Rafa’s farewell tour is coming up sadly short of farewells

March 10, 2024

That hurts in Indian Wells, a place he loves, and where he can “be with calm.”

Rafa’s farewell tour is coming up sadly short of farewells

“I can’t lie to myself,” Rafael Nadal said of his decision to withdraw from Indian Wells last Wednesday evening.

He had arrived early to try to be ready, and even played an exhibition with Carlos Alcaraz over the weekend. But the 37-year-old couldn’t overcome his latest hip injury in time to compete for real.

So far, Rafa’s (possible) farewell tour of 2024 is coming up short on farewells. After playing three matches in Brisbane, and tearing a hip muscle in the process, he had to withdraw from the Australian Open, where he was a two-time champion. Now he has withdrawn from Indian Wells, where he’s a three-time winner.

Both must have hurt - the Australian Open because it’s a major, and Indian Wells because it has always been a special location for Rafa. If Paris is where he typically reaches his peak form, the California desert is where he reached peak work-life balance. He loved the legendary local golf courses almost as much as its slow hard courts, and he was an annual houseguest of tournament owner Larry Ellison.

Sometimes I’ve thought the main reason the billionaire bought and hung onto the event was to have the chance to hang out with Rafa.

“Everyone knows how much I love this place and how much I love to play here,” Nadal wrote, with unusual directness, on social media last week.

Two decades ago, the pace of the surface helped a young Rafa make the transition from clay to hard courts. More than once, he came out of a dry spell to win the BNP Paribas Open/Pacific Life Open title. In 2007, he beat Novak Djokovic in the final to end a mini-slump. In 2013, he returned from a long injury layoff to edge Juan Martin del Potro in an excellent final. Two years ago, he survived Alcaraz, and the wind, in the semifinals - only to suffer another injury, to one of his ribs. This season, though, at 37, even the balmy, calming Southern California atmosphere couldn’t save him.

Indian Wells, with its accessible practice courts, was a good place for a fan to get a glimpse of Rafa with his guard slightly down. Toni Nadal, his taskmaster head coach, never made the trip, so everyone in his camp was a little more at ease. At the same time, it seemed to facilitate deeper technical discussions with Francisco Roig, his second coach. Roig and Rafa would go over the finer points of his forehand arm angle for 10 or 20 minutes at a time, while hundreds of people watched quietly from the practice court bleachers. I began to understand the force of Nadal’s concentration while watching him completely block out all of the fans who surrounded him during his training sessions at Indian Wells. In the middle of a sea of people, he really did seem to be alone with the tennis ball.

Indian Wells, where players and media shared a dining area, and press conferences felt a little less pressurized, was also a good place for a reporter to catch a glimpse of Rafa.

In 2009, shortly before he was scheduled to play the final against Andy Murray, I saw Rafa with someone else from his team watching golf on TV while they ate lunch. Nadal was absorbed: When someone’s chip shot plunked down in a sand trap, he made a “Doh!” sound and lowered his head in sympathy. Then, an hour or so later, he went out and beat Murray in straight sets.

Golf was also a frequent topic at Rafa’s pressers there. In 2007, he was asked how he had been playing.

He isn’t from California, but he fits in perfectly.

“Well, first day, disaster,” he answered without hesitation. “Second day, probably very bad, and the third day, I played better. I can play four consecutive hours with calm, so that’s good. That’s good for think and for disconnect a little.”

“Tomorrow, I gonna improve.”

Upbeat but honest, that was Rafa in a nutshell, then and now.

Two years later, after he won the title, Nadal appeared in the interview room eating a cookie. When he was asked about it, he said he liked to eat what he wanted.

Who were we to argue? That was the Rafa we got to see in Indian Wells - the normal guy under the superstar. He isn’t from California, but he fits in perfectly. We can only hope we get to see him there again. –Tennis.com

Rafa’s farewell tour is coming up sadly short of farewells