Tennis legend and arguably the GOAT Rafael Nadal has a special connection with Chennai. Tennis fans across the city love the Spaniard who had been to the city thrice. In 2004, he came as a 17-year-old rookie and then later on in 2007 and 2008 for the erstwhile Chennai Open.
Nadal’s other connection with India is through Carlos Moya, his early mentor and now his coach. These days, many credit Moya for bringing Nadal back among the titles by injecting more aggression in his game. But in the last decade, the two also competed against each other. Their last professional duel was in Chennai in 2008. Moya was such a regular at the tournament by then that he had become the favourite of the crowds, their racquet-wielding Thalaivar. And he rewarded them with a classic against Nadal, a nearly four-hour semi-final slugfest which Nadal won by a narrow margin of 6-7, 7-6, 7-6. One who has seen his games in Chennai, would remember the famous semifinal match. The match, played over 3 hours 54 minutes, was one of the longest three-setters ever played and Nadal was so drained after the match that he could hardly put up a fight in the final against Mikhail Youzhny. Slide, stretch or fall, the doughty Spaniards try push a rally until their legs fall off.
Nadal was taking baby steps on the circuit when he came to Chennai for the first time in 2004. He was still more than a year away from his first Grand Slam win at the French Open. Nadal lost a tight first-round singles match to Thierry Ascione, but went on to become the champion in doubles with compatriot Tommy Robredo.
Six years have gone by, but in spirit, Nadal remains the same young boy who runs for every single ball, as if there is no tomorrow. Just the way he used to do on the outside courts of the Nungambakkam Tennis Centre all those years ago, making us fall in love with his game, over and over again.