Rafael Nadal's Furious Play Made Him Great. At 23 Years Old, It Threatens His Career.

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009


Among the countless boys who dreamed of becoming Spain's next tennis champion, a preternatural ferocity set Rafael Nadal apart.

The way he attacked every ball and played each point as if it were his last -- even at age 14, whether in practice or competition -- was so striking that it worried Jose Higueras.

Sooner or later, the former Spanish great remembers thinking, this promising youngster's passion for tennis would take a toll on his body. And it was simply a matter of time, he feared, before the boy would be forced to take a long break.

"Everybody told [me] this in the past: 'This guy only can play two years like this,' " Nadal said this month, during a break in preparations for his second tournament after the recent injury-induced hiatus that had been predicted. "And then, it's five now. Five years I am there [in the top ranks]. I am there. Still there, no?

"You never know when you finish your career. But I [am] 23, and I hope to be here a few more years."

Forced to the sidelines by tendinitis in both knees, Nadal disappeared from the tennis landscape for two months this summer. The layoff, which came on the heels of his stunning fourth-round loss at the French Open on May 31 and lasted until early August, robbed men's tennis of its most charismatic figure, stalled its most compelling rivalry and cost Nadal dearly.

He was unable to defend the Wimbledon crown that he wrested from Roger Federer in a 2008 final that was considered the greatest ever played. So he watched from his home on the island of Majorca as the peerless Swiss reclaimed the title and, with it, the No. 1 world ranking. In the weeks that followed, Nadal slipped to No. 3, his lowest ranking since 2005.

So here in suburban Cincinnati, at the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters, Nadal took measured steps back to form in hopes of being as fit as possible for his seventh assault on the U.S. Open, the one major title to elude him.

But the challenge that confronts Nadal on the eve of this year's tournament, which gets underway Monday in New York, is more deep-seated than the tricky first-round opponent he has drawn or even the lingering questions about his knees.

It goes to the essence of his game -- and how many more years he can mount a credible challenge given the painful ailment he's grappling with at a relatively tender age.

Nadal's relentless, physical style of play is what has made him exceptional. Yet it has also exacted a price, with different forms of tendinitis forcing him to cut short his 2008 season and halt his 2009 campaign at its most critical juncture.

As Nadal looks to the future, the fundamental question is twofold:

Can he retool his game so he runs less and finishes matches more quickly, and still achieve world-class results?

Or is Nadal's punishing approach to tennis -- more defensive than offensive, in which he wears down opponents physically and psychologically by retrieving ball after ball -- so encoded in his competitive DNA that such an overhaul is unthinkable?

Francisco Roig, who shares coaching duties with Nadal's uncle Toni, who taught him the game at age 4, believes Nadal can and must make these changes. Nadal and his team are already on the task -- working to beef up his serve and play inside the baseline rather than 10 feet behind it; scheduling shorter, more efficient practices; and tempering Nadal's compulsion to exhaust himself by tracking down every ball.

"Rafa is the kind of player who likes to play [a] lot of matches," Roig said. "He seems to need to play a lot of matches for his confidence."

But this isn't ideal for veterans or, in a case like Nadal's, players whose style of tennis is particularly bruising.

Federer, 28, has pared back his schedule in the last two years. At 27 , top American Andy Roddick no longer hits endless buckets of balls to perfect his serve.

Though Nadal is the youngest among them, he has as many miles on his legs as Roddick, whose booming serve ends many points before they start.

But Nadal played a tour-high 93 matches in 2008 -- a brilliant if withering run in which he won his fourth French Open, then Wimbledon, ascended to No. 1, claimed Olympic gold and helped Spain reclaim the Davis Cup. Federer, by contrast, played 81 matches; Roddick, 67.

"He has to exchange the quality for the quantity," Roig said of Nadal. "The goal is to try to make the matches shorter."

There's ample evidence of Nadal's ability to adapt.

Naturally right-handed, he was taught to play tennis left-handed by his uncle, who felt it would be an advantage. At 10, he was weaned from a two-fisted forehand. And last year, he achieved a feat not seen since 1980, reinventing his clay-court game for grass -- shortening his backswing, altering his footwork and honing his serve and volley -- to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year.

With his longevity at stake, developing a less defensive style of play should also be possible.

"I hope," Nadal says. "I hope."

* * *

The rust was evident in the early going of the tournament in Cincinnati.

Nadal, whose game is predicated on power and an indefatigable fighting spirit, didn't move with his customary explosiveness. His serve lacked the punch he had labored so hard to develop during his ascent to No. 1. But what disappointed him most was the lack of feel on his groundstrokes, the most feared weapon in his arsenal.

None of this bothered his legion of fans in Ohio, who appeared by the hundreds every time Nadal went out to practice with his team: Roig; physiotherapist Rafael Maymo, who for years has logged Nadal's every stroke in a series of spiral notebooks; and a hitting partner.

On this Tuesday, 24 hours before he was scheduled to play his first match, Nadal had logged nearly three hours on court -- more time than any player in the tournament that day.

His sessions start with a light exchange of forehands, as steady as a metronome. Nadal wears no knee brace and stands several feet behind the baseline.

Instead of his trademark bandana, a backwards baseball cap keeps his hair in place. As he hits, his eyebrows are knitted, as if he's trying to solve a complicated math equation. After 10 minutes, Nadal adds pace and power to his strokes. His feet start doing more of the work. And each smack is harder than the one before.

"It's exact opposite of my game!" one woman marvels.

"Is it even the same game?" her friend wonders.

By 8 p.m., Nadal has sweated through two Nike shirts, in addition to the two from his morning workout. So during a break for water, he peels down to no shirt at all and jogs back on court to blast another round of groundstrokes.

Suddenly, every woman in the stands raises a camera, as if a Pavlovian response. It was similar at Nadal's morning session, only with children and teens doing the swooning.

"Rafa! Rafa!" they shrieked, waving programs, ticket stubs and oversized souvenir tennis balls in a frantic attempt to coax him to the sidelines for autographs.

"Mr. Nadal!" one boy shouted. "Can I have your racket?"

"I would cry if he comes over!" a girl in braces squealed to her friend. "I'm not kidding. I would cry!"

"Rafa! Rafa!" yelled a boy. "I wear your shirt!"

The U.S. Open has long represented Nadal's greatest challenge. Although he won four French Opens, Wimbledon and the Australian Open by age 22, Nadal has never gotten past the semifinals of the U.S. Open.

Hard courts aren't his best surface, although he toppled Federer on one to claim the Australian Open this year.

And Nadal doesn't feel entirely at home in the cavernous, 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, the world's largest tennis venue. While the audacious setting fires up some players, famously rejuvenating the aging Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi like a supercharged IV drip, it has yet to bring out the best in Nadal.

"There is a lot of wind there," he says. "You feel small in a very, very big court there."

There's also the matter of its place on the calendar, coming eight months into the season. Given Nadal's penchant for playing more matches than his peers, he has rarely arrived fresh. This year, he may be arriving too fresh.

"It's not the best preparation -- an injury of two months," Nadal said, asked about his expectations. "But I'm going to try my best. I'm going to push hard every year to try to win it.

"The U.S. Open," he noted after a long pause, "is the only one who remains."

* * *

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."

* * *

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.

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