HomeSportsTennisInjury time: The pain of being Rafael Nadal

Injury time: The pain of being Rafael Nadal

“Hola a todos”. Loosely translated from Spanish as “Hello everyone”, it is often how Rafael Nadal begins his social media posts usually regarding an update about his health.

Spain’s Rafael Nadal(REUTERS)

Of late, the “Hola a todos” flash from Nadal’s feed has invariably made his fans edgy. For, it has seldom been accompanied by good news.

The latest, on Thursday, was about the 22-time Grand Slam champion adding the ATP Madrid Masters to his growing list of tournament pull-outs this season, after the “significant injury” picked up at the Australian Open “to my psoas” (muscle) did not mend as quickly and completely as he had anticipated.

Nadal and injuries are no strangers, but over the last three years, they’ve crossed paths at a rhythm-destructing stop-start frequency and during periods—notably last year—when he appeared an unstoppable force. They’ve also come in many shapes and forms to multiple body parts: the foot (the chronic Mueller-Weiss syndrome that almost made him pull the plug in late 2021), the back, the rib, the abdomen, the psoas muscle.

More worryingly this time, the trend has crept into the clay season he not just fancies building into for the French Open but also reducing other challengers to largely also-rans. Best-case scenario with him now having to change the treatment course, Nadal plays just one tournament (Rome Masters beginning May 10) ahead of Roland Garros, where he is the defending champion. Worst case, he plays neither, which would be another gut-wrenching blow to the 36-year-old’s insatiable stomach to fight on.

Then there’s the other possibility: play on with pain. He has been forced to do that fairly consistently in recent times with varying degree of success. Like at the 2022 French Open, when he won his 14th Paris title with one “asleep” foot on injections. Or at Wimbledon a month later, when he overcame Taylor Fritz and a 7mm torn abdominal muscle in the quarter-finals before being left with no choice but to withdraw before his semi-final against Nick Kyrgios.

That he still played 12 tournaments last year and won four titles battling through three different injuries shows the man’s mental resoluteness. But it also shows the impact his physical frailties can have in pulling him down even when his game is at its absolute peak.

The one-for-the-ages 2022 Australian Open triumph, after a five-month layoff when his troublesome foot kept him on crutches, was a flashback to the Nadal of old, a near-untouchable beast. Just as he was carrying that into the rest of the season, a rib stress fracture at Indian Wells broke the 21-match win streak. He wouldn’t return for another two months, and without the foot issue resurfacing on the red dirt. And when the grass, after a long time, finally seemed greener for the solid-looking Spaniard at Wimbledon, the abdominal injury chopped the title quest off.

“I imagine there will come a time when my head says, ‘Enough’,” Nadal had said in Rome last year when his foot began troubling again. “Pain takes away your happiness, not only in tennis but in life. My problem is that I live many days with too much pain.”

And, lately, too often. The year before his injury-riddled 2022, Nadal played just seven tournaments while missing two Grand Slams (Wimbledon and US Open). Both were down to that left foot but a back injury also troubled him at the Australian Open. It eventually sidelined Nadal until the start of the clay season.

It’s the same tale this season where he’s turned up for just two tournaments thus far. Except, it was the hip this time in Melbourne and that he’s still away from the clay swing in full flow. The Australian Open holder hobbled off from his second-round defeat to Mackenzie McDonald after being hampered by discomfort in his hip. Subsequent medical tests showed up a grade two muscle tear in his left leg, which Nadal thought would heal in “six to eight weeks”. And even though Nadal’s recent training videos evoked optimism, “we are now on 14” weeks with another of his familiar comebacks yet to arrive.

“I hope it’s not serious because I’m already tired and frustrated with being in injury recovery processes for so much of my career,” Nadal had said after his defeat in Melbourne.

Every time the talk of Nadal nearing the finish line surfaces, he pushes it so that it feels more like a dot. Yet one only wonders, with all that tiredness and frustration accumulating and more so if this French Open happens to be a bridge too far, at what point will that dot enlarge?

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