Iron Man on rusty knees

Comebacks are incredibly tricky things to manage. For one, the game continues to advance. Athletes play catch-up at the best of times; a significant break makes it even more challenging. But this is the least of it. The first and most difficult battle is to get the mind to trust the body again, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

At the heart of the Rafael Nadal story is that most curious of contradictions: How can so noticeably robust an athlete, a man who on the tennis court seems beyond physical infirmity, be so frequently crippled? Surely a body so thoroughly mastered wouldn’t enslave its owner?

This contradiction has done many things. It has brought a sense of urgency to the Nadal fan: every moment needs savouring because it isn’t known how many more of them remain; the wistfulness can come later. It has made more smug the Nadal sceptic: told you he wouldn’t last long carrying on like this; and in any case, his injuries only seem to play up after shock defeats, most convenient that, eh?

The first lot have been saddened, but their joy is more precious, more intense these days. The second lot are mostly minor irritants — except for that one time when Nadal pulled out of the Olympics and snide, persistent rumours forced his team to publicly deny allegations of doping. (To the sceptics, Nadal had something to hide — flight proved guilt. That tennis players are randomly tested year-round, not just at the Olympics, escaped them.)

But it is the third lot, the rest of the tennis-speaking world, that has gained the most from the contradiction. The attempt to tease it apart to see it for what it is has been rewarding. As we watch Nadal make his latest comeback, we better appreciate the toll professional sport extracts — and the price athletes are willing to pay.

We learnt for instance about the existence of the tarsal scaphoid bone, located in the foot’s bridge above the instep, and how if it fails to harden when young it deforms and becomes vulnerable to shattering. Especially if it’s repeatedly stressed as it is bound to be when tennis is played the way Nadal plays it — with a manic violence. From Rafa: My Story, his quite superb autobiography, we discovered that this nearly ended his career at 19. And that by a “millimetric trial and error process”, Nadal and Nike evolved a shoe-sole that cushioned the soft-susceptible bone. But the “subtle displacement” of weight meant other parts of his body would take newer pressures. The crocked knees that have bothered him these last four years were inevitable.

“Playing sports is a good thing for ordinary people; sport played at the professional level is not good for your health,” wrote Nadal in his autobiography. “It pushes your body to limits that human beings are not naturally equipped to handle... I play through pain much all of the time, but I think all elite sports people do. All except Federer, at any rate. I’ve had to push and mould my body to adapt it to cope with the repetitive muscular stress that tennis forces on you, but he just seems to have been born to play the game... They tell me he doesn’t train as hard as I do. You get these blessed freaks in other sports, too. The rest of us just have to learn to live with the pain, and long breaks from the game.”

Comebacks are incredibly tricky things to manage. For one, the game continues to advance. Athletes play catch-up at the best of times; a significant break makes it even more challenging. But this is the least of it. The first and most difficult battle is to get the mind to trust the body again. Which is why the point at 6-4, 1-0, 30-love, in the Indian Wells quarterfinal against Roger Federer was heartening. Federer advanced off an anaemic second serve, his return, a backhand cracked just right. Nadal lunged and slid, the left knee that has caused him such grief staying strong as he snapped a winning forehand pass. It looked sickening — no one in their right mind slides on acrylic-painted cement. But Nadal and Novak Djokovic do. And if Nadal was at it again on hard-courts, he must be doing alright.

It isn’t that simple, of course. The legs are a fundamental part of the Nadal game — they not only help him cover court in defence, but they also fuel every stroke, providing the stability and the propulsion needed for the rest of the body to explode through the ball. No one — not Nadal, not his doctor — knows how the knees will hold up. Nadal said after waxing David Ferrer in Mexico there are moments when he can do everything as before and moments when he can’t: “There were days in Brazil when it was really bad, and in Chile, during one match as well. But here, it didn’t hurt. This was the first week where I could run with complete freedom.” At Indian Wells, he was nearly his old self against Federer, after a tough win against Ernests Gulbis. He had recovered like he is known to, his movement wasn’t restrained.

