3 June 2016 – for the diehard fans, this was supposed to be the day of Rafael Nadal's resurrection. One year back on this very day, a rampant Novak Djokovic had thrashed an unsure Nadal in the French Open quarterfinals, thus handing the Spaniard one of the toughest defeats of his career. To make matters worse, it was Nadal’s birthday.
One year on, the French Open draw had pitted them to face each other again on the very same day – it would be Rafa’s 30th birthday this time. Surely this was to be his revival. After all, the Spaniard had shown something of a resurgence during the European clay-court swing, winning the Monte Carlo Masters and the Barcelona title. He had even pushed Djokovic to the limit in Rome.
But then, out of the blue, it happened again – every Nadal fan’s worst nightmare – and he announced that he was seriously injured again. This time, it was the all-important left wrist that had been afflicted.
It’s never a good time to get injured. But then, this injury couldn’t have come at a worse time for Rafa. He had endured a painstaking struggle for confidence throughout the 2015 season, and just when he seemed to have won the battle against nerves, the wrist gave in.
You cannot help but wonder then whether destiny has a role to play here. Some would scoff at the thought. But taking a look at Nadal’s career it does seem that on more than one occasion there have been bumps where one least expected them – times when he seemed to be at the pinnacle of the game, only for an injury to strike him down.
2009 and 2014 – the years that weren’t to be
Rewind back to 2009 – when a 22-year old Nadal had just ended the glorious reign of Roger Federer. The historic Wimbledon 2008 final signalled a change of guard at the top. 2009 began with another classic final between the two at the Australian Open, with Nadal once again coming out triumphant. The Federer era seemed to be over and Nadal was shaping a new era.
2009 looked set to belong to Nadal, and he was the overwhelming favourite at the French Open. But then a multitude of events struck – his parents’ impending divorce, a beaten-down knee and a certain Robin Soderling – leading to the Spaniard’s first defeat at Roland Garros.
Those who have followed the Spaniard’s career closely know that his family means the world to him. In his autobiography titled ‘Rafa’, Nadal mentioned that those days in 2009 were among the darkest phases of his life. Nadal was forced to skip Wimbledon and the rest of his 2009 season was one to forget.
Fast forward to January 2014 – Rafa was the world number 1 again, having released Djokovic’s grip on the top spot in 2013. He was set to face Stan Wawrinka in the Australian Open final. Victory would have meant a 14th Grand Slam for the Spaniard. Even before the final, people were already beginning to look as far ahead as the French Open, where a 15th Grand Slam seemed inevitable.
That would have put him close to overtaking Federer’s haul of 17 Grand Slams – something that would make his case for the much-vaunted GOAT (Greatest of All Time) title that much stronger. But once again, like a bolt from the blue, calamity struck. Rafa strained his back in the pre-match warmup, which worsened through the course of the first set. Once the second set began, the match was over for Nadal.
Of course, we’ll never know if Rafa would have won that match – Wawrinka was on fire during the Open – but the blow in the final had indeed been a brutal one. The southpaw hated the idea of retiring from a Grand Slam final. In a gesture which is a testament to his character and sportsmanship, he endured the pain and hobbled through the rest of the match. He later referred to it as the “worst hour and a half that I have spent on a tennis court”. The defeat was hard to get over.
Nadal has mentioned that he is a ‘good loser’ and doesn’t dwell over lost matches. But even he admitted that the defeat took more time to get over than usual. He has never really returned to his dominant self since that defeat. He did win the French Open that year, but his post-Wimbledon season was blighted by an injury to his right wrist and appendicitis, rendering him unable to defend his US Open title along the way.
What legacy is Nadal going to leave behind?
The fact that Rafa has managed to win 14 Grand Slams thus far is a testament to the Mallorcan’s quality, both of his game and of his character. One almost shudders to think what he could have achieved if he was not struck by so many injuries. But as the man himself has said, the word ’if’ doesn’t exist in sport. Regardless of what destiny has in store for him, there’s one thing that nobody can take from him – his status as one of the very best players of all time.
Nadal has brought so much to the game. The sheer passion and raw energy he brings on the court give us the privilege of watching sport in its purest form.
Things can change quickly in tennis, though a certain Novak Djokovic would have something to say about that! We never expected the amazing resurgence of Nadal in 2010 or in 2013. Perhaps destiny has some other plans for him. Maybe it wants Rafa to be remembered as the proverbial phoenix – one who would always rise from his ashes, and rise like never before.
Perhaps we’ve still not witnessed the last great comeback of Nadal. As he himself quipped during the French Open press conference – ‘this is not the end’.