There is one persistent question that has surrounded Rafael Nadal since his rise to the upper echelon of men’s tennis: How long will his body allow him to remain there? Back in 2009, when Nadal was 23 years old, I remember that my answer to that specific question was a slightly pessimistic two more years.
The Manacor native is now 28 years old, and indeed, he has had to deal with an impressive array of injuries. Recapping that history would be a painfully long exercise, so let’s just put Nadal’s issues in context. Since winning his first Grand Slam title at the 2005 French Open, he’s most notably been forced to miss five Grand Slams and four World Tour Finals. And yet, as things stand, Rafael Nadal is ranked third in the world and has won at least one Grand Slam trophy every year since ’05, for a total of 14. That puts him level with Pete Sampras, and only three behind Roger Federer’s all-time record of 17 major titles.
Nadal has won the Olympic gold medal in singles, has won the Davis Cup four times and holds the all-time record of ATP Masters 1000 wins, an insane 27 titles of that caliber. To put that last achievement in context, last year’s surprise Slam champions, Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic have a combined Masters 1000 haul of, um, one. Nadal holds a positive head-to-head record against his main rivals in this Golden Era of men’s tennis, most notably a thumping 23-10 mark against Federer. You’d think by now we would be as used to seeing Nadal triumph over adversity as we are watching him win Roland Garros. And yet, if someone asked me today how much longer I see Nadal at the top of the rankings, I’d probably say two more years. Again.
Why only two more years? The answer lies somewhere within Nadal’s fascinating history with the event that just started in Melbourne, Australia.
No Grand Slam better illustrates Nadal’s career – the improvement and the battles with both adversity and his body – than the Australian Open. It’s a story in two acts, really. The first act is one of incremental improvement. Nadal debuted in Melbourne as a precocious 17-year-old in 2004, making the third round and giving Aussie star Lleyton Hewitt a scare. The next year, Nadal met Hewitt (who would finish as the runner-up) in the fourth round, and pushed him to five sets. After missing the 2006 Australian Open due to, you guessed it, injury, Nadal kept making steady progress, bowing out in the quarterfinals in 2007 and the semis in 2008. His big breakthrough finally came in 2009, when he defeated compatriot Fernando Verdasco in a spectacular 5 hour and 10 minute semifinal (which doubles as the greatest tennis match my eyes have seen), only to turn around and beat his rival Federer in a thrilling five-set final. The 2009 Australian Open marked the first time Nadal made a hardcourt Slam final, and naturally, his first hardcourt Slam title. Act one finished in a blaze of glory.
Act two is entirely different, and somewhat bittersweet. This sets the tone:
Dear Australian Open, please don’t hurt Rafa again this year. Thank you.
— Nadal News (@nadalnews) January 13, 2015
While trying to defend his title in 2010, Nadal was forced to retire from his quarterfinal match against Andy Murray because of, yep, an injury (to his right knee). A similar situation arose in 2011, when Nadal tweaked his hamstring very early in his quarterfinal match against David Ferrer, but stayed on the court long enough to be dispatched in straight sets. In 2012, Nadal managed to stay healthy for the duration of the event and made the final. Across the net was newly minted nemesis, Novak Djokovic, who had beaten the Spaniard in their previous six meetings. The pair battled for 5 hours and 53 minutes, and Nadal even held a break advantage in the fifth set. However, Djokovic was still riding high after his insanely dominant 2011 season and eventually triumphed.
After missing the 2013 Australian Open because of, well, you should know by now, Nadal made a thrilling return to the Australian Open final last year. Across the net stood Wawrinka, a man who had not only failed to beat Nadal in any of their 12 previous meetings – but hadn’t even taken a set from Rafa. But just when a second Australian Open title seemed inevitable, Nadal’s predictable enemy struck again. Early in the second set, Nadal’s movement was severely impaired, and not by his famously problematic knees. Surprise of surprises, it was Nadal’s back that suddenly seized on him, turning the final into a somewhat farcical affair that dragged on despite the inevitability of the result.
The unexpected back injury set the tone for Nadal’s 2014 season, and it also signaled a change in Nadal’s relationship with his body. Previously, it was Nadal’s knees that threatened to derail his career. Yet for the most part, those knees gave him a pass in 2014. Nadal had to deal with his back pretty much all year (once a back patient, always a back patient, right?), only to be thrown another curveball in the summer. During practice ahead of his defense of a monumental 2013 summer hardcourt season (Nadal had swept the Canada and Cincinnati Masters 1000 along with winning the US Open, something that hadn’t been done since 2003), an injury to his right wrist kept Nadal in Mallorca until the Asian swing two months later. And just when Nadal was getting back into the rhythm of things in China, he was faced with yet another new issue: appendicitis. That didn’t stop him from entering two more events (losing early in both), but eventually that problematic organ forced the Spaniard to get surgery and put a premature end to his season.