fFor most of his two-decade career, Rafael Nadal has been a picture of calm on the pitch. No one has experienced so many moments of pathetic tension in the final rounds of the biggest tournaments, yet managed to cope with them while revealing so little negative emotion, shaking off mistakes and despair and appearing steadfastly positive.
But on Thursday evening, for once, his emotions were written all over his face. While limping and grimacing, barely able to run during his loss to Denis Shapovalov, he kept looking up at his team in the stands. He shook his head, cursing his bad luck and spent some time switching sides with his head buried in his hands.
The source of Nadal’s frustration was one of the most prominent sensations he has faced in his career. 18 years ago, playing his first full season on the Tour at the age of 17, Nadal suffered a stress fracture in his foot. The injury would reveal Müller-Weiss disease, a degenerative foot injury that weakens the scaphoid in the foot. Not helpful to an athlete in an 11-month season, it worsens with exercise.
Over the years, Nadal had to invest a lot of time, effort and anti-inflammatories in administration. The impact on his career has sometimes been underreported, but has left a continuous, visible mark. That was why he was out for six months last year and thinking about retirement, and it’s unmistakable in the limp that sometimes accompanies him at press conferences and on the grounds.
Every player has something to do with it. Injuries are a common facet of sport, a natural result of athletes pushing their bodies beyond limits that few bodies can truly withstand. Tennis players have an even more complex relationship with them. While athletes are always determined to survive injuries at any cost, in team sports it is up to coaches to limit their players’ stress levels and protect their bodies, even against their will. In an individual sport like tennis, players are responsible for their own schedules, which isn’t always a good thing.
It’s hard not to think about the ordeal Andy Murray went through to maintain his career as it is coupled with the tremendous effort it took to stay close enough to Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. All those extra tournaments played and training sessions survived so he could finally pounce and become the best player in the world.
Likewise, Dominic Thiem spent his youth participating in a tournament almost every week. After finally fulfilling one of his life goals by winning the US Open in 2020, Thiem suffered from mental burnout last year and is now trying to come back after his body followed suit.
Emma Raducanu’s adjustment to life on tour continues and her body has rebelled against it. After another injury led to her retirement in Rome last week, she’s openly considered how often she should play. “I want to play every opportunity I get, and probably even when I shouldn’t,” she said. “But I have to be really reasonable. Sometimes I feel like I need a voice to just hold my hand, ‘Do this, do that.’”
Emma Raducanu’s injury woes continued in Rome after she retired during her game against Bianca Andreescu. Photo: Marco Iacobucci/ipa-agency.net/Shutterstock
Such problems have existed for Nadal in a career marred by injuries. Since his Wimbledon debut in 2003 he has missed 11 Grand Slam tournaments and so many other tournaments have ended with him losing his battle with his body. His career seemed to exist in a perpetual cycle of these moments, each new form and each new period of reinvention inevitably ending in yet another injury.
This time, part of the frustration is that it’s not a typical injury with a set recovery time, which is frustrating but bearable. It’s totally inconsistent; sometimes the foot is comfortable, sometimes it is unbearable. It’s becoming increasingly clear that this could play a significant role in how long he’s around, especially as he turns 36 next month.
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“I imagine there will come a time when my head will say, ‘Enough,'” Nadal said. “Pain takes away your happiness, not just in tennis but in life. My problem is that I live with too much pain for many days.”
One of Nadal’s great hallmarks is the success he has still found and the longevity he has achieved despite all the misfortunes. This season he has had his best start to the season by winning his first 20 games. He now faces a race to be fit for next Sunday’s French Open where he is aiming for his 14th title.
After so many years and so much wear and tear, it seems that today all he can do is hope for a new cycle to begin.