The quest is over. It wasn't supposed to end with Rafa limping, on the verge of tears, taking a beatdown out of respect for his friend and the game he loves. But that's how it ended and I think everyone's still trying to get their head around this one. It's a somber mood around these parts.
One year to the day of his 2010 quarterfinal retirement to Moose, Rafa picked up a hamstring injury during the epic 20+ minute second game of the match, and it was all but lost from them on. He would leave the court for evaluation and taping and emerge a completely different player. You know how Rafa makes 99.9% of his opponents look a step slow and completely ineffective?
That's what Rafa looked like tonight against Daveed, who, to his credit, absolutely brought his A-game and really took it to Rafa. Aside from the disappointment that Rafa got injured and lost, it was even more of a bummer that we couldn't see these two gladiators go toe-to-toe for a full match. The way Daveed played today he would have had a real chance to beat even a healthy Rafa. He was aggressive, tactically perfect, and absolutely ruthless despite his look of concern for his friend.
Rafa didn't roll over after the injury. Being the competitive beast that he is, he willed himself back into the first set and mounted a a legitimate challenge, fighting from a break down to even the set. But Daveed held his nerve to break back and eventually take it. From there, the result seemed inevitable, especially after the match had to be stopped for 10 minutes in the second set for the Australia Day fireworks. Rafa looked understandably annoyed when he got the news and disappeared to get some medical treatment during the stoppage. But sore muscles get cold and he wasn't the same player when he came back.
Once Daveed clinched the second set 62, I think everyone watching the match was watching Rafa, waiting for him to throw in the towel. But out of respect for Daveed, the crowd, and the game itself, he kept going, accepting his fate and his beatdown. "I hate the retirements, so this wasn't the day. I did last year. I hate that moment. I didn't want to repeat that."
It was a slow and painful death for the champ, who hung his head on the changeovers and finally had to wipe away tears when the reality of the moment, that his body was failing him on this once-in-a-lifetime quest, settled in. It was really hard to watch. It's amazing how quickly Rafa can go from looking like a seemingly invincible sportsman, to a lonely little boy who looks lost. The too-big-for-him shirt didn't help matters.
After the match, Rafa looked absolutely gutted as he tried to put on a brave face in front of the press. I was standing in the back of the room but from what I could see it looked like he struggled a few times to keep his composure. He made it clear that he didn't want to take anything away from Daveed and didn't want to talk about the injury. He felt fantastic coming into the match and didn't know any details about his injury.
"I can say nothing about the injury. Seriously, I would prefer don't talk a lot about the injury. Tonight, first of all, I don't know nothing. Second thing, for respect to the winner and to a friend, I prefer to talk about the match. I think he played at a very high level. I just congratulate him and wish him all the best for the semifinal."
"For me is difficult come here and speak about [the injury]. In Doha I wasn't healthy. Today I have another problem. Seems like I always have problems when I lose, and I don't want to have this image, no? I prefer don't talk about that today. If you can respect that, will be a very nice thing for me. Thank you."
"I think I am very, very lucky sportsman about what happened in my career. And I have to accept the fantastic moments that I had during a lot of years with the same calm that when I have problems. And if I am ready to accept both things with I think let's say everything the same, I going to be able to come back and play my best tennis another time."
"My expectations, I said before the tournament, I said before the year start, is enjoy every day and practice hard every day with same illusion, humble and motivation that I did all my career. So that's my principal goal, in general, no? I lost in quarterfinals today. We'll see what's happen in next tournament. I'll work hard to be ready."
"I love playing tennis. I love the competition. And I love, in general, the hard moments because you are ready to change the situation working hard, working every day with a goal and with illusion."
Class in victory and defeat. Fuck the Rafa Slam. I'll just take Rafa.