The day Nadal (not the tennis player) was retired
On May 28, 2020, Twitter was in a tizzy. It wasn't just horse racing Twitter. Tennis fans were blindsided by the news — Nadal was retired.
That came as a surprise. Though Rafael Nadal had been playing professional tennis since 2001, he was still one of the world's elite players, ranked No. 2 in the world. He was ranked No. 1 as recently as January 20, 2020, before he lost to Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. Despite that setback, he came back strong in February, when he won the Mexican Open for the third time.
That win was enough to suggest he was still in strong form. He is good on grass and hard court. He has two Wimbledon championships on grass, and four US Opens and an Australian Open on hard court.
But, on the slow, demanding clay? In almost two decades as a tennis pro, he has been divine. He has won 92% of his matches on clay. By May of 2020, Nadal had won the French Open 12 times. Clay has always been his favorite, but he was still winning tournaments on other surfaces. What happened to knock him from winning form to retirement so abruptly?
Tennis fans could loosen up their shoulders after reading a few more tweets or clicking on the news links. Nadal was retired — but not Rafael Nadal, the Spanish tennis star. Instead, the retired Nadal was an equine namesake.
Nadal, the horse, was just beginning his career. A $700,000 purchase price meant expectations were high from the beginning, and naming him after an all-time tennis great gave him a difficult act to follow. Still, he looked worthy of the name once he made it to the racetrack in January of his three-year-old year. His path to the Kentucky Derby (G1) resembled those of other Bob Baffert-trained stars. The son of Blame started twice in California, won both times, then raided Arkansas. He could not have looked better in two starts in Hot Springs.
His three-quarter-length Rebel (G2) victory was the most impressive Kentucky Derby prep win of 2020. He dueled on a quick pace, opened up in midstretch, and stayed on. A month and a half later, in his division of the Arkansas Derby (G1), Nadal raced just off an honest pace set by Wells Bayou, took command into the lane, and sauntered home. He was three lengths clear at the wire, flying past the sparsely attended apron and toward the Kentucky Derby, where he was certain to be a favorite.
Four races would be all we saw of Nadal. Less than four weeks after his Arkansas Derby triumph, after a workout at Santa Anita, he returned to the barn with a left front condylar fracture. As such injuries go, Nadal had gotten lucky. After surgery to insert two screws, the prognosis was good.
Four and a half months later, Shadai Stallion Station confirmed it would stand Nadal as a stallion. He covered his first mares this year, and they will have the chance to build a legacy for their sire starting in 2024.
As for his namesake? Fortunately, his career continues. Rafael Nadal is still playing tennis and still ranked second in the world. Though he suffered a rare clay-court loss in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open, in his first tournament back, after the summer's pandemic hiatus, Nadal came roaring back to win the 2020 French Open. It was his unprecedented 13th victory at Roland-Garros, the most anyone has won any individual grand slam singles event.