When we look at professional athletes we tend to attribute them with unparalleled strength. We see them as the titans of the sports that we follow, and rightfully so, they have twisted and turned their bodies daily to achieve these heights. On the other hand their constant victories open the floodgates to the critics and naysayers to parade all over their accomplishments at the first scent of blood before it even hits the floor, be it a loss or an injury. God forbid they begin to flinch on court and we start to question their herculean integrity. “What!? Federer lost in the Semi Finals? He’s done.” How dare he not reach a final, how dare he become human again? Rafael Nadal was injured last year and he did lose early at Wimbledon. Indeed according to fashion it was easy to get on the he’s done parade, surely his knees cannot handle the hard court swing of the season? I know these critics were writing about him, but I couldn’t help as see each piece as a reflection of my issues. My chondromalacia isn’t going anywhere so am I alsodone?
The summer of hard courts has come and gone, and the sun has settled over Flushing Meadows as the final grand slam of the year reached its epic conclusion. We all know what happened, but once we take a closer look at the statistics we begin to see the feat that Nadal has accomplished, especially after coming back from an injury. His current track record is 65 wins, 3 loses this year, capturing 2 grand slam titles and winning the Emirates Airline US Open Series Bonus Challenge being awarded $3.4 million, the highest one day payout in tennis history. Here is another Stat for the beloved critics, as I write this Nadal ousted Thomas Berdych in the semi finals of the China Open, attaining the #1 ranking and get this, he hasn’t lost a single hard court match this year. Pretty good for a guy with bad knees ay?
I’ve only been back on the courts quietly training for about two weeks, and even those sessions left me reeling at night. The pain was an unwelcome after taste that remains disguised, leaving me to wonder the fine line between soreness and chronic.
I gently place my water bottles beside my bench and begin to jump and kick my legs behind me. The gate creeks open and in walks Wael Ghalayini my friend and first opponent since July 2012. I remember comfortably beating him in the quarterfinals last year at the same tournament but my injury and absence has branded me the connotation of a broken athlete. I knew I would become a different player and I was about to find out how.
I remember breaking his serve and feeling the rush of energy fill me up again. The absence left me not only hungry but fueled with aggression. I wasn’t taking uncalculated shots, but I was playing brave. Whatever time I had left as a tennis player I wanted to go out on court and be a fighter. I went for my shots and was able to close out the set 6-3. My wife, my sister ‘agent/coach’, alongside my physiotherapist and best friends were all there cheering me on, and I felt invincible.
Although I was nourished by the high of competition, I let the relief of being one set up linger too long and soon enough I was engulfed by fear. I remember approaching the net and volleying the ball long and causing me to drop 2-4. My serve was broken and it was the first moment where my invincibility was replaced with the realization that I could in fact lose this match. I felt vulnerable and needed to shake of the mental rust and fight off the fatigue setting in. The critic this time wasn’t a reporter or an online article but my own doubts clouding my head as I walk back towards the baseline to start the next game. I try to ease my mind as the ever-present concoction of adrenaline and heart palpitations symphonize within me.
On course, I lost the second set 3-6. Our fate was to be decided in a tiebreak. Here I turned on the calculated aggression and was the first to secure ten points and with it the match. With each win I found confidence in my second life on court and cherished each point, blistering through the next two rounds in straight sets. I refused to let anything get in the way of my resurgence and the cramped scheduling and falling on my ankle during the quarters wasn’t enough to keep me away from securing a place in the semi finals.
PBS’ Charlie Rose’s interview with Nadal was laced with questions regarding his absence and mental preparation required for such an epic comeback in which he responded ‘When you are coming after a low moment you know that you are stronger’. Although injury might weaken a specific part of your body, the rest of it does indeed strengthen. Throughout the swing this summer Nadal was evidently more aggressive and focused, and some might even begin to question the injuries. I remember leaving my opponent puzzled during the second round after tenaciously returning his shots, refusing to let a single ball wiz past me.
During the interview Nadal was also asked about regaining the number one position for which Nadal answered “The number one was never a goal for me, I’ve always felt you are number one or you are not, you cannot try to be number one. I go day by day and do my best and if I have a chance to be number one at the end of the season then that’s great.”Here we see a display of his humility and an indication of where Nadal’s focus is, not the ranking but his game. Those three loses that he endured this year could have been enough to place seeds of doubt and send any athlete through a downward spiral, however he refused to entertain the concept and instead he battled on. Rafael Nadal didn’t let the three loses define him and get in the way of his 65 victories one of them ending like this…