Rafael Nadal and the Meaning of Time

Wimbledon 2009
By Matthew Zemek, June 22nd, 2009

rafael_nadalWhile Wimbledon begins and tennis fans rivet their eyes on the world’s most storied patch of white-lined rectangles, one man won’t be at SW19 to soak up the adulation a defending champion deserves. Indeed, while the crown jewel of tennis unfolds in England, Rafael Nadal will be resting and reflecting on a career that has been thoroughly successful… but not without a price.

As Nadal enters a new phase of his professional life, the 23-year-old from Mallorca doesn’t find himself in a state of crisis. That alarmist word-“crisis”-is better reserved for a collapse of confidence, a string of consistently subpar results, or an injury severe enough to permanently derail a career. By any reasonable standard, this spectacular Spanish sportsman isn’t immersed in a desperate battle for the mere continuation of his existence on the ATP Tour.

Nadal could have easily chosen to partake in the 2009 edition of The Championships, but because winning the tournament is the only acceptable goal for the world No. 1; when he felt he couldn’t go all the way, he bowed out. Such is not the attitude or disposition of a man pushed to the end of his wits. Nadal had the ability to win two or three matches at SW19, collect a paycheck of nearly $60,000, and say that he gave Wimbledon his best shot in ’09, but that wouldn’t be the Rafa route. The six-time major champion-like his great rival, Roger Federer-plays only for trophies; paychecks are important, but they don’t come close to matching the value of tennis immortality, which is exactly what Nadal will be chasing in the years to come.

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Just what should be made of Nadal’s career, then? Did the French Open loss to Robin Soderling affect this decision to bow out of Wimbledon? Is a mental block emerging for the most focused competitor in all of tennis? Is Nadal’s run over as the big dog in his sport, just a year after he established unquestioned dominance of Federer and everyone else on tour? Such are the questions that get raised when an ascendant champion is suddenly brought down to earth by the limitations of his body.

The best way to summarize Rafael Nadal’s career-as Wimbledon springs to life without its Mallorcan heartbeat-can be found in this phrasing: Coach Toni Nadal’s prized pupil has finally had to pay the piper in return for accumulated glories.

Think about Rafa’s amazing rise to tennis greatness over the past four years, in connection with this Wimbledon withdrawal. The single most remarkable aspect of Nadal’s already-extraordinary career (just a few weeks after the young man’s 23rd birthday) is that many of his crowning achievements have been forged on the strength of otherworldly stamina and resolve. Time, you see, has always been on Rafa’s side up to this point in his professional journey.

In last year’s Wimbledon final, Nadal played first-class tennis for 4 hours and 48 minutes to edge Federer in what was viewed by many as the greatest tennis match of all time.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Nadal-dog-tired after deep runs at Masters Series hardcourt events in Canada (champion) and the United States (semifinalist)-found enough juice to top Novak Djokovic in a two-hour, 10-minute semifinal, and then foil Fernando Gonzalez in a two-hour, 22-minute gold medal match.

At this year’s Australian Open, Nadal logged 9 hours and 37 minutes of court time within a span of 53 hours. Exerting himself on an almost-superhuman level in the semifinal and championship rounds of a Grand Slam event, Rafa was nevertheless able to outfox Fernando Verdasco (semis) and outlast a flagging Federer (final) for his first hardcourt major. While lesser men would wilt, either physically or mentally, Nadal-more than any other athlete in modern times-found a way to tap into reserve stashes of staying power. At a point when most bodies up and quit, the world No. 1 kept on going. Yes, a combination of wary critics and worried fans had said for years that Nadal was punishing his body far too frequently, but just when it appeared that the laws of averages would catch up with the Mallorcan, Rafa somehow managed to find even more fuel in the tank. Willing and able to play without any forseeable end in sight, Nadal laid all opponents-even the heralded, hallowed Federer-at his dancing and untiring feet. When the French Open arrived, absolutely no one in the larger tennis family dared to suggest that Nadal’s body was a car running on fumes.

Suddenly and shockingly, however, the past few weeks have indicated exactly that. The loss to Soderling represented a first indicator of a decrease in Nadal’s extraordinary energy. A pullout from Wimbledon, Rafa’s most prized and precious tennis tournament, stands as an even stronger signal that the hardest-working man in tennis needs to take a break.

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The meaning and importance of Nadal’s absence from Wimbledon can ultimately be reduced to this fact and its attendant implications: Very simply, the bill on Rafa’s body has come due. All those Grand Slam and Olympic glories, all those marathon triumphs, and all those “How does he keep running?” moments have already transformed Nadal into a tennis legend, arguably the greatest male clay-court performer in history. Nadal wouldn’t trade his accumulated trophies and scalps for anything, but in return for the past five years of financial, professional and competitive riches, this Conquistador of the Court has taxed his muscular but still mortal frame, racking up a lot more mileage than Federer or his other competitors. You don’t end or even endanger a career by playing lots of long matches, but you do diminish the ability to establish high-quality standards over an extended period of time.

What’s the next step for Rafael Nadal? It might be hard to execute, but the concept is easy to understand: Shorten matches. Time, one must concede, is no longer on Rafa’s side. Not anymore.

When Nadal joins the summer hardcourt swing in North America, and prepares for his likely return to Grand Slam competition at the U.S. Open in New York, the Spaniard will set out on a new path in which he’ll have to learn how to turn a three-hour match into a clinical 90-minute affair. By decreasing the length of points and being more aggressive from the backcourt, Nadal can polish off foes at minimal cost to his aching knees and joints. In his first 23 years on this planet, Nadal could afford to outrun and outlast his opponents, including Federer. What this Wimbledon setback has shown is that, yes, the skeptics were right-such a style of play couldn’t last forever. When the second stage of a Hall of Fame career takes shape, the form flashed by this Mallorcan master must acquire noticeably streamlined dimensions. Otherwise, more episodes like this sad exit from England will become regrettably commonplace.

Nadal is the last person on Earth who wants to face this wrenching scenario ever again; for the sake of tennis fans everywhere, one can only hope that Rafa’s methods won’t force him to pay another expensive bill on his beautiful but newly brittle body. The top-ranked player in the game must learn to view time in a different and more meaningful manner.


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