Rafael Nadal’s Long Road Back
Thus we arrive at this juncture. Rafael Nadal has played only seven tour matches since losing to rising star Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon last year. If we compare this current stretch with the period starting after Wimbledon 2013 until right before the 2014 Australian Open, Nadal not only played 41 matches, but won four titles. This newest comeback has had an inauspicious start: in the first week of January, Nadal lost in the first round of the ATP 250 event in Doha to unheralded German journeyman Michael Berrer, a man ranked outside the top 120 who’s never won an ATP singles title.
But the larger question remains: given how many times Nadal has already had to find ways to get back on the court after his body forces him out, how much longer can he keep doing it? Particularly when the problems cease to be familiar – like the knees – and expand into areas of his body that had worked well before? At least Sisyphus was only pushing a rock over and over again. Same problem, just on repeat. Are all comebacks the same, even? Here’s what Nadal says about that:
“Every time is different. Every feeling is different. Every time you come back, you have the doubts, you have the feeling that you are far away from your best.”
A significant component of tennis is not only being able to react to an opponent’s shots, but to anticipate where those shots will be going. Knowing where an opponent will hit the ball can turn the nature of a point instantly. But how does one anticipate where (or when) the next injury will come? How can one muster the effort to recover, both physically and mentally? How does one face the grind when the opponent seems impossible to defeat?
This is where Toni Nadal’s teachings become extremely pivotal. Much has been made over the years of Rafael’s uncle and coach’s ability to convince his nephew that he is not above any of his competitors. That people like Federer or Djokovic are actually better than he is. While that might seem like a bleak way to approach elite competition, it has guided Nadal’s focus in a different direction:
“Ever since Rafa was young, when he was a boy, I have worked his mind, so he can be mentally strong,” Toni said. “Always the most important thing is the mind, because when you have a strong mind you will have a strong body and you can play strong shots. When you’re coming back from injury, if you don’t have a strong mind, you will find it very difficult.”
Nadal, has learned to embrace, even love the struggle of competition and the inevitable highs and lows of being a professional athlete. This is how you begin to understand Nadal’s genuine excitement for an event where he’s had such a tortured history:
The part of that video that is mind blowing is when Nadal states that his favorite moment at the Australian Open wasn’t really when he won in 2009 after those two straight titanic battles. It was when he lost the 2012 final in agonizing fashion. Because even with the pain that came with defeat, there was that special feeling of knowing that adversity could be overcome.
And this is why Rafael Nadal is out there right now, full of doubt and insecurity, perpetually guarded against another blow of his unpredictable enemy. He seems unconcerned about his own legacy, even when he could conceivably end his career as the greatest male tennis player of all time. It does not seem like the man is out there chasing records or numbers. Nadal is out there because he knows that there is a special kind of joy that lies within the fight, and that a victory will be sweeter if the obstacles faced during the contest seemed insurmountable.
That’s why he’s practicing with an intensity that apparently dissuades pros from wanting to spar with him for too long, given the level of exhaustion that will come as a consequence. Will he win this year’s Australian Open? It doesn’t seem likely, even if he had a promising debut: a dominating 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 win over Mikhail Youzhny. At this stage, it’s not about trophies, really. It’s all about getting one win, then two wins, then three. Each victory is a building block towards the ultimate goal of regaining the level needed to survive at the top of men’s tennis. And that kind of progress will necessarily be incremental.
A few weeks after proceedings wrap up Down Under, Nadal will be playing on clay in South America, and likely accumulating more and more of those precious victories. With wins come titles, and with titles come bigger opportunities. The question, though, will continue to loom: When will Nadal’s adversary strike again? And, will he once again have the strength to regroup?
How long can he keep this impossible, Sisyphean act going? Maybe two more years. But don’t be surprised if you ask the same question at the start of the 2017 season, with Nadal still entrenched in the Top 5, and get the same answer.
Internet Archive Loses First Battle in Publishers' Copyright Infringement Lawsuit
- 'The Fight Continues'
Tennessee Moves to Permanently Expel Police Officers Who Beat Tyre Nichols
- Police Accountability