Rafael Nadal: Is there a final fight left?
Nadal’s physical game
Rafael Nadal, an epitome of resilience in tennis. It was not long back that we saw this Spaniard, gifted with freak athletic DNA, outlasting his opponents with thrilling athleticism, incredible outburst of power and unprecedented stamina levels. Moments after his precise ritual of tucking away his long hair and pulling loose his shorts, he would chase down balls that practically reached the stands just to whip his arm to produce a shot that would stun the crowds.
The legendary topspin-deep laying groundstrokes, when paired with the slower clay surface and the swift footwork, made the man unbeatable at his best. Or rather his fittest.
And in no time the muscles and tissues and bones that produced countless moments of adrenaline rush seems to have aged. It’s always said that it is his style of play that has spluttered Nadal physically. The 9-time French Open champion, throughout his career believed in sliding and flying across the court, making the body stretch beyond limits, thus relying on grinding down opponents. These qualities had experts apprehensive about his longitivity in the game right from his teens.
It’s a style of play far different from his biggest rivals over the years, Federer- who believed more on footwork and elegance and Djokovic- the leaner and lighter player with a smooth run. Former tennis legend Jim Courier describing why Nadal’s career won’t last as long as Federer's, once quoted,” The amount of energy that Roger uses to hit a shot is way less than what used by Nadal when hitting his strokes. Federer interprets tennis as if it was a dance, a ballet on the court. Nadal instead, when he is playing, it looks as if he is battling,"
Injuries have been a part of Nadal's glittering career even before his rise to the upper echelon of men's tennis. Right from his time in the junior circuit, he suffered horrible weakness in his tarsal navicular bone above the arch- leading to many medical experts doubting him to have a career with the racquet in hand. They had to develop specially designed footwear to protect his foot.
Since his first title back in 2004, the southpaw has continued to be injury plagued. But till his last injury before the US Open in 2014, Nadal had always fought his way back just with his mental strength and determination. Back in 2009, many thought that his career was stuttering to a tragic end after he was forced to miss the opportunity to compete at the green blades of center court in Wimbledon. He came back and won it in 2010.
More injuries came along the way between 2011 and 2014, but Nadal's hard labor and indomitable spirit overcame them as he went on to win 5 more Grand Slams during this time.
But Nadal suffered an injury, which can now be surely called his most horrific, just before his Flushing Meadows title defense last year. He has not till date recovered completely, at least mentally if not physically.
Is there a final fight left?
After his six months layoff at the end of 2014, Nadal is yet to regain his full fitness and powers, looking more anxious and nervous in his play than ever before. "A month and a half ago I didn't have the game. My game has improved but I am still playing with too much nerves for a lot of moments, important moments, still a little anxious on those moments," he told reporters after a defeat at the hands of Fernando Verdasco in Miami earlier this year.
With clear chinks in his armor physically, the man from Mallorca, without hesitation claimed to be the greatest clay-court player of all time has a lot of ground to make up to be the greatest of all time. And it would require him to be at his best for a large part of this decade.
Rafael Nadal wins bet-at-home Open; 12th straight year winning an ATP clay court title in Europe (had won this year in Argentina)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 2, 2015
Crossing Federer's tally of 17 Grand Slams will test Nadal’s mental resilience and strategic approach which were the notable strength’s at his peak. His success will largely depend on how he can negate the physical aspect of the game by using the variables such as court surface, conditions of play, and his opponent's strategy in order to adjust his own play to best adapt to present conditions.
For now 18 Grand Slams looks out of his sight, but it would be most unwise to bet against Nadal - the greatest fighter to have set foot on a tennis court.