Initially, you might have been tempted to dismiss him as an irritant for Federer but really not a threat to his greatness. But Nadal ruled at Roland Garros, twice preventing Federer from achieving calendar slams and seemingly setting himself up as a permanent block to Federer's career slam aspirations. Still only a claycourter, you thought. He extended his dominion to grass in 2008 and then dramatically to hardcourts at AO 2009. That was when the world realized that here was someone who could not be straitjacketed under labels or categories. Oh well, they thought, let us welcome the new superstar.
They expected him to get perhaps even a calendar slam but once again he surprised everyone by not winning a single slam between his 23rd and 24th birthday. Injuries to his knees and abdomen kept him out or below his best and the world prepared to write the epitaph of a hero whose body had been stressed to an early doom. He then proved his resilience by coming back and winning three grand slams in a row, including the title at Flushing Meadows for which his game was considered to be unsuited.
His game is ever evolving and he is constantly adding new skills in his quest for excellence. But injuries or threats of injuries continue to follow him everywhere like his shadow. Even in the midst of all his achievements this year, there were injuries. At Queen's, he suffered a hamstring injury. At Wimbledon, he played through knee and elbow problems. Of course, his knees are his permanent bugbear. Now he has withdrawn from Paris Masters with shoulder tendonitis.
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So what does this mean? Will he achieve the Rafa slam or the seven in a row or the calendar slam or all that we know he could achieve? Or will his career continue to be marred by injuries making his story a tale of great promise half fulfilled?
If you recall, even when he was 17, he had missed the French Open because of stress fracture in his ankle. Playing through pain and injuries and missing some slams seem to be as much a part of his story as the remarkable achievements we have seen.
He is well known for his drive for excellence through relentless practice, the practice he goes to, not to practice but to learn new things. Why does this extraordinary young man test his body beyond its limits even at the risk of destroying his career?
His struggles remind me of Richard Bach's fable of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Jonathan is a seagull. But an uncommon one. He does not subscribe to the view that his flying skills are meant only to help him get food. He wants to master techniques of flight and spends countless hours practising new skills without thought of risk to life or limb. Several aerial experiments do end in disaster. But he is undeterred. At first he cannot dive like a falcon, because he does not have short wings and he accepts that he is not meant to fly like a falcon. But then he improvises and folding his wings and flying on the tips, he masters the dive. He keeps mastering new skills and quickly discovers the loop, the slow roll, the point roll, the inverted spin, the gull bunt, the pinwheel. (This story sounds familiar, does it not?)
Jonathan is thrown out from his flock because they cannot understand his quest for excellence. But he is happy practising and gaining ever more skills. One day he is guided by two starbright gulls to a higher level where he meets other gulls also striving for perfection. But though his learning is now on another level, he is frustrated by the limitations of his body till he learns from Chiang, an enlightened old Gull, that he should not think of himself as trapped within the limits of his body. He realises he is " not bone and feather but a perfect idea of freedom and flight, limited by nothing at all."
We see Rafael Nadal, trying out new skills, practising relentlessly with no thought given to the damage to his body. Perhaps, one day, in his quest for perfection, he will finally arrive at the stage where he can transcend the limitations of his body and accomplish feats hitherto unthought of. Perhaps, Rafael Nadal is the tennis world's Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
Courtesy: Bleacher Report