As Rafael Nadal Faces Life After Tennis, His Pain Catches Up

What if he had not suffered all those injuries? How many Slams would he have won? Would he even have been the same player?

Rafael Nadal in action, 2010. Credit: pictfactory/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Rafael Nadal in action, 2010. Credit: pictfactory/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

On May 27, when Rafael Nadal gave a five minute-notice to journalists for a press conference, a familiar sight ensued. Much like his opponents over the years, members of the press scampered to reach the designated spot. There was no respite, though, once they arrived. Nadal left them stunned. The Spaniard announced that he would no longer take part in the ongoing French Open. A blue brace over his left wrist protected an injured wrist; if he continued playing, Nadal explained, he risked breaking it.

The trauma had already broken the nine-time French Open champion. He fought back tears and struggled to maintain composure as he answered questions. The pain-killers had allowed him to play the first two matches but pain had eventually won. As he described it, it was one of the toughest press conferences of his career. In the last few weeks, it had seemed a resurgent Nadal would be able to once again experience glory after two miserable years. It was the kind of story tennis desired. In a year where match-fixing and doping scandals had dominated headlines, the sport would have been enhanced by the comeback of one of its all-time greats.

While speaking to the media, Nadal sought ways to console himself. “There is no chance I can even practice today. This is a very bad position for me. It’s part of the life… Only thing I can say, bad luck and that’s part of our lives. Nine times I have won… this is a tough moment, not death.”

Yes, nobody died out there. But have Nadal’s chances of winning another Slam passed away? It’s tough to be absolutely certain. If it had been another player, people would have more readily answered in the affirmative – but we are talking about Nadal. A man who has faced so many different injuries that it’s tough to determine whether tennis has done him justice. By any reasonable medical standard, Nadal should not be playing the sport anymore. Remember when they told you playing a sport is good for you because it keeps you fit? Tell that to Nadal.

Left shoulder, left foot, left arm, tendinitis in both knees, both wrists, back trouble… one could go on. It’s remarkable he can carry out his life’s functions comfortably anymore, never mind playing tennis. Although Nadal has always found a way back, so have his ailments. Every time he seemed to have discovered the solution, pain resurfaced in a new place. This seemed the only constant for Nadal, along with the glory.

There’s bravery and courage attached to those sportspersons who jump beyond bodily suffering in their desire for success. It’s a widely celebrated virtue that seems to separate “the men from the boys.” Yet it drives a problematic narrative that places hyper-masculinity as a desirable trait. It finds its origins from the time when sport was solely meant for men. When female athletes got involved in it, they sought to imbibe those values as well since it helped them to gain more acceptability from their male counterparts who still ran the show.

It’s not about the gendered aspect of this narrative alone. The implications for a player’s health are serious too. Tennis and Nadal have gained immensely from their long, bruising relationship. But as his career winds down, the 29-year-old will increasingly be faced by choices that affect his long-term well-being. There’s a life after tennis too. No matter how alluring an idea it is of a man imploding in his desire to be the best, it’s an idea that raises problematic questions.

After a loss to Nadal in 2005, the legendary American player Andre Agassi had raised his misgivings over the Spaniard’s high-octane playing style. “He’s writing checks that his body can’t cash,” said Agassi, probably not too pleased about losing to an upstart. Nadal can reasonably claim though, despite all the costs involved, it has been a worthwhile endeavour to pursue tennis like he has. After all, what else could he have done? Playing tennis was the best he could do. His injuries are not an argument against his success. Rather, it is to state that winning in sport does not automatically become the all-overriding concern. When the tennis goes away, the pain will remain with Nadal.

The 14-time Slam champion has had to constantly fight doubts over the longevity of his career. The obituaries had been written with conviction particularly in the last couple of years. But Nadal had once again returned to a competitive level. He could finally aspire to win the French Open again, the scene of some of his greatest triumphs. But fate had another trick up its sleeve.

How does he come back from this? History would suggest that Nadal will experience another resurgence. But very few have been able to evade the clutches of time. Age, it seems, is only conspiring to deny him his redemption. Nadal’s greatest rival, Roger Federer, knows a thing or two about this. The 34-year-old was forced to give this French Open a miss due to a back problem. A run of 65 straight Grand Slams was finally broken.

Despite Federer’s best attempts in recent years, his ultimate aim has remained unfulfilled. His superior fitness has ensured that he has dealt with the problems of advancing age better than his Spanish counterpart. The Swiss legend was in two Slam finals last year. A blip in 2013 due to back trouble aside, Federer has maintained his place among the tennis elite. By any reasonable standard, he has aged well. But Federer’s objective of winning his 18th Grand Slam title has not been realised. His last title was at the 2012 Wimbledon.

As months and years pass by, the chances of Federer winning a Slam again recede further. Nadal has not even been that fortunate although he does not become a lesser player for that. The doubts have always been there and they have annoyed the Spaniard. This is what he had to say in a 2009 interview to the New York Times:

“They were saying this three years ago, that I couldn’t last. And after four years, I’m better than I ever was. This irritates me, no? I’m tired of people telling me I can’t go on playing like this. In the end this is what makes me win, lose, everything. I can’t control how I play. I want to keep getting better. And the most important part is the head.”

It’s quite clear how sportspersons readily imbibe the narratives that are prevalent in sport. The head, unfortunately or not, is not the most important as Nadal found out on Friday. His spirit has waged a war all these years and yet it has been forced to submit to bodily concerns. With Nadal, it’s not just about how much he has achieved in spite of all his injuries. There has always been another question: What if he had not suffered all those injuries? How many Slams would he have won? 20? 25? Would he even have been the same player?

This is the truth that Nadal has to battle in his final years. What is inherent to his style of play? What can be changed? As an article in the The Wall Street Journal documented last week, Nadal chose to rework his court positioning in order to regain confidence in what used to be a devastating forehand. His natural approach had allowed him to execute it well enough even when he was off-balance; as injuries and age caught up with him, Nadal realised it was important to eschew what came naturally. As Tom Perrotta noted in that article, “The goal was to make his stroke more technical… and less reactive.”

With hard labour, Nadal found a working solution. The fine-tuning brought the trophies back. The comeback was supposed to culminate in a win at Roland Garros, but his dream was cut short.

Nadal assured everyone on Friday that he will be back soon. There’s nothing to suggest that he will not be at Wimbledon when the tournament begins in about a month’s time. But has he missed the train that was going to take him to the Promised Land?

Sadly, it seems so. Of course the vagaries of time and Nadal’s career should caution us but it increasingly seems like he’s involved in a losing battle. Wimbledon has not been kind to him in recent years and the punishing nature of hard court tennis would only pose a nearly insurmountable challenge at the US Open.

If Nadal upsets the odds to claim another Slam win, the tennis world will be richer for it. However, if he fails to do so, he would be like he was on the days he lifted trophies in Melbourne, Paris, London, New York, and other places in the world – a hurt champion who found solace under the bright lights of success. A hurt champion who winced, grimaced and suffered on account of indulging in his favourite act.

A hurt champion who is in pain now and tennis can only look on.

Priyansh is a Chevening Scholar studying the sociology of sport at Loughborough University, United Kingdom.