Long Journey on Bad Pins

Tuesday, September 25, 2012 /by

“I am working as much as I can, and I am doing everything they tell me to every day, and the truth is that right now things are going well, more or less,” Rafael Nadal was widely quoted as saying the other day. “The only thing is that I need a bit more time. We’ll see how things develop in the next few weeks but my priority is to recover well—not quickly, but well.”

I, on the other hand, am working as much as I can, and I am doing everything to try to figure out if this is, as Rafa would have us believe, a significant but utterly conventional interlude of injury and recovery, or—as a part of me instinctively feels—a more textured and complex process that may turn out far differently than anyone, including Nadal himself, might expect.

I don’t want to sound like Chicken Little. And I don’t want to freak out Rafa fans, whose constitutions are delicate enough these days without me causing them anxiety. But nothing—and nobody—stands still. With every passing day, Nadal is a different person, and tennis is a different game. The only thing we really know for sure is that when Nadal finally returns, whether it’s before or, as we’re now being told, possibly after the next Australian Open, things will be different.

Maybe barely different, maybe very different.

Nadal is trying to heal and recover from tendon- and patella-related issues in his left knee, and we all know that he didn’t choose to take this hiatus. That’s the good news for those who are hoping that as soon as Nadal gets adequate treatment and rest, he’ll be back and firing on all cylinders—perhaps more effectively and enthusiastically than at any time in recent memory. For, as he recently told to the Daily Mail, his last few weeks on the tour were anything but enjoyable:

“At Roland Garros I had to play with anti-inflammatories to get through. After that I felt really bad. My practice before Wimbledon was terrible. I played the first round with injections, otherwise it would have been impossible. That doesn’t help the knee. I’ve played a lot in pain before as other people have done. The problem is when you run and you are thinking about where you are planting your leg. It is impossible to compete like that.”

Nevertheless, Nadal is closing on 27 years of age. He plays an extremely rugged, wrenching style of tennis. He knows that hard surfaces are brutal on joints and bones, yet the majority of tournaments are played on asphalt-based courts. Any player who hopes to contend for the top ranking, or two of the four Grand Slam titles, needs to put in his time on hard courts.

But also, Nadal likes to fish, and to play golf. He enjoys the beach, and the security and familiarity he feels in the relatively tight, everyone-knows-everyone society of Mallorca. Nadal was growing disillusioned with the demands of the pro game even before the rise of Novak Djokovic, and he seemed humbled, sad, and disillusioned when his Serbian challenger matured and became the player who manhandled him so roughly through most of 2011.

Granted, Nadal exacted a measure of revenge this past spring, when he defeated Djokovic in a ragged, ugly, rain-marred French Open final. But the overall theme of the past two years for Nadal has been one of stress and struggle. It was a vastly different experience than what he knew as a kid of 21, relishing and embracing the challenge of proving himself worthy of Roger Federer’s regard.

Now that Nadal has torn himself away from the grind and the glory, over time he may come to view it in an entirely different light. The last time he took time off the fix his knees was in 2009, right after his loss to Robin Soderling in the fourth round of the French Open. He was back after about two months and eager to pick up where he had left off—certain records and career landmarks (his record-setting seventh French Open title, the career Grand Slam) were still looming, waiting to be achieved.

What’s left for him now, records-wise, given recent history and the time he’s missed? The once viable notion that he may yet surpass Federer’s record of Grand Slam singles titles (now at 17) seems remote; Nadal may be lucky to just get through the next couple of years—and French Opens—on those faulty pins. He’s locked down recognition as the greatest clay-court player of all-time, to whatever degree that encomium can be awarded. He has no more issues with Federer, having proved himself the equal of the great Swiss in every regard but the title count. There is this little matter of Djokovic, but hasn’t Nadal already been through this, with Federer? And now there’s this little matter of Murray now as well.

This long break and unprecedented experience of what most people would call “normal” life is undoubtedly going to influence Nadal; how could it not? He may discover that as romantic as it sounds, it really isn’t to his liking, that there’s nothing in it that comes even close to approximating how alive and vital he feels on a tennis court, at 5-all in the fifth, with thousands shouting his name.

Then again, he may also take a good, hard look at the way he’s been living and, with the benefit of separation and repose, shrug and ask himself, “Who needs it?”

Ironically, one of the reasons so many people love Rafa is precisely because he seems to be the type of sensitive guy who might actually experience the second of those reactions—yet who also happens to be have been one of the great gladiators of his sport and time.

Other great players—and I mean the ones that ought to be described with an upper-case “G” —have been down similar roads. Bjorn Borg tried to come back after he left the game in 1981, disillusioned and sick of the whole danged thing (partly because of his own version of Djokovic, a relentless kid named John McEnroe). It didn’t work out for him; his lack of desire and heart was monumental and couldn’t be hidden. McEnroe himself experienced a crisis of interest, shortly after he won his final Grand Slam title at U.S. Open in 1984, a year in which he finished in astounding 82-3. He would play in but one more major final.

Those cases were different; Borg and McEnroe were already semi- or fully burned out—it’s only natural that they would find that the decline in their appetite was permanent. But the desperation with which Nadal pursued that last French Open title and tried to make a further push at Wimbledon makes me wonder. Great players are entitled to bouts of champion’s fatigue; if injury helps justify such episodes, so much the better. A combination of the two is a pretty powerful one-two punch.

It seems unlikely that Nadal can return in 2013 fueled by the same degree of energy with which he once hunted down Federer, or by the same thirst for revenge that powered him on those wobbly knees to that seventh French Open title. But then this is Rafael Nadal, and we learned long ago not to think anything impossible if he sets his mind—and a pair of healthy legs—to it.

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