For nearly the entirety of his two-decade career, Rafael Nadal It has been a picture of tranquility on the field. No one has endured so many moments of abject tension in the final rounds of major tournaments, but he has come through them betraying so few negative emotions, ignoring mistakes and despair, and staying steadfastly positive.
But Thursday night, for once, her emotions were written all over her face. As she limped and grimaced, she could barely run for his loss to Denis Shapovalov, continually looked at his team in the stands. He shook his head, cursed his bad luck, and spent the time changing lines with his head buried in his hands.
The source of Nadal’s frustration was one of the most familiar sensations he has experienced in his career. Eighteen years ago, when he played his first full season on tour when he was 17, Nadal suffered a stress fracture in his foot. The injury would reveal Müller-Weiss disease, a degenerative foot injury that weakens the navicular bone of the foot. Uselessly for an athlete in a season of 11 months, he gets worse with physical exercise.
Over the years, Nadal has had to invest a lot of time, effort and anti-inflammatories to manage it. His effect on his career has sometimes been underestimated, but he has left a continuing and visible mark. It was the reason he was out for six months last year and retirement crossed his mind and it’s unmistakable in the limp that sometimes accompanies him at news conferences and on the fields.
Every player is dealing with something. Injuries are a common facet of sport, a natural result of athletes pushing their bodies past limits that few bodies are built to withstand. Tennis the players have an even more complex relationship with them. While athletes are constantly determined to play through injury at all costs, in team sports it’s up to coaches to limit the load on their players and preserve their bodies, even against their will. In an individual sport like tennis, the players are in charge of their schedules, which is not always a good thing.
It’s hard not to think about the ordeal Andy Murray has gone through to keep his career connected with the monstrous effort it took to stay close enough to Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. All those extra tournaments played and training sessions endured so that he could finally jump in and become the best player in the world.
Likewise, Dominic Thiem spent his youth renowned for playing in a tournament almost every week. After finally fulfilling one of his life goals by win the US Open in 2020Thiem last year suffered from mental exhaustion and now he is trying to come back after his body did the same.
Emma Raducanu’s adaptation to life on tour continues and her body has rebelled against her. After another wound took her retreat last week in Rome, he was openly contemplating how often he should play. “I want to play every chance I get and probably even when I shouldn’t,” she said. “But I really need to be sensible. Sometimes I feel like I need a voice to hold my hand: ‘Do this, do that’”.
Such problems have been present for Nadal in a career that has been marred by injuries. He has missed 11 Grand Slam tournaments since his Wimbledon debut in 2003 and many other tournaments have ended with him losing the battle with his body. His career seems to exist in a perpetual cycle of these moments, each new run of form and new period of reinvention inevitably brought to a halt by another injury.
Part of the frustration this time around is that it’s not a typical injury with a fixed recovery period, which is frustrating but bearable. It is completely inconsistent; sometimes the foot is comfortable, other times it is unbearable. It seems increasingly clear that he could play a big role in the time he has left, especially when he turns 36 next month.
“I imagine there will come a time when my head says: ‘Enough,'” Nadal said. “Pain takes away your happiness, not only in tennis but in life. My problem is that I live many days with too much pain.
One of Nadal’s great marks is the success he has yet found and the longevity he has achieved through all the misfortunes. This season, he engineered his best start to the season by winning his first 20 games. He now faces a race to be fit for the French Open next Sunday, where he is aiming for a 14th title of his own.
After so many years and so much wear and tear, it seems that the best you can hope for today is for a new cycle to begin.