Yesterday I wrote about how Roger Federer is at a significant career crossroads, and one of the more interesting subplots in this plot-rich rivalry Federer enjoys with Rafael Nadal is that the same could be said for Nadal. And if the events of the last 12 months in Federer's life have been unpredictable and surprising, constituting a narrative of the kind on which Hollywood thrives, with all that Journey of the Hero baloney they teach in film school, Nadal's own trials have a decidedly Biblical flavor.
This is a case of life imitating art, because there's a measure of verisimilitude in those comparisons. Federer is tennis's version of a fabulous leading man in the old-school tradition: he's sophisticated, he bears his enormous gifts lightly (but without ever abusing or betraying them), he enjoys wearing $3,000 suits and feels no obligation to proclaim his manliness. He prefers a good fashion show to, say, deep-sea fishing. Mostly, though, his career has been distinguished (generally) by an extraordinary ability to make the difficult appear easy, and a penchant to let everyone else do his worrying for him. He's like a Swiss James Bond; they don't do gun-play, bedroom romps, and potent cocktails all that well there.
By contrast, Nadal is all grit, glistening biceps, and unruly hair. He's boyish; the second impulse many women feel in his presence is a profound desire to give him a motherly hug (that this is vastly different from the first impulse is a subject we'd better leave for another time). It's easy to picture Rafa as an extra in The Ten Commandments, although a more profound analogy might call upon a comparison of Nadal with the subject of the Book of Job. Only Nadal's relative youth keeps that one from hitting the bulls-eye, but with Federer unlikely to vanish from the tennis scene soon, even that qualifier might have to be discarded.
Nadal's accomplishments have been glorious, already. But a more intriguing and volatile story-line was placed over his developing record, like one of those transparent panels containing various body parts in a biology textbook. And that was the theme of Nadal's pursuit of Federer - an unavoidable theme, given the Spanish youth's ambitions. It's probably time to peel back that panel, because anybody who thinks that a primary goal of either man's career is bringing down the other is just plain nuts. That the accomplishment of either man's stated goals inevitably includes having to triumph over the other is more of an accident of the way the game is structured than a motivational force for either Federer or Nadal. Rivalries are not just wonderful, they're pre-ordained. And has any comparably riveting rivalry so conspicuously lacked what we would call "bulletin board" material?
Just as the tribulations of the past 12 months have tempered Federer, we can expect to see a different Nadal emerge from his recent, enforced absence from tennis. Already we see a more sober, muted champion than the one to whom those great prizes - a Wimbledon title, an Olympic games gold medal, the no. 1 ranking - were something to strive for, a job into which to put his back with blinkered eyes. In the coming months, Nadal will face challenges parallel to the ones Federer surmounted this summer; but the theme won't be catching Federer any more than derailing Nadal was a preoccupation for Federer. It will simply be getting back what he once possessed - health, stamina, and those cherished ATP ranking points. For Federer, this past year was largely a psychological call to arms; for Nadal, it will be a physical one, although we all know that the two are intimately related.
The news these days out of Manacor has been slightly disconcerting as well as puzzling. If you read the interviews and articles closely, you might also detect an undercurrent of doubt and perhaps even sadness in Rafael Nadal's remarks about the status of his knees. For example, did you note how he emphasized the need to learn how to "overcome difficult situations or face them with a positive mindset and learn to enjoy suffering. . . [it is] is a virtue that I’ve always had, I like to suffer, I have learned to enjoy suffering and I believe that is what helps me."
We needn't make too much of this; a taste for suffering is an attribute of of many great athletes, in all sports. The more alarming quote from Rafa was his simple explanation for why he pulled the plug instead of defending his Wimbledon title. "I decided it was best to stop and recover because you lose the drive to go back to train and compete, because you are not with the same energy, little by little it destroys you."
This is not just dramatic; it's also a sad if unflinchingly realistic assessment coming from the mouth of the 23-year old. And if the observation can be construed as a threat to Nadal's career, it's chiefly in an area related to his love of the game - a theme we worked over pretty well yesterday. It's hard to love playing when doing so is downright painful, and the source of stress and anxiety. Nadal will have two major issues to deal with when he does return: the physical state of his knees, and the mental drain of worrying about those knees.
My own feeling, though, is optimistic. Nadal is a fighter, and he knows as well as anyone else what's at stake in the next few weeks. He's always done his heavy lifting for the year by the end of Wimbledon, which has hampered his enthusiasm and effectiveness at the U.S. Open. Soon, he'll embark for the first time on the quest for the American national title with a hard-court major in hand and plenty of rest. He could meet Federer's ante and complete his own career Grand Slam in 2009, which would certainly make this one of the most extraordinary of years in tennis.
Great players tend to see challenges as opportunities rather than daunting tests - witness how Federer took extra care to prevent Roland Garros from slipping away from him. One reason Nadal has seemed a little down lately may be less alarming than it may appear - the kid probably just misses playing. Pete Sampras was comparably bummed out when he was forced to miss the U.S. Open of 1999 with an unexpected back injury, and he's spoken eloquently of how depressed he became in the subsequent weeks. But he returned soon enough, and made the finals in New York for the next three years running (winning once).
Brushes with mortality, especially for the young, are never easy experiences.
Perhaps there will be an up-side to the time Nadal's had to spend away from tennis recently, although it would have to be a whopper to make up for having to miss Wimbledon and being forced the yield his no. 1 ranking without a fight. The time off has given Nadal ample opportunity to assess where he stands; the ways in which his career is no longer about achieving the typical goals that any great young player sets himself. In this next stage, Nadal needs to forget any distracting sub-plots and focus on what he wants out of the game, and his long-term source of motivation.
Sometimes it seems like the only two people who aren't especially interested in defining Federer and Nadal through each other are. . .Federer and Nadal. So, if you can see things through their eyes, Federer's accomplishments during Nadal's absence are not just irrelevant to the coming weeks (except in the sense that Federer will be a more confident player), they have liberated Nadal to adopt the role he knows best, and which has thus far defined his career thanks to the parallel excellence of Federer - that of the determined, hard-working underdog. But now he'll be motivated by a desire to recoup what's been lost, rather than to merely hang on to what he's earned, or add another title to his collection.
Unless his knees prove troublesome, Nadal may find himself in a much better place mentally once he gets out on those hard courts and starts smoking the forehands and belting those returns.