None more so than Rafael Nadal. He started this competition after 73 days away from tennis. When we last saw this inimitable character, he was withdrawing from the French Open in the third round. The nine time champion had a wrist injury, and it kept him out of Wimbledon as well, not to mention the Masters 1000 event in Toronto. Nadal came to Rio with typical humility and a clear sense of perspective. He explained that he had protected his wrist during his time away by not serving, structuring his practice sessions around his backcourt game. That was the move of a realist. He seemed very genuine when he spoke about his aspirations for Rio, stressing that it was largely about wanting the chance to be a part of it again after missing the 2012 Games.
Nadal had captured the singles gold medal four years earlier at Beijing, but injured his knee in 2012 at Wimbledon and was gone from the game for seven months. Not being at the Olympics four years ago was probably the most disconcerting part of being idle, with the possible exception of not having the fitness to compete at the U.S. Open that year. So Nadal must have been relieved and even exhilarated to have the chance to simply show up in Rio, even if his preparation was not even close to what he would have wanted it to be.
And now he has advanced to the quarterfinals of the singles in Rio without the loss of a set. Seeded third, Nadal took apart fellow left-hander Federico Delbonis 6-2, 6-1 in the first round. That was hardly a test, but the Spaniard was bearing down hard and giving nothing away against a vastly inferior opponent. He then accounted for Italy’s industrious Andreas Seppi 6-3, 6-3. Today, he played the Frenchman Gilles Simon, a human backboard who has established himself across the years as a perpetual pest—and I mean that as a compliment!
No one likes having to contend with this fellow. The 31-year-old stands at 6’0″ and officially weighs 154 pounds, although he looks as though he might be ten pounds lighter. He has the ideal build to run balls down incessantly, covering the court with effortless alacrity, moving with ease and elegance, prolonging points he has no business winning. Simon finished his best year in 2008 at No. 7 in the world, twice upending Roger Federer that season and also achieving his lone career triumph over Nadal. Ever since, the quietly cocky Simon has been a top of the line professional, finishing five of the last seven seasons stationed among the top 20 in the world.
He currently stands at No. 31, but this man loves the challenge of going up against the top players. He seldom beats them, but almost always makes life difficult for opponents with richer gifts and larger reputations. A case in point: Simon pushed Novak Djokovic to five agonizing sets at the Australian Open this year in the round of 16 before the Serbian muddled through. Djokovic went on to secure his sixth crown in Melbourne, an Open Era record. He did not drop another set after dealing with the obstinate Simon.
In any case, Simon and Nadal had a stern battle in the first set of this Olympic duel in Rio. They fought for 75 minutes. The rallies were first class and well constructed by both players. Simon seldom allowed Nadal to step around and dictate with the inside out forehand as the Spaniard so often does. Simon was striking the ball cleanly off both sides, and his forehand, the side on which he can be so vulnerable, was holding up remarkably well. After the two gladiators each held for 1-1, Simon pounced, breaking Nadal at love as the Spaniard’s forehand faltered in the wind.
But Nadal drew level at 2-2 on the fourth break point of a long game. The 30-year-old Spaniard took eight of the next eleven points to make it 4-2 in his favor. He found his range in that stretch. Although he was not in full flow off the forehand, his two-hander was terrific. Throughout the match, he was flattening out that stroke, ripping returns off that side, and passing brilliantly on the dead run at full stretch.
Nonetheless, Simon was far from through. After two deuces, he broke back in the seventh game. Nadal double faulted on the penultimate point of that game and then Simon connected with a forehand passing shot winner down the line. Simon held for 4-4. But, serving to stay in the set in the tenth game, Simon squandered a 40-15 lead and drifted to set point down. He cagily threw in a kick first serve that surprised the Spaniard, who miss-hit his return badly into the net. Simon held on for 5-5. Both players protected their deliveries to make it 6-6, and fittingly the set ended in that compelling sequence.
A confident Nadal raced ahead 5-1, but inexplicably wandered into disarray, dropping four points in a row, two with unprovoked mistakes off the forehand and two more on his backhand side. Simon landed safely at 5-5 by prevailing in a 24 shot exchange that ended with a tame mistake from Nadal. But the ever resilient left-hander won a 21 shot rally for 6-5 and then sealed the set 7-5 in the tie-break with a neatly executed backhand drop volley eliciting a forehand passing shot error on the run from a harried Simon.