Indeed what has made this comeback astonishing, surprising even Nadal, is its tournament success. He lost to an inspired Horacio Zeballos in his first event back in Chile, but he had made the final despite the rust. He won the next two, in Brazil and Mexico, playing, according to him, one of his best ever matches, against Ferrer. For some it wasn’t entirely unexpected since these tournaments were on clay. Either they are remarkable judges with an intimate, intuitive knowledge of the depth of Nadal’s reserves or they are unremarkable generalists without the slightest idea of how difficult winning is. But it is true, the limited point Nadal admitted to, that “on clay, when I have bad days, the movement is easier than here (hard-courts).”

So it’s his performance at Indian Wells, where he won his first hard-court title since 2010, that’s most striking. Apart from Gulbis and Federer, he beat the dangerous Tomas Berdych and Juan-Martin Del Potro, who was on something of a streak himself with wins over Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic.

Nadal put it down to the natural sharpening of play that happens in competition. “I need to compete,” he said. “If you win, you have more chances. If you have more chances, you will compete more and you will practice more and you will be ready to put yourself in 100 percent condition in a short period of time. You need to compete to feel quick, to recover the right vision of the points and the nice reactions every moment. I didn’t forget my tennis in seven months. But it is a big surprise for me to have these results. That’s the truth. It is, for me, a big surprise because I really was not able to practise a lot.”

Having been here before has helped. Both in 2006 and in 2009-10, he returned to almost immediate success. The first was from the now-well-known tarsal scaphoid, the second, from knee tendinitis. “I had come close to tennis death; I had stared the end of my career in the face, and the experience, awful as it had been, had made me stronger mentally, given me the wisdom to see that life — any life — is a race against time,” he wrote in his book. This ability to see the bigger picture has helped relieve the pressure. He remains severely competitive, for it’s his nature, but he funnels it into his preparation, into living one point at a time.

Of great help is his family. From them he derives the emotional strength to keep fighting. One of the revelations of Rafa: My Story is this close bond — “To imagine my good fortune and success without them is to imagine the impossible.”

The physical side is well looked after. His body demands expert care — resistance-band training, ice baths, injections directly in the knee (so painful they have caused him to bite on a towel to endure them), preventive taping, massages. His trusted, intelligent team realise unique problems require unique solutions, and they have done much to keep Nadal on court, where the adrenaline takes over. Nadal himself is willing to adapt his game to reality. The first injury made him a more economic player — economic on the Nadal scale, that is — a player without “the scrambling dynamism” of his teenage years but one who fought for every point and was more willing — again on the Nadal scale — to pull the trigger. He served bigger, he chose his moment.

This time around, the 26-year-old has altered the nature of his rallying. Realising he can’t run around his forehand as consistently, for it leaves him twice the court to cover, he is using the backhand with greater purpose. It’s not known if this is a temporary tactical shift or the beginnings of a new style. Everything depends on how his body responds. “I go day by day as I did all my life, and that’s not going to change,” he said. “If the things are not working well, so change, but if the things are working well, don’t change, no? Important thing is be healthy. And if that happens and I’m able to practise as much as I want, probably the comeback will be a little bit less difficult, no?”

Rafaspeak

Rafael Nadal has long maintained — not without reason — that hard-courts aren’t healthy. He believes the unforgiving surface has been a cause of his injury troubles.

The Spaniard recently appealed to the ATP to reconsider the amount of hard-court tennis it forces on the players. Several critics contended that he was merely looking out for himself — more tennis on clay would clearly be to his advantage.

“Anything that I will say is not going to affect my career,” said Nadal, defending his stand, at Indian Wells. “That’s not going to change during the years that I will be playing, no? If the next generations want to have longer careers and want to finish careers with better conditions physically, that’s my humble opinion.

“ATP have to find a solution and not continue playing more and more tournaments on this surface that is the harder one for the joints and for the knees, for the foot, for the ankles, for the back, for everything. Hard courts are aggressive for the body.

“If the volume of the tournaments on hard are more than in the rest of the surfaces, it is normal the top players are specialists on hard courts. So they are not going to go against the hard court. That’s why I say it’s not another player’s thing, it’s a medical thing. Somebody has to think not for today.

“I repeat: I’m not talking about my career. My career is done. We’re going to finish my career playing on the same or more tournaments on hard, because that’s the dynamic. But my opinion is for the next generations that something has to change.”

The reason synthetic hard-courts are popular and prevalent is because, unlike clay- and grass-courts, they are convenient to set up and require little maintenance.