¡Gracias! Nadal Bids Adios To Madrid Open In An Emotional Farewell

Rafael Nadal (photo: Mateo Villalba/MMO)

MADRID/WASHINGTON, May 1, 2024 (by Michael Dickens)

As the clock struck midnight at the Mutua Madrid Open and Tuesday night morphed into early Wednesday, Rafael Nadal received a standing ovation as he ran from his bench onto the clay surface of Manolo Santana Stadium to thunderous applause. Nadal took his place behind the baseline, trailing by a set and down a break to No. 30 seed Jiri Lehecka of the Czech Republic.

Three minutes and five points later at 12:03 a.m., as the Rolex match clock read 2:01, the 37-year-old five-time Madrid champion went down to a 7-5, 6-4 fourth-round defeat, after hitting an eighth-shot backhand wide right of its intended placement.

While it wasn’t the way Nadal – or his adoring fans, which included his parents, his wife and other family members, all teary-eyed – wanted the night to end, the King of Clay was smiling and in a good mood. He was gracious in defeat to Lehecka, and the young 22-year-old Czech showed his respect for Nadal. The two shared a warm embrace at the net. All was good.

Soon, Nadal, the greatest player there ever was on a clay court, received a huge ovation as Madrid said goodbye to him during an on-court ceremony.

“It’s been a very special week for me, very positive in many ways, both personally and for my tennis,” Nadal, a 36-time Masters 1000 champion, said after the match, in which five banners – one for each of his five Madrid titles won in a 10-year span between 2008-17 – was unfurled, and he received a special trophy from tournament director Feliciano Lopez.

“I had the chance to play again on court. A few weeks ago, two days before Barcelona, I didn’t know if I would compete in an official match again and I’ve now played two weeks. It’s been unforgettable.

“The only thing I can say is ‘thank you’. It’s been an incredible journey that started when I was little. I came to Madrid for the first time in 2003, when the tournament was played indoors. The first time I came here feeling competitive was in 2005. It was one of the most exciting wins of my career, still indoors. Ever since, the support has been unconditional from everyone. I cannot thank you enough.”

Lehecka kept Nadal from advancing advance to his 100th ATP Masters 1000 quarterfinal by breaking Nadal’s serve in the 11th game of the opening set, then consolidating it as he won the last 10 points of the set. Soon, he broke Nadal to begin the second set and it proved to be the margin of victory. Lehecka outpointed Nadal 76-61 in the final outcome to reach his second Masters 1000 quarterfinal this season.

“It’s amazing to share a court with such a legendary player. It’s a dream come true; I always wished for this to happen,” said the 31st-ranked Lehecka in an on-court interview following the Nadal ceremony. “I’m very grateful to achieve such a big moment and all the best to Rafa. It’s kind of bittersweet to have such a nice win in front of all these people who were cheering for him. The energy was amazing.”

Nadal, who was seeking his 60th match win at the Madrid Open, had not lost to a player ranked outside the Top 20 on clay since 2016, when he was defeated by Pablo Cuevas in Rio de Janeiro.

“The good news is Nadal’s body looked fine,” said Hall of Famer Jim Courier, who was commenting on the Nadal-Lehecka match back in the United States for Tennis Channel. “That wasn’t an issue. Lehecka just took the racquet away from him, didn’t give him a chance to show what he was capable of. For Nadal, it may be his last time in Madrid; that’s what he says it is. I don’t think it will be the last time we’ll see him, though.

“Good news for him, he played four matches here, including one over three hours, and his body held. Fingers crossed, we will see him again, hopefully in Rome. Certainly, we hope at Roland Garros. Tonight, Lehecka was just too good.”

With the five championship banners – each containing a photo of Rafa – serving as a backdrop to his Madrid greatness, Nadal reflected on the moment during a speech to the capacity crowd that remained inside Manolo Santana Stadium to pay their respects to their national hero.

“Looking at the pictures, some of them seem like they were a lifetime ago,” said the Spanish icon. “All I can do is thank everyone who has helped me in my career. Even though it’s not over, this is the last time I’ll be in Madrid. You have given me a gift for the last 21 years that’s more significant than any Grand Slam I have won. The emotions of playing in Madrid, in front of the Spanish fans, is something that will stay with me forever.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do a hobby as my job, and to do it exceptionally well. I feel so lucky to have had all these experiences. I couldn’t ask for more. I hope I’ve set a positive example for the new generations. That’s the most important thing. Titles and sporting moments are exciting.”