Will Nadal rise again?

Rafael Nadal... how much longer can he continue the way he does?-AP ?

Rafael Nadal has started the year by winning in Abu Dhabi, conquering Robin Soderling, and while his fans will see it as a sign, tennis lovers everywhere will merely hope the Spaniard stays healthy through the year for the Grand Slams, unlike 2009, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

For much of Rafael Nadal’s career the central question has been: how much longer can he continue the way he does? Not how does he do what he does, which crops up occasionally, but how much longer can he continue the way he does? It has been asked admiringly, despairingly, enviously, even rhetorically, but it has always been asked; even when it hasn’t explicitly been asked, it has remained conspicuously in the background, not unlike a phosphorous-painted pig in a Blandings Castle bedroom. It’s a question that reveals as much about those who ask it as it does about Nadal himself. It’s a question that gains relevance as a new season, beginning with the Australian Open, approaches.

Last year, Nadal won the Australian Open, becoming the first man since Andre Agassi to triumph on three surfaces. It was a significant victory, for not only did the Spaniard again master Roger Federer, he also held three of the four majors. A career Grand Slam looked entirely within the limits of probability. Some went so far as to predict a calendar Grand Slam. Less than a year later Nadal appears a lesser man, blighted by injury, distressed by his parents’ divorce, eclipsed by a generation of tall power-hitters who have grown into their games.

The narrative writes itself effortlessly. A much loved narrative it is as well: there’s nothing quite as satisfying to the petty mind as schadenfreude. The more invulnerable the hero — and at his best Nadal appeared without weakness — the greater the delight at his misfortune. But not only does Nadal transcend such pettiness (except perhaps among the most militant of Federer’s fans), the narrative is flawed.

Consider for a moment that it’s the same narrative Federer was cast in early last year. The details differed but the gist was the same: the end is nigh. Federer then won his first French Open and his sixth Wimbledon, completing a career Grand Slam and breaking Pete Sampras’ record for the most majors. So much for that. But in the eagerness to discredit the narrative, we mustn’t lose sight of why it’s limited.

The narrative isn’t unsound because the reasons that shape it are without truth; the narrative is unsound because any attempt to understand the unknown through the known is futile. It’s like trying, blindfolded, to pin the tail on a donkey that’s been withdrawn from the scene. But it’s all we have — and if done in full awareness of its limitations, it can be instructive. So let’s proceed.

Nadal’s dip can be traced to last year’s defeat at Roland Garros, where he hadn’t previously lost a match. The reasons neatly converge: his knees were bothering him, restricting, however slightly, his exemplary movement; the familiar, comforting stability of his family life — he lived in a four-storey building in Majorca with his parents, sister, grandparents, and other relations — was changing; he was up against the 6ft 3in Robin Soderling, precisely the kind of player that bothers a below-par Nadal, for the interplay of styles demands Nadal to be at his best.

Rafael Nadal comforts Roger Federer after defeating him in the final of the Australian Open last year.-AP

“I played with less calm,” Nadal said of the defeat. “One of the reasons was the pain in the knees. And I was down because of the divorce. Soderling played really well and he beat me. But I wasn’t ready, mentally or physically, this year.”

Nadal has had his trouble with injuries, particularly those of the core and the legs. The intense physical nature of his game and the increased frequency of play on unforgiving synthetic courts increase the risk of damage manifold. “More speed, bigger problems,” Nadal’s doctor, Angel Ruiz-Cotorro, told the ‘New York Times’ after last year’s French Open. “Tennis has changed a great deal in recent years. We used to talk about injuries, the elbow, the shoulder, the wrist. But in recent years, with the change in equipment materials — the rackets, mostly, but also the strings — we have whole new pathologies. Everything’s faster. You’re hitting the ball faster and harder, and in new positions, which create problems with the spine, the knees, even the hips.”

Nadal has dealt with the problem the same way he has dealt with the problems that arise on court: by continuing to work hard, directing his effort with informed intelligence, and by retaining his perspective of the big picture, perhaps the greatest lesson his coach, Uncle Toni has imparted. Nadal has been doing preventive work for years, training with weights and rubber resistance bands before starting play and after finishing. He’s been meticulous about his hydration and recovery massages. He also enjoys a genetic advantage — the explosive shoulders that set him apart from other outstanding juniors in Spain take strain more robustly than most others, and his body recuperates quicker between matches, allowing him, for instance, to play the way he did against Federer at the Australian Open after the exhausting semifinal against Fernando Verdasco.

