled to defeat, thus failing to win the Rafa Slam – four majors in a row. In 2013, he withdrew from the tournament with a stomach virus. In 2014, he was warming up against Stan Wawrinka in the final, an opponent against whom he enjoyed a 12-0 winning record, when he suffered a back injury. Even though he finished the match, it was apparent that he was hurting.

While on several occasions, Nadal has lost fair and square at this event, it’s hard to ignore the fact that he hasn’t always been able to perform at his best level here at the beginning of the year, at an event that takes place so soon after the end of season break.

Which is why, when he withdrew from the warm up events just before this year’s Australian Open due to the same lingering knee injury that caused him to withdraw from the year-end ATP finals in November, it wasn’t all that shocking. I half expected him to skip the first major or, if he did make a brave attempt to play, to not make it through the first week.

However, not only is he still here, but he is looking almost like his younger, dominant self. And I’m not talking just about the sleeveless shirt he’s resumed wearing, which puts his rippling biceps in prominent view. In the first round, against Victor Estrella Burgos of the Dominican Republic, Nadal lost just three games, one in each set. In the first three rounds, Nadal did not drop a set.

He did face a tougher challenge in the fourth round, against the small and feisty Argentine Diego Schwartzman, who took the second set in a tiebreak and played him close until the very end. Every set lost in these early rounds is a slight disadvantage for Nadal if his knees are not a hundred percent.

In the quarterfinal on Tuesday, he will face the powerful Marin Cilic, last year’s Wimbledon finalist, who is more than capable of causing an upset. Even though Rafa leads Cilic 5-1 in their head to head record, and has not lost to the Croat since 2009, the big-serving, offensive sixth seed is exactly the kind of player that he can have problems against if he is a tad slow after a long, four-hour match in the previous round.

If he gets past Cilic, Rafa could very likely play world number three Grigor Dimitrov in a replay of last year’s semi-final, which was one of the best matches played all year. The winner of that one of course could well face Federer or Djokovic in the final, both of whom have beaten Rafa here the last time they played him. It’s obvious that despite his top ranking – which he held on to on Sunday by reaching the quarters – the path to the trophy is anything but straightforward for him.

And yet. Watching him courtside for the first time ever, it is hard not to feel like you’re in the presence of something special. Up close, he seems to do everything faster and stronger. On Friday night, Nadal’s third round match against the Bosnian number one Damir Džumhur was relegated to Margaret Court Arena to make way for Nick Kyrgios on Rod Laver. It did not impact his game.

It must not be fun to walk out as Nadal’s opponent. His arrival is announced with a list of accomplishments, which are then greeted with thunderous applause. Over the years, he has become a crowd favorite on every continent. If Federer draws more applause and affection in most countries, with the possible exception of Spain, then Nadal doesn’t lag too far behind.

Image credit: Australian Open.
Image credit: Australian Open.

As soon as Friday’s match began, it was obvious the crowd was all for him, as they cheered for him lustily with every point he won. However, it was such a one-sided start that soon they may have realized the match would end too swiftly for them to get their tickets’ worth.

At the start of the second set, the fans began to encourage Dzumhur, cheering when he broke back to level the set at 2-2. Unfortunately, the Bosnian was broken again in the very next game. It was never going to be very competitive. Rafa was all business. The only light moment came when a spectator unintentionally held up play for a minute, receiving a wry grin from the top seed.

Sitting courtside and watching Rafa live is a somewhat surreal experience. The small gestures such as skipping the chalk on the word Melbourne, or tugging at his fluorescent colored shorts at the start of nearly every point, are not just an optical illusion on TV. They are very real parts of a Rafa match.

Back in a sleeveless shirt after years, Rafa seems to once again be channeling his younger self when his biceps earned him the nickname The Beast of Mallorca. Even though the hair is now shorter – and thinner – those biceps look even more intimidating up close than on TV. And his grunts sound louder too, especially when he hits his forehand. His speed around the court combined with the velocity of his groundstrokes sends opponents scrambling to chase down his shots. In short, he looks utterly in command.

Great variety

But what’s really remarkable about watching Rafa play in person is the variety of his shots. If anyone ever thought he was a one-dimensional player who relies on brute strength, they couldn’t be more mistaken. He sends lobs, drop shots, and fluid groundstrokes laced with that famous heavy topspin to all corners of the court, making his opponents – like poor Dzumhur – look a bit desperate. Rafa not only has the heavy topspin but also a mean slice backhand he can occasionally pull out of his hat to change the pace. Watching him really is like watching a masterclass in shotmaking.

After the match, Rafa sheds the intimidating aura to celebrate with the crowd and charm them with his grace. On Friday, Nadal dismissed any thoughts that he might have been offended at playing in the smaller Margaret Court Arena when he said that the more intimate space made him “feel closer” to the fans all night. It is this combination of fierce competitiveness on court and tremendous humility off it that makes Nadal a peerless role model for anyone, whether they play tennis or not.

Rafa is a bit of an underdog here. Image credit: Australian Open
Rafa is a bit of an underdog here. Image credit: Australian Open

At this year’s event, Federer is trying to defend his magical run from last year and Djokovic is staging his own comeback. Both those players have a superior record in Melbourne to that of Rafa, with five and six titles respectively. This makes Rafa a bit of an underdog here. One can’t help but worry about those knees in the later matches. Will he hurt something and be forced to finish a match? Or will he be at his healthy best to provide yet another competitive and exciting finish?

Last year, he played a grueling five-setter semifinal before heading to yet another epic thriller against Federer. Whatever happens next week, one thing’s for sure. Rafa won’t give up. He will fight till the very end and even if he loses, his matches will provide drama and entertainment. Whether you watch on TV or are lucky enough to catch one in person, watching this ultimate warrior play is a privilege. There’s nothing insignificant about that.