Rafael Nadal came to Washington, D.C., for the first time this month to chart yet another comeback. This summer, he pulled out of Wimbledon, which he’s won twice, and the Olympics, where he won gold in 2008 (singles) and 2016 (doubles), because he injured his left foot during the French Open, which he has won thirteen times but where he fell short this year. Washington’s Citi Open, a midlevel tournament that adds only five hundred points to a player’s ranking—compared with two thousand points for a Grand Slam win—was a place to test his foot and try competing again. Washington can be a tough town. Politicians and businesses pay big bucks to buy acceptance—knowing it can be as short-lived as their money. Being in can last a nanosecond. But, with Nadal, Washingtonians acted like they had never seen anyone famous before.
A couple days after Nadal arrived, Brooke Rohner got a call from her husband, who was walking through Georgetown for an appointment to get new car license plates. He thought he had spotted Nadal, masked because of COVID-19, wandering along M Street. They are fervent Nadal fans. They play tennis. Their fifteen-month-old pandemic rescue pup—a mix of collie, Australian shepherd, and mountain cur—is named Rafa. They’ve trained him on tennis balls. They honeymooned in Mallorca, Nadal’s home, in 2019.
So Rohner flew out of bed and put Rafa (the dog) on a leash. “Ten minutes later, we started to walk on M Street,” she told me. “There he was, Rafa Nadal, in his tennis whites. He was coming out of the Levain cookie shop. He had a bag. I said, ‘Rafa, I literally named my dog after you.’ He was laughing. I said, ‘Can I get a picture?’ He said, ‘Sure.’ ” She told Rafa (the dog) to sit, but the black-and-white pooch was more interested in sniffing the bakery goodies in Nadal’s bag. Nadal offered to hold the dog. “So I gave him the leash. Rafa looked up at Nadal, and I took the pictures.” She was so starstruck by the encounter that she stammered that they’d tried to get tickets to the tournament, but it was sold out. She took back the leash and watched Nadal walk down the street to his hotel.
Rohner tweeted her photos of the two Rafas, which went viral. NPR posted them, as did The Hill, which normally focusses on the business of Congress. Multiple friends sent me e-mails with the photos. The encounter was remarkable because Nadal, who is one of the world’s greatest and most fearless athletes on the court, is afraid of dogs. “I doubt their intentions,” he writes in his autobiography, “Rafa.” He also fears thunderstorms, spiders, motorcycles, and darkness. “Being home alone at night makes me a bit nervous,” he told Vogue, in 2009, a decade before he married. “If I’m at home alone I have to sleep on the sofa—I can’t face going to bed. I’m there with the TV on and all the lights on. I’m not very brave about anything in life. In tennis, yes. In everything else, not very.”
Nadal has made comebacks before. In 2010, when he was twenty-four, he took a ten-week break, only to return and lose eleven straight tournaments on hard courts. In 2012 and 2013, he didn’t play for seven months because of a torn patella. He tested the waters in distant Chile, at the V.T.R. Open, which is only a two-hundred-and-fifty-point tourney, and lost in the final. He had a yearlong slump in 2015, when he dropped to tenth place, his lowest ranking in a decade, after back and wrist injuries the previous year. Nadal admitted to anxiety and a loss of self-confidence. “Still playing with too much nerves for a lot of moments, in important moments, still playing with a little bit of anxious on that moments,” he told reporters, after losing at the Miami Open, in 2015, in an early round. “I have been able to control my emotions during, let’s say, ninety per cent, ninety-five per cent of the matches in my career—something that today is tougher, to be under self-control.” It’s sometimes hard to imagine that winners can lose more than a game. Simone Biles’s brave decision to withdraw from some Olympic events for her mental health underscored the psychological toll on athletes when they compete, win or lose. Each time Nadal slumped, he eventually went on to win a major or Grand Slam. But he’s thirty-five now. The shaggy mane of his teens, when he first won the French Open, is now short and thinning. He’s endured, but at a mounting physical price.
The Spaniard is still as captivating as ever, however, on the court. To watch Nadal play tennis is to believe that determination can defy age—and a bad back, shaky knees, an injured foot, or a wrist that would only heal in a cast. I went to the Citi Open to watch him practice tenaciously for a couple hours one evening, then play in two rounds on sequential nights. The tournament was created after Arthur Ashe, the first Black player to win the U.S. Open, proposed a tournament in the heart of Washington, which has slightly more Black residents than whites. In the late nineteen-sixties, Ashe told Donald Dell, his teammate on America’s Davis Cup squad and future agent, “Well, if you do it at a public park, a public facility, and not a country club, I’ll play the event.” Ashe added, “I’d like to see a lot of Black faces watching tennis.” The tournament has at times struggled. But, last week, the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center was packed, courtesy of Nadal, with sixteen thousand people on the waiting list—more than twice the capacity of the stadium.
Nadal had already won over Washington. During one of several outings around town, he stunned its residents by posting a selfie in front of the Capitol. “Hi DC!!! First time here and loving it!!!!” he wrote on Instagram, where he has more than eleven million followers. (President Joe Biden has about eighteen million.) Other photos showed him in front of the Washington Monument and with his bike at the Lincoln Memorial. “I have been able to walk around little bit the last couple of days. I am very impressed,” he said, at his first tournament press conference. “I hope to have a chance to visit little bit more the city during the next couple of days. But what I saw—so beautiful. A very green city, lower buildings than most of the American big cities. I am enjoying the city. I’m enjoying the people. Yeah, having fun.”
Mark Ein, who owns management rights for the Citi Open, was overwhelmed by the public response. “It’s kind of the perfect coincidence of timing as we come out of the pandemic and start to open up,” he told me. ”A beloved global icon like Rafa comes into the city and lights it up. You feel it when you’re on the grounds, but you see and feel it all over the city. It’s what everyone is talking about.”
The Washington crowd watched Nadal’s matches as if they were his family, with whom he is famously close. When he walked on the court, they greeted him with thunderous applause. Only seconds into his first game, against Jack Sock, a woman in the stands shouted, “I love you, Rafa! I love you!” The crowd laughed, and then pretty much roared in support of Nadal throughout the gruelling three-hour match. Nadal won the first set but lost the second to the Nebraskan, who ranked a hundred and ninety-second. Nadal stepped uneasily. His first serve wasn’t consistent. A surprising number of shots went long. In the third game, the American crowd cheered wildly for the Spaniard when he hit a backward-and-between-the-legs shot. They offered standing ovations for great points and cheers of “Let’s Go, Rafa, let’s go!” when he was down. In the third set, the match went down to a tiebreaker. Nadal pulled it off, narrowly. “The match wasn’t easy,” Nadal told reporters, in a Zoom press conference afterward. “I just need to have a little bit less pain in the foot, honestly.”