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Rafael Nadal's Relentless Style of Play May Be His Undoing
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If the prodigious depth in men's tennis proves anything, it's that there's not one way to play the game.
Jimi Hendrix and Andrés Segovia both played guitar, after all. The difference in the way Nadal and Federer approach tennis is only slightly less striking.
Federer glides around the court like Peter Pan, fluid in his movement and exacting in his strokes. He's as silent as a shark, uttering not a peep when his racket contacts the ball. Nothing is rushed or panicked; the Swiss arrives at the ball as if by magic, with ample time, or so it seems, to conjure precisely the shot best suited to the occasion.
Nadal thunders from sideline to sideline like the invading Mongol horde, running hard enough to leave fissures in the court. No TV camera can convey the power, pace and spin of his forehand. The sound of his racket on impact is closer to a gunshot than a smack, rivaled only by the groans from the Spaniard himself.
"What makes Rafa different from other players is his power," said Nicolás Lapentti, 33, a frequent practice partner. "The ball comes at you really heavy. Then, when you start playing points, he gets to balls that other players would not. You will hit a winner, but he gets there and makes it back."
Higueras, 56, who is helping the U.S. Tennis Association groom the next generation of American stars, calls Nadal the greatest competitor he has seen in any sport because of his physicality and fight.
"The level of spin and speed that he's able to generate on his forehand is unknown to any other stroke," Higueras says. "Together with that, he's got the ability to really move that ball around and hit pretty much every spot on the court. It's a very lethal combination."
But for all the ferocity of Nadal's game, he is soft-spoken off the court, as well as cheerful for the most part and unfailingly polite.
"Thank you very much" was among the first English phrases he mastered.
Today, with a broader vocabulary, Nadal takes pains to compliment each opponent after his matches, no matter how lopsided the score.
On the court, he rarely balks at bad calls. And he can't recall ever throwing a racket or a tantrum.
"My uncle," he says, pausing to ask Benito Pérez-Barbadillo, his publicist, for help with an unfamiliar tense.
"My uncle," Nadal continues, "would have killed me."
This particular evening at the tournament in Ohio, Nadal arrives for an interview in the players' lounge immediately after practice. Drenched in sweat, he sets down the racket bags he lugs over each shoulder, briefly excuses himself to put on a clean shirt and returns with two fresh towels, draping one over the back of the black leather sofa and one on the seat before sitting down.
"When he is not playing, he is a normal person," Roig says later. "Very human. Very nice. Once he gets a racket, it changes everything."
Unlike many of the sport's millionaires, Nadal didn't relocate to the tax-free glamour of Monte Carlo but still lives in a town of 36,000, where his father owns a glass and windows company.
In Manacor, everyone knows that the king of Spain attended Nadal's first French Open victory and his Wimbledon triumph. But no one treats him differently because of it.
"I have a normal life there," Nadal says. "I go out with friends. I go to the supermarket with my mother. I go to the cinema. I never sign autographs. I never . . . "
Another pause to ask the English word for "esconder."
"Hide," Pérez-Barbadillo replies.
"I do not hide," Nadal says. "When I am there, I am happy."
Still, the early weeks of his recovery were difficult.
Nadal took great pride in watching on TV as his friend and fellow Spaniard Pau Gasol won his first NBA title, with the Los Angeles Lakers. He cheered countryman Alberto Contador to victory in the Tour de France. He followed politics and the global economic crisis, which he says troubles him deeply because he has many friends without work.
But all the time spent on the sofa -- more time than he had spent in the last four years, he told the Spanish television station TVE during a nationwide prime-time interview -- was not to his liking.
Once his sadness passed, Nadal said, it was easy to appreciate the simple joy of summer on Majorca, where the weather is always beautiful, the ocean always inviting and his boat always ready to hunt for fish.
"I love the sea," Nadal said. "When you go fishing, you go at six in the morning. It is dark a little bit, and you watch the sun coming out. Sunrise. Everything about this is nice."
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Looking back on his 2008 season and his furious start to 2009, Nadal concedes he should have heeded the warning signs in his knees. He played with pain below his kneecaps toward the end of last year. This spring, a new pain emerged above his knees despite near-daily doses of anti-inflammatories.
Nadal's Barcelona-based physician identified the injury as quadriceps tendinitis, which involves microscopic degeneration of the tendon that attaches the thigh muscle to bone.
Typically brought on by overuse, it's often seen in jumping sports like basketball and volleyball or any sport that demands sudden, explosive movement.
The recovery rate is good with adequate rest and treatment (ice, anti-inflammatories and strengthening the supporting muscles), according to David Geier of the Medical University of South Carolina, who has treated the injury in several elite athletes.
But it can prove career-shortening, he added, if the healing process is rushed. And while it's likely exacerbated by playing on hard courts as opposed to clay or grass, a far greater risk factor is the lack of a meaningful break in most players' competitive schedule.
"Tennis unfortunately is a year-round sport, and it's a sport that's badly plagued by overuse injuries," Geier said. "The risk you run if you don't give it enough time is that it may flare back up, and you're back at square one. You don't really know if you're 100 percent until you get back and try it."
Nadal conceded that he had difficulty last season knowing when to stop competing.
"It's difficult to say no to a tournament, because if you want to be [ranked] in the top, you have to play everything, no?" Nadal said. "So you must try to be in all places. Sometimes, it is too much."
Roig, 41, who spent 17 years on the pro tour, also battled tendinitis. While he won't speak for Nadal, Roig said it rendered him tentative in his movements -- sometimes triggering pain on his first step, other times for no apparent reason.
"It makes you afraid to arrive with power at the difficult balls," Roig said. "It makes you afraid to put power in the legs."
This, of course, lies at the heart of Nadal's game.
And it was clearly lacking in his opening match in Cincinnati, with Nadal barely squeaking by 45th-ranked Andreas Seppi, a 6-foot-3, 165-pound beanpole of a player. Nadal played from behind the entire match, literally and figuratively, standing yards behind the baseline and fending off nine of 10 break points on his serve.
Asked afterward whether his knees hurt, Nadal paused. "Always perfect is impossible, no?" he said. "But when I say it's good, I can play with no problem, no?"
He was far more impressive in the next round, ripping winners past Paul-Henri Mathieu off both his forehand and backhand in a straight-sets rout.
From a courtside vantage point, it was like watching a parched flower blossom via time-lapse photography. Nadal's confidence grew with each winner he struck. And as his confidence grew, his first serves got more potent, he stepped in closer to the net and he forced the tempo rather than responded to it.
Nadal would win one more round in Cincinnati before a decisive semifinal loss to fourth-ranked Novak Djokovic.
Now comes the U.S. Open and the resumption of Nadal's quest, which isn't as straightforward as winning the tournament or reclaiming the No. 1 ranking.
According to Nadal, it's to feel good again on the court, to reclaim the rush that only comes with competing in the sport he loves most, and to compete well enough to win.
"Sure, I prefer to be number one," Nadal said. "But it's not everything. When I was number one last year -- believe me, sure, it was important for me after a long time being number two. It was a goal. I did it. I am happy for that. But during these weeks [of] being number one, I wasn't more happy than before. If I am number one and not happy playing tennis and all the day I am angry, for sure I prefer being number three or number five."
And when his career comes to an end, whether two years from now or a decade, Nadal insists he's not worried about finding fulfillment beyond the court.
There is his boat. The sea. And so many sunrises.