Nadal was utterly impressive in establishing a 5-1 second set lead, but Simon, as is his custom, refused to depart without one last push. He held easily for 2-5 and then broke his old adversary in the eighth game with some stellar play. At 30-30, he chased down a deft drop volley from Nadal and lofted a perfect lob over the Spaniard’s head. Simon took the net away, moving forward to put away a forehand volley after Nadal chased down the lob with characteristic determination. Then Simon laced a forehand passing shot off another drop volley from Nadal, finding an open space for a winner.
Simon was back to 3-5, but a poised Nadal swiftly wrapped up victory with one last break, coming through 7-6 (5), 6-3 in just over two hours. His joy in carving out that victory was unmistakable. Why not? Not only was he through to the quarterfinals, but in turn his draw has opened up beyond all belief. He was due to meet the tenacious David Goffin (the No. 8 seed) in the quarterfinals, but the Belgian fell in straight sets against Brazil’s Thomaz Bellucci. So Nadal will play his fellow southpaw on Friday in the quarters, and his consistency and big match experience should be enough to get the job done. Meanwhile, after Nadal beat Simon, he came back for a men’s doubles semifinal with 34-year-old Marc Lopez against the Canadians Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil. Commendably, Nadal and Lopez were victorious in two tie-breaks, and so Nadal thus guaranteed himself at least one medal in Rio. He has seldom seemed more jubilant after winning any tennis match, singles or doubles, throughout his storied career.
Nadal seemed revitalized in many ways by his surprisingly good form and his sparkling showing in the men’s doubles, not to mention the kind draw that opened up so well for him in the singles. Meanwhile, Juan Martin Del Potro backed up his stunning first round, two-tiebreak victory over Djokovic—the best tennis he has played since 2013—with a pair of three set victories to reach a quarterfinal appointment against the strategically sound Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut, and the winner of that contest will meet either Nadal of Bellucci in the semifinals.
In the bottom half of the men’s draw, No. 2 seed Andy Murray staged an impressive comeback to beat the confounding Fabio Fognini. Murray had met little resistance from the mercurial Fognini in the opening set but then the Italian raised his game decidedly, taking the second set, building a 3-0 lead in the third and final set. Fognini even had a game point for 4-1, but Murray summoned all of his resolve and match playing acuity to win 6-1, 2-6, 6-3, sweeping six consecutive games at the end.
He meets Stevie Johnson—the last American left in the men’s singles— in the quarters, and Murray figures to win that match comfortably. He would then confront either Kei Nishikori or Gael Monfils in the semifinals, and that could be a blockbuster either way. The bottom line is that Murray and Nadal will be favored to make it to the finals, and that would be a tremendously enticing best of five set final.
Among the women, the semifinal lineup features Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic against Puerto Rico’s Monica Puig, the woman who crushed Muguruza 6-1, 6-1 in the third round. In the other semifinal, the American Madison Keys—who will get two cracks to earn a medal—faces Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber. That could be a dandy because no one defends and then shifts to offense like the left-handed Kerber, while Keys is one of the sport’s biggest hitters with a serve that can only be surpassed by Serena Williams.
And so we are on our way to a potentially spectacular weekend in both the men’s and women’s divisions. Kvitova and Kerber must like their chances, but Puig and Keys will be fighting hard to reach the final and prevent an all-lefty battle for the gold. As for the men, the defending champion Murray and 2008 victor Nadal will be eager to earn a chance for a second gold medal. Nadal may be debilitated by playing singles and doubles, but he is indefatigable, and it will be fascinating to watch him try to move past any lingering fatigue in search of another title. The man’s boundless enthusiasm and dedication to his craft is nothing short of astonishing. He is one of a kind. Murray will be buoyed by his revival against Fognini, and he is a very confident fellow after reaching the season’s first two Grand Slam tournament finals before claiming his second Wimbledon singles title in July.
And yet, the beauty of the Olympic Games is that anything can happen, and the very nature of the competition brings out layers of resilience in competitors that they never knew they had. What I do know is this: the homestretch of the 2016 Olympic Games will be enormously enjoyable for all of us to follow.