It’s not right to day Rafael Nadal is not getting any younger. He is 26. For most tennis players, that’s when they hit their peak, and perform the best- both physically and mentally. Most purple patches begin at this age, and end at 29.
But here’s a player who has won 11 Grand Slams before he turned 26. Eleven. There is no such thing as a peak, acrest or a trough for such players. They hit the court running as soon as they learn how to hit a ball.
Rafael Nadal hit the court running when he was 16, on the pro circuit. At 17, he won his first French Open. Not many know this, but after winning the Slam, Nadal was diagnosed with a rare metatarsal growth condition. He was told to retire from the sport he lived for.
He retired, unofficially, for 3 months. But after seeing how miserable the boy was, a special kind of shoe was developed for his foot. This meant he could play again, and play just as he did a year ago.
This also meant that most of the stress would now be on his knee. That knee. Almost as famous as cricket’s tennis elbow by now, Rafael Nadal’s knee was to give way in 3 years. That’s what he was told. But he kept winning. Yes, his knee gave way a couple of times, but he always came back. Stronger. Faster. Harder.
And he won some more Slams. By the time he had reached 7 Slams, even he knew he was pushing his luck. His body was being pushed further than it should have been pushed. But who was to stop a Champion on his way to displacing the greatest player of all time from his perch?
Certainly, a 22 year old boy was not going to stop when he was winning. And playing well. And dominating a surface as nobody had ever, in the history of the sport, dominated before. He missed an Australian Open here, and a Wimbledon there, but he never missed his favorite French Open. He played, even at half steam, and was only knocked out once in Tennis’s greatest upset. As always, he came back and won.
He enjoyed a record-shattering 2010 season, a season that was to mark the end of Federer for good. 2011 brought a new Champion and soon, Nadal was forced to play harder than he had ever played- and the sad part was that he was playing his right-handed clone: a machine who was modeled to beat ONLY Nadal at his own game, after bitter losses for 4 years. Nadal, naturally, was forced to remodel his own game once again to beat Djokovic. In doing so, the threshold had been crossed.
After giving it his all and winning at Roland Garros against the run of play, Nadal came into Wimbledon as the only man who really knew what was to happen over the rest of the year. Only Toni Nadal and him were aware of his problematic knee, a problem that had not escalated into a crisis.
He lost in the second round at Wimbledon to an unknown Czech player named Rosol. That was the last we saw of Nadal in 2012. He withdrew from everything, and stopped playing tennis. This period can only be compared to the career-threatening period back in 2005, and the outcome could be a lot more consequential.
The ATP Men’s Tour is now missing their most fierce warrior. The US Open, played in August, missed his sheen, it missed the physicality and brutality that he brings to the court. It missed a Champion that may finally be living out his destiny- after outwitting it for so long. He has missed the entire North American Hard court season, and looks set to miss the rest of 2012.
‘I need to be 100% fit and only then will I lift a racquet’, is his statement, and he has been swimming to keep fit for the last 3 months. He has not given us a time frame, and wisely so, because this time, it’s about a lot more than coming back in top shape. It is about coming back to compete again, and climb that steep road to greatness that was once his- just like Del Potro has had to toil so very hard to get back to a semblance of his previous ruthless young self. There is a lot more behind his statement, which only he is aware of- and he is keeping his cards close to his chest. Whatever the case, no 26 year old likes sitting at Home- especially not one who had conquered the world, and one who has redefined the word ‘peak’ in an era where tennis players retire at 28.
He will not come back till he can run down a Djokovic crosscourt backhand, he will not be back till he can make Federer play that extra shot from a ridiculous angle after being down and out. He will not come back till he can compete with the old new golden kid on the block- Andy Murray.
This time, he has to wait for his body to tell him it’s alright. There’s no more ducking and weaving the problem, because his unremitting style of play can’t be compromised upon. Not in the age of Djokovic and Murray. Not in an age where Federer refuses to fade into the night. 2013 waits for him. The locker room waits for him. The chairs on the side of the court, and his 4 gatorade bottles placed in a line, will wait for him.
The crowd will wait to endearingly watch him pull out his shorts from behind, adjust his headband and grunt.
The Gladiator must return for the new four-pronged era in Men’s Tennis- the greatest competitive era since the 80s.