US Open champion Rafael Nadal successfully puts injuries and age behind him to raise game to the next level
Like so many players, Rafael Nadal has battled not just his opponents on the court, but those dual shadows that stalk athletes: injuries and time.
The word ‘injury’ shows up 27 times on the Wikipedia page of Rafael Nadal, the player they say you should pick to play for your life. That’s 15 times more ‘injury’ than Novak Djokovic’s wiki, and nine times more than Roger Federer’s. If you printed Nadal’s career timeline on paper, it would look like it has just met a tommy gun, such are the lacunae caused by injury. Most people know him as the man who won the first French Open he played, in 2005. But 2004 was supposed to be his debut at Roland Garros; he missed it because of a stress fracture while still in his teens.
A very young Nadal would rush home from school in Manacor, not just for tennis balls, but also for Dragonball. He was a fan of Goku, the protagonist of the cult anime series, featuring the alien race of Saiyan warriors, who got stronger the more they fought. Binge-worthy fighting sequences aside, it’s not difficult to see why Nadal owns DVDs of every season of the show. There is almost an anime-like certainty to him emptying everything into every match he plays, and more often than not, an anime-like happy ending too (an 862-183 win-loss record). But like so many players, he has battled not just his opponents on the court, but those dual shadows that stalk athletes: injuries and time.
Nadal is 31. Before this year, he won his last Grand Slam in 2014, days after his 28th birthday. And it was his pet event, the French Open, his fifth consecutive title at Roland Garros, and ninth overall. Talk of him completing ‘La Decima’ was starting to materialise. So was a pernicious wrist injury that would dog him for the next few years, adding to the long-term knee troubles. To make matters worse, appendicitis — and the surgery it demanded — ended his season prematurely.
2015 saw a slew of early losses, and his first year without a Grand Slam title, after a decade of consistency. For only the second time in his career, he won less than four ATP events in the season. He lost in the Australian Open quarter-finals, exited the French Open at the same stage, and lost in the second round of Wimbledon.
A third round loss at the US Open was worrying, more for the manner in which it came about than the result. In New York, he went down to Fabio Fognini after being two sets to love up, a position from where he had never lost a match before in Slams.
Like MS Dhoni, Nadal was the master of taking the game deep, using five-setters as a weapon. But also like Dhoni, his finishing skills seemed like they were waning. The troublesome wrist had never completely gone away, and it seemed that the gravity of time was finally starting to show on him.
2016 started in similar fashion, with a first-round exit from the Australian Open. His hopes of escaping the rut on his favourite red clay disintegrated as he had to withdraw from the French and Wimbledon, the wrist protesting the movements of his heavy top-spin forehand.
The rest of the season was about injury management: he played the Olympics (gold in doubles, fourth in singles) and the Davis Cup (against India in Delhi), the two events where national pride was at stake. It cost him most of his season though, as he chose to give his overworked joint time to recuperate after another five set loss at Flushing Meadows. Yet another year without a Grand Slam, just two ATP titles (the lowest since his debut season), and an entire season without being able to make a Grand Slam quarter-final. Tick tock.
An injury is harder to digest than a loss to an opponent. Even for the most seasoned of campaigners, who understand that it is a natural part of a sportsperson’s life. While one can lose a tennis match when an opponent outplays you, an injury is your own body’s betrayal. It either betrays a movement unsuited to the repetitive task, or a lacuna in preparation. While the latter is more common, the former is scarier. Preparation can be amended, adjusted and applied. But technique is entrenched in muscle memory, as doggedly as the will of the athlete.
Then there are some maladies that refuse to respond to treatment, demanding more time, often the intervention of a scalpel. In moments like this, an athlete is at their most vulnerable: confined to the sidelines of the trade he/she loves, resigned to more time with the physio than the coach, and maligned by doubts that gnaw at the gut.
All this Nadal had overcome by the time he stood across the net to Kevin Anderson, another 31-year-old who has interred similar demons. This was after the Spaniard started the year by reaching the final of the Australian Open, his own fairytale derailed and delayed by a certain Roger Federer’s.
In Melbourne, he showed once again the famed five-set tenacity in more than five hours against Grigor Dimitrov in the semi-final. But his loss to Federer, against whom he led 9-2 in Slams, 23-11 overall, and a break up in the fifth set, would have seen some doubts return. Especially after two more losses to Federer in Indian Wells and Miami.
He was reasonably healthy again? He was winning matches, but was it enough to win tournaments?
It was the soft clay of Roland Garros that solidified his return. Untouchable in the tournament, Nadal won every game in straight sets, and three years after he had it in his sights, completed ‘La Decima’. But it was in New York where his comeback would be validated. Nadal outclassed the big-serving Anderson by a margin much greater than the seven inches that separated the two men in height. And in doing so, he won his first hard court title since his win at Doha in 2014, one he will cherish like an away Test-series win.
The Dragonball universe has many heroes. There is the unwilling-warrior Gohan, the time-travelling Trunks, and the grim-faced Piccolo. But it often comes down to those two familiar faces, Goku, and his rival-turned-ally, Vegeta to save the day.
We are in a year where the four Grand Slams have been split by Federer and Nadal. It is as if — in what is supposed to be their twilights — they have somehow found the next level, their Super Saiyan forms. Nadal can now place a 16th Grand Slam trophy along with all the Dragonball DVDs he owns. The word ‘injury’ might appear 27 times on his wiki, but ‘Grand Slam results’ has a glittering and growing section of its own.
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