They Said What? Rafa's Reality Show

by: Peter Bodo | March 18, 2013

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“Of course [I’m surprised]. But I don't know how surprised I am because Rafa can do everything. . . His team was working with him every day to be in shape for this tournament after seven months. [But] not many players can do that. Just him or maybe one or two more in the world. But it's amazing how fast he's recovered the level.”—Juan Martin del Potro, after losing the Indian Wells final to Rafael Nadal.

Del Potro certainly chose the right word when he called Nadal’s comeback “amazing.” But as always the word implies a strain on credulity. Maybe that’s why something about Rafa’s Homeric feat leaves me feeling a little ambivalent.

By all accounts (including my own experience), Nadal is a terrific young man. His humility is convincing, at least in press conferences. His appetite for competition is not just fearsome, it’s also touching. Part of Nadal’s appeal, I think, is that more than any other player—and despite all the money and worldly experience he’s accumulated—he still seems to be a kid. The boy who loves to play for the sake of playing.

There’s this condition called Peter Pan syndrome, and Nadal has the tennis player’s version of it. He won’t grow up, and he doesn’t have to. That may partly explain why Nadal seemed so anxious about his injury, and about his future in the game—a degree of anxiety that I have to believe provided plenty of fuel for this startlingly successful return.

Peter Pan isn’t supposed to pull up lame. Peter Pan isn’t supposed to grow up and confront mortality and all it entails.

Unless you simply dislike Nadal, it was awfully easy to get caught up in the narrative that began more than eight months ago, when he lost to Lukas Rosol in the second round of Wimbledon. He kind of sucked you into his story—that of a brilliant young warrior whose future was suddenly in serious jeopardy. He kept that story-line going, perhaps mainly because a curious tennis culture demanded updates, timelines, and answers. It wasn’t his fault that those advisories were marked by caution and sometimes curiously doleful; it was what he felt. I don’t recall a single instance of Nadal sounding upbeat or optimistic; this is not a guy who says, “Hey, it’s coming along. I should be back to my old self in no time.”

Someone a little less emotional or a little less sincere might have gone that route, just to get everyone off his back. And looked at from this perspective, it might not have been a bad way to go. It certainly would be out of step with the times, though, because these days we seem to have a prodigious appetite for drama and crisis, two elements that power reality television. Rafa’s comeback saga contained an uncomfortable degree of melodrama, and you can’t blame it all on the talking heads, ink-stained wretches, or the condition of his knees.

In 1999, Pete Sampras was ranked No. 1—and on track to finish at No. 1 for the seventh straight year—when a herniated disk in his lower back unexpectedly forced him to miss the U.S. Open. Missing the event and the ensuing two-month layoff ruined his ambition, but I don’t remember him having to handle anything like to ongoing saga of Nadal’s knees.

Sampras’ layoff was shorter, to be sure, and perhaps something like “Sampras fatigue” among the press and public came into play. But he was barely 28 and, like Nadal, still at or very near the peak of his powers. Pete vanished and then returned to little fanfare, accompanied by even less drama. Perhaps there was so little buzz about it because it was already the fall, and tennis was winding down. But it was also a different era—simple as that.

All the drama we’ve been through in recent weeks might seem justified had Nadal shown a little more vulnerability—apart from that “disaster” of reaching a final in his first tournament back but losing there to clay-savvy Horacio Zeballos.

I don’t want to punish Nadal for his success, or the courage he’s shown, but for gosh sakes—after making it sound like it might take months for him to regain a semblance of his former level (if he were able to do it at all), he’s played every possible match over the course of four tournaments, compiled a stunning 17-1 record, and along the way became the first man ever to win 22 Masters titles and just the second active player (after Roger Federer) to record 600 wins.

As del Potro said, “amazing.”

Can it be that Nadal unwittingly set us up, or that his newly rehabilitated image as a superhero (stripped away by Novak Djokovic in 2011—how long ago it seems!) has been crafted with questionable metrics?

Well, I’m not sure about that. But I am pretty certain that Nadal’s glory also dims the luster of many of his ATP cohorts. Just how good are these other guys in this so called “golden age” if Nadal can come back from a seven-month layoff, ostensibly with his very future in doubt, and ride herd on everyone? And since he won’t hit a ball in anger until his beloved European clay-court swing begins, it’s hard to imagine anyone draining off enough of that spotlight to remove Nadal from his now exalted place in the public eye.

That’s just one of the many good reasons for us to put Nadal’s knees out of our minds. I propose a moratorium on the subject, although I know the first question Nadal is likely to be asked after he ruins some poor guy in the first round at Monte Carlo will be, “How are the knees, Rafa?”

What gives me pause, I think, is that it looks like Nadal isn’t merely the guy who’s got exactly the game the times call for in tennis, he also seems to have the persona that’s most easily consumed in these times. I don’t know if that’s entirely fair to the Djokovics and Federers of this world, but then that’s no concern to Peter Pan. All he has to worry about is remaining the guy who never gets old.

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