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Tennis Is Healthier With A Healthy Nadal

img_1180_rnIn the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, defending champion and world number two, Rafael Nadal, prematurely set down his racket due to the sudden onset of a knee injury.  For several seasons, the 23 year old has been afflicted with one form of physical ailment or another.  After an extraordinary victory in 2008, last June, Nadal was unable to defend his title at Wimbledon due to tendonitis.  As an individual who has exhibited exemplary conduct both on and off the court, there’s a noticeable void when a player of Nadal’s caliber is absent.  Here are a few reasons why the game is better with Nadal.

With Andy Murray dominating from the very first stroke and only three games from a straight sets victory, there was little suspense as to the outcome of the quarterfinals. Still, with the Spaniard, there is often a sliver of hope for a comeback.  One of Nadal’s most admirable attribute is his inherent belief, regardless of the score, that he is not vanquished until the last ball is struck.  In Nadal’s psyche, there’s invariably that one shot which sparks the turning point in the match.  It’s hard to bet against a man who last year in Australia after a thrilling five hour and 20 minute, five set semifinal defeated Roger Federer after another five setter with less than 24 hour turnaround.

If one were to browse the dictionary for the definition of driven or relentless, it would not be shocking to discover a photograph of Nadal.  Whether in practice or in match situation, Nadal gives 1000% effort, a reflection of his perfectionist personality. There’s an ATP commercial which describes tennis players as “gladiators” on the pitch; perhaps no person epitomizes that description better than Nadal.  Each time he steps on the court it seems a duel to the death.

While Nadal’s all-encompassing dedication is laudable, the intense manner he approaches the game has taken a toll on his body.  Bouts of tendonitis in both knees have hampered Nadal’s movement.  With the nature of his game, it’s inevitable that these structures will be under recurrent stress. Therefore, even for an athlete as talented as Nadal, it becomes impossible to compensate.  One option could be for him to go on a lengthy sabbatical since resting is crucial for healing.  The down side would be that his ranking would suffer. Sometimes, one wishes Nadal could trade in his knees for new ones every so many miles as he does his tennis shoes.

The injuries are unfortunate because over the years Nadal has grown as a player.  He has incorporated different shots which have helped him succeed on surfaces other than clay.  In some respects, Nadal’s resume is more well-rounded and accomplished than Federer’s.  Nadal’s first major was at age 18 while Federer’s came at age 21.The Spaniard has an Olympic gold medal in singles and a couple of Davis Cup titles.  On the contrary, there’s been a sporadic commitment by the Swiss to the Davis Cup.

In an era dominated by Federer, Nadal’s most significant contribution is proving that there are many ways to triumph.  These two players have contrasting styles as well as differences in other areas.  Nadal is a lefty, Federer a righty. The former plays two handed on the backhand wing while the latter has a one handed stroke.  Federer moves as a quasi ballet dancer on court, Nadal more like a football player. But, there is common ground in that they are both passionate about their sport.

If there were an academy awards for tennis, it would be a gross oversight on Federer’s part not to thank Nadal for the last four years. Interestingly, their rivalry has been a two-way street.  Each has pushed the other to become the best competitor he can be.  With wins at both Wimbledon and Australia, Nadal has shown he is not a man for just one surface.

In addition, Nadal was required to validate Federer’s genius.  It’s safe to deduce if it were not for Nadal, Federer would have garnered a few more French Open titles and possibly achieved the calendar grand slam.  The tribulations that Federer has endured to obtain that up close and personal look at the Coupe des Mousquetaires surely makes Federer treasure it even more.

Since returning on tour after his French Open loss, Nadal has one win in 12 tries over top 10 adversaries.  After Australia, the Spaniard’s ranking has fallen to number four, his lowest since 2005.  As a proud champion, one wonders how long Nadal can sustain these blows without his confidence being shattered.  Humility aside, it is distressing after tasting success over and over to traverse such a crisis.

If the injuries limit Nadal’s career, we won’t miss the quirks.  Honestly, we can do without the rear end picking and the obsession with perfectly aligning the beverage bottles. However, it would be a shame if Nadal never got a healthy shot at carrying the only major he lacks, the U.S. Open.

Because no one is greater than the sport, tennis will survive with or without Nadal.  After all, Juan Martin Del Potro, Novak Djokovic and Murray are considered the wave of the future. Yet, Nadal is about their age, has already accomplished a lot and has the potential to do so much more.  Genius comes in many forms; Nadal’s gift has been utilizing his talent to the max.  Therefore, we hope that a Nadal with parts in good condition will be around for many years.

Written February 6, 2010

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