The Scars to Prove It

by: Steve Tignor | May 27, 2016

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Rafa knows his brand of glory will always come with a physical price. (AP)

“That’s part of the life,” Rafael Nadal said, with a characteristically stoical shrug of his shoulders, as he announced his withdrawal from Roland Garros on Friday in front of a packed interview room at the event. 

“And that’s part of my career, too.” 

Nadal said he had felt gradually increasing pain in his left wrist since playing in Madrid last month. This week a doctor told him there was no way that he would be able to finish the tournament in Paris. 

As Rafa put it, “It’s 100 percent impossible, because it’s gonna be 100 percent brok-ed.” 

Nadal said he had played his second-round match after taking an injection that left him with no feeling in his wrist. I wonder how his opponent, Facundo Bagnis, felt hearing that; even then, he still won just six games in three sets. Of all the top seeds, Rafa seemed to have the least trouble making it to the third round. Now we know otherwise.

Listening to Rafa acknowledge the well-known fact that injuries have been “part of my career,” I thought back to the one point I could remember from the Bagnis match. It happened late, after Rafa was up two sets and a break, at a stage when he theoretically should have been in cruise control. 

Except that Nadal never puts it in cruise control. Rafa chased down a drop shot, and then when Bagnis popped a seemingly irretrievable lob over his head, Nadal tried his best to retrieve it anyway. Rafa slid hard across the clay—you could see his sneakers dig into the dirt and send it spraying—but he couldn’t quite put himself in position to send the ball back. The commentator doing the match asked, with a mix of respect and amazement, “Does anyone try for more balls than Rafael Nadal?” The question, of course, was rhetorical, and the answer was no.

Eleven years ago, after losing to Nadal in a three-set final in Montreal, Andre Agassi became one of the first people to comment on Rafa’s all-out, all-in playing style when he famously warned, “He’s writing checks that his body can’t cash.” Since then, there has been a sense that Nadal’s body was destined to betray him sooner rather than later. 

And at times it has. There were early foot problems, chronic knee tendinitis, an abdominal tear that sent him out of the U.S. Open one year and a right wrist issue that kept him from playing it another. There was the hamstring pull that ended his Aussie Open in 2011, and the back spasm that cut it short in the 2014 final. To top it off, there was the appendicitis that finished his 2014 season. 

Looking back, though, what seems notable now isn’t Nadal’s injuries; it's his ability to survive them. He’ll turn 30 in a few days, and until this latest wrist issue, he had just made it through the healthiest season-and-a-half of his career. He was still running after every ball, still celebrating every win as if it were his first, still working to win the French Open as if he hadn’t already won it more times than anyone else ever will. As one of Nadal’s doctors, Mikel Sánchez, told a Nadal fan site in 2012 when asked about Agassi’s 2005 comment, “These checks have been well spent, have won many titles.”

The titles and the injuries go together. As Nadal has said many times, he doesn’t play like Roger Federer and doesn’t win like Federer, and, in part because of that, he’s never been as healthy as Federer. Nadal has always reminded me of the way that the late track star, Steve Prefontaine, was portrayed in the movie "Prefontaine." For better or worse, he only knew one way to race: full out. Nadal—who rarely takes a point off or lets a set go and has never seen a lob he couldn’t chase or a forehand he couldn't tomahawk—plays with the same philosophy on a tennis court. That’s his edge, and his dilemma.

This time Nadal bowed to reality and withdrew. He says he’ll try to be ready for Wimbledon, but it’s probably the Olympics—the event he praised so effusively earlier this week—that he’s thinking about most. He’s set to carry the Spanish flag during the opening ceremonies.

Rafa also said, “I feel myself with the right energy and the right motivation to be back at Roland Garros the next couple of years.”

Hopefully that’s a pessimistic estimate of how much time he has left on tour. 

This season, as Nadal set off on his quest for a mind-boggling 10th French Open title, Agassi himself paid tribute to the achievement. Last week he wrote Nadal a letter:

“It took me most of my career to accomplish the Herculean task of winning the French Open one time," Agassi said. "Watching you attempt to win it for the tenth time is not only remarkable ... it is inspiring.”

Nadal’s body has written the checks, and tennis has been richer for it.

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