But, as Nadal knows, the “most important thing is the head”. He was taught from a young age to see tennis as no more than a game, and in dealing with its adversities, he maintains remarkable equipoise. Asked if he was frustrated by the constant inquiries about his health, Nadal said, “No, it doesn’t bother me. People forget I started (professionally) at 16. I’m not thinking about stopping yet, but most players start at 20 and if they finish at 29 nobody will say they’ve had a short career. If I finish at 25 I’m going to have had the same career as them. People will say it’s a short career, but I don’t agree.”

Not that Nadal isn’t doing everything he can to prolong his career: he appears to have shed weight, looking noticeably leaner during the season-ending championship in London, in what many construe as an effort to reduce the stress on the knees. But how will it affect the other aspects of his game? At his best Nadal, particularly off the forehand side, hits a ball barbed with topspin. The astonishing thing about the stroke is its penetration. Generally, to hit through the court, as Juan Martin del Potro so successfully does, the ball is sheared of spin and hit clean. When Nadal is feeling good about his game, he manages this despite striking the ball with more spin than anyone in the history of the game. Someone said of returning Sampras’ serve that it was like meeting a bowling ball with a badminton racquet. The Nadal forehand must feel the same. Its effect on wearing an opponent down often goes unnoticed.

Jack Fingleton, describing the effects of Harold Larwood’s bowling, wrote: “I had this interesting experience from batting against Larwood. The first dorsal interosseous muscle between the thumb and the index finger, ached for a week after batting against Larwood, so severe was the concussion of the ball hitting the bat.” Although a tennis ball is less vicious than a cricket ball, the repeated concussion is fatiguing. When Ivan Lendl spoke of Nadal’s style, saying, “I think what he does really well is even if he’s 0-40 down on your serve or his serve, he still plays the points hard because he knows that every time you play a long point it may pay dividends in the fourth or fifth set, and I think he almost looks at it like, ‘Anytime I can play a long point with a guy, it’s like putting money in the bank or taking gas out of their gas tank,’” it wasn’t merely the energy the opponent expends in tracking the ball he was referring to.

Will the loss in muscle cost Nadal’s weight of stroke? When the stroke is not muscled adequately, as is the case when Nadal is tired, the ball often drops short because of the excessive topspin on it, and rises inoffensively into the striking arcs of giants such as Soderling and the 6ft 6in del Potro. Both Toni and Nadal foresaw this possibility. Nadal concentrated on hitting through the ball, and it was this together with his powers of recuperation that allowed him to keep Federer from taking over the centre of the court during the final at the Rod Laver Arena last year. Towards the end of the year, however, Nadal was hitting again with greater topspin, resorting in a difficult time to what he knew best. It didn’t work in London, for the strokes fell short, landing mid-court, but little of Nadal’s game was working in any case.

Crucially, how long will it take for the 23-year-old to find the “calm” he so loves, a consequence of his feeling secure in his movement? “When you come back from injury you need time to regain your confidence on your movement,” said Nadal. “A lot of times I save a very difficult shot with another very good shot. So that’s a very important part of my game. When I am with confidence and I am physically well, I can do it.” Fortunately the signs are encouraging.

Nadal seems to have accepted his parents’ separation, his injuries allowing him time with family. On court, he might have experienced the worst of his career in London late last year, but he didn’t give up. He worked his way into the match against the dangerous Thomas Berdych in the Davis Cup final, and Spain’s triumph allowed him to finish the season feeling decidedly better about his game. It meant he hardly had a break, for he began preparations for 2010 almost immediately, but as he said, “That’s what I do all my life: work. I had enough break this year. Too many in my opinion.”

He has started the year by winning in Abu Dhabi, conquering Soderling, and while Nadal’s fans will see it as a sign, tennis lovers everywhere will merely hope he stays healthy through the year for the Grand Slams, unlike 2009.

* * * NADAL’S TITLES IN 2009

ATP World Tour Masters 1000, Rome (Outdoor/Clay)

Barcelona (Outdoor/Clay)

ATP World Tour Masters 1000, Monte Carlo (Outdoor/Clay)

ATP World Tour Masters 1000, Indian Wells (Outdoor/Hard)

Australian Open (Outdoor/Hard) NADAL IN THE MAJORS IN 2009

Australian Open: Champion — defeated Roger Federer (Switzerland) 7–5, 3–6, 7–6 (3), 3–6, 6–2.

French Open: Fourth round — lost to Robin Soderling (Sweden) 2-6, 7-6 (2), 4-6, 6-7 (2).

Wimbledon: Did not play.

U.S. Open: Semifinals — lost to Juan Martin del Potro (Argentina) 2-6, 2-6, 2-6.