If there’s one thing Rafael Nadal has come to be known for – aside from his unrelenting dominance on the tennis court and the kind of forehand that can mesmerise opponents into stunned oblivion – it’s his comeback spirit. Despite making a name for himself as one of the greatest to have ever played the sport, in recent years injuries have continued to plague his professional career. But even so, Nadal manages to bounce back. Where others might tread cautiously and use a plethora of excuses when coming up against younger players with fresh legs and the kind of energy that RedBull would do well to bottle, Nadal merely digs deep and gives it everything he has.
It came as a devastating blow then, to watch the Spaniard limp and grimace on the court during his loss to Denis Shapovalov. With a look of utter pain and resignation, Nadal continued to trade glances with his box, shaking is head with each change of ends, his head buried in his hands. For audiences around the world watching, it seemed to signal something we’ve long feared yet also known to be inevitable: Rafael Nadal will one day retire from the sport of tennis. No longer we will be granted the joy of watching him on the court. Only now, that day might be coming sooner rather than later.
The injury at hand is one that has shadowed Nadal for much of his career. At just 17, he suffered a stress fracture in his foot. This came to reveal Muller-Weiss disease, a degenerative foot injury that weakens the navicular bone in the foot and, perhaps most tragically for someone of Nadal’s prominence, it’s also a condition that worsens with exercise.
Through careful rehabilitation, time, effort and a handful of anti-inflammatories, Nadal has successfully managed the injury to continue making his mark in the history books. But it still continues to haunt him, leading him to be sidelined for six months in 2021. Since his Wimbledon debut in 2003, Nadal has missed 11 grand slam tournaments and his career has come to be one that is often punctuated by extensive periods of recovery and rehabilitation as he continues to lose out on his battle with his body.
As Tumaini Carayol reports for The Guardian, “His career has seemed to exist in a perpetual cycle of these moments, each new run of form and fresh period of reinvention inevitably coming to a crashing halt with another injury. This time part of the frustration is that it is not a typical injury with a set period of recovery, which is frustrating but endurable. It is completely inconsistent; at times the foot is comfortable, at other times it is unbearable. It seems increasingly clear that it could play a significant role in how long he has left, especially as he turns 36 next month.”
Speaking to reporters, Nadal admitted: “I imagine there will come a time when my head says: ‘Enough.’ 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 can only hope that there’s more in Nadal, that retirement might be delayed further, that he will once again defy the odds to forge another comeback.