The Greatest, Rafael Nadal

The Greatest, Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal gifted himself a wonderful birthday 36th birthday gift in the form of yet another Grand Slam title at the French Open. Owner of 14 titles on the brick red Parisian clay and 22 overall, Nadal has become The Greatest in tennis,  a parallel which can be drawn with boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

Nadal has never been the sort of champion who has boasted of his wins, be it at the start of his career or even now, in the twilight of his chequered career. Heck, winning 22 Grand slam titles in the men’s section is a big deal. It’s a record which the world of tennis thought would be reached first by Novak Djokovic.

No, Nadal has shown that he is not just a winner but true champion. A champion par excellence, a legend with no airs, and a fan’s true delight. Reams have appeared in print and billions of words devoted to the voyage of the Spaniard in his career on social media as well.

Yet, for sheer effulgence and painstaking efforts, in the true sense, Nadal has captured the imagination of one and all in 2022. To be sure, despite the hype in tennis, Nadal has kept himself under wraps of sorts. He has never gone gaga over records and milestones. When the Djokovic anti vaccine and deportation saga broke out in Melbourne at the Australian Open this January, each word Nadal uttered was measured.

Nadal stays the same humble soul after winning a record 22nd Grand Slam title, with the hallmark being how thankful is to play despite the excruciating pain in his foot. For someone whose game is so physical, hitting with power and find the most dream, acute  angles on the court, Nadal has been sheer joy.

Yet, he rarely has let the fans know how much of pain he undergoes daily to provide joy to billions of his followers. It is only now that Nadal has opened up on his left  foot condition, described in medical jargon as Mueller-Weise syndrome, a degenerative disease which affects the bones.

Way back in 2011, at The Championships, as they call Wimbledon, Nadal’s press conferences were one of laughter. I was fortunate enough to be present at the media press conference when Nadal came. He has always answered the media with great respect and he has never bothered about how good his English is. After all, Spanish is his first language and like most Europeans he is comfortable in French as well. At that time, Nadal spoke of “putting his foot to sleep” before the match. The inference was he was taking pain killer or using local anaesthesia.

Now it transpires, before each match at the French Open, he was taking two injections on his foot to block out the pain. These injections are called “nerve blocks.” In addition, he would take anti-inflammatory medicines/injections. A normal person would hesitate before putting the body through such torture. But as Nadal has himself said, he has been playing with pain for very long. This, perhaps, explains, how he has been taking breaks in between tournaments for many years.

While the world of tennis wonders how Nadal has not given up playing, what is unique is he has performed despite the odds for decades. When Nadal won at the Australian Open this January, some of the pessimists said it was a diluted win as Djojokovic had been deported, following the controversy over his visa and no vaccine status.

This time in Paris, Nadal defeated Djokovic and then went on to win the title. It just proved, yet again, while the fight for overall supremacy was between the Big Three  — Roger Federer, Djokovic and Nadal — the Spaniard was in inching ahead with determination. When athletes compete at the highest level, it involves not just displaying their skills but also showing mentally how tough they are while dealing with the most difficult situations.

Federer is facing injury issues and Djokovic’s tennis is off and on. And this is where  Nadal has shown that at 36, he is still ready for the big battles. These are battles which are not just about tennis but how he deals with fitness on a daily basis and how he took care of himself during the Covid 19 pandemic.

Today, the debate has begun if Nadal can complete a sweep of winning all four Grand Slam titles in a calendar year. Wimbledon begins in just over two weeks and the debate has begun if he will be ready for another seven matches, if he goes the full distance. The last time Nadal competed in London was in 2019. The Championships were cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic and in 2021, Nadal was picking and choosing where he wanted to play.

Nadal has spoken about how much he loves Wimbledon and how he would  want to be there on grass. But the big question is if the treatment plan he has chalked out, which includes radiation, will work for him. It is no secret almost every elite athlete battles pain and injuries. Whatever be the sport, given the wear and tear, conservative pain management and rehab therapy are part and parcel of an athlete’s career.

It may be tempting to debate if Nadal  should retire now, after having won so much. However, the southpaw has  rubbished such suggestions by speaking about how much he romances the sport and fans keep him going. Not many would know Nadal has been a champion in many ways, off the court as well.

He has his charity events going and his coaching academies are a big hit. It would surprise many that even in Andhra, in South India, there is a franchise academy which runs under the Nadal banner. Of course, there can be only one Nadal. Yet, there is no harm in dreaming about playing like Nadal, his body language resembling that of a bull fighter.

Back to the debate on The Greatest in men’s tennis. When Pete Sampras won his 14th Grand Slam title, most of them coming on grass at Wimbledon, it was thought of as a big feat. The way Nadal and Djokovic have been pushing hard, they are redefining excellence. Federer, sadly, is now out of the equation, as injuries have been plaguing him. He has talked of returning later this year but how much his body can cope with is a big issue.

Tennis fans are lucky to have seen Nadal play across the globe. In the good old days when the Chennai Open attracted the best names, Nadal had come and played. Watching him train was a delight. His hard work showed, just like his muscles. Hours of labour have gone into chiselling out a frame and body which is worth marvelling.

It’s an unique piece where the body has been made into an object of athletic beauty. There is grace in it despite the beating the body has taken. Being a left-hander, Nadal’s game has grace, too. His court coverage and movement, plus the tapestry of tennis he produces is sheer delight.

Tennis fans would love to see him going on and on. But then, Nadal is not going to play just for the sake of being there. He has always given it his best shot. And he has always played when he has thought himself capable of winning the Majors, despite tough opposition. The kind of riveting rivalry which he has enjoyed with Federer and Djokovic has produced tennis classics. Each one has been a treat to watch.

How long Nadal’s show will go on is hard to predict. If he has to choose to preserve himself, that would not be his natural self. If he has to play at the Majors, then it’s a decision which he alone will make.  Longevity in tennis is not easy.

Frankly speaking, that Nadal has continued this far has been a beautiful voyage on all types of surfaces, clay, hard courts and grass. That he has won on all surfaces shows he has mastered the art of winning. So beautifully.

(This column appeared in Millenium Post first, on June 12, 2022)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.