In the entire 2018 season, Rafael Nadal played only nine tournaments as his body betrayed him to an alarming degree. The beguiling Spaniard handled the situation with his usual grace and a hard layer of realism that is his trademark. As perhaps only he could have done, Nadal simply made the most of a very arduous set of circumstances, winning five of those tournaments, collecting an 11th French Open singles crown and winning 45 of 49 matches. This remarkably high standard was enough to enable the indefatigable left-hander to finish the year at No. 2 in the world.
Nadal’s legion of followers hoped he would have better luck in 2019. His 2018 season had come to an abrupt end at the US Open in the semifinals against Juan Martin Del Potro. Down two sets to love in that contest, Nadal retired with an ailing knee. He had opened his 2018 season at the majors in Melbourne with a similarly frustrating departure against Marin Cilic. Sorely hobbled by a leg injury, Nadal had to surrender when he was behind 2-0 in the fifth set. He accepted both setbacks philosophically, realizing he had to preserve his body for the long run, hoping he could regain his health with the proper amount of rest.
And yet, no matter how deliberate Nadal is, regardless of how much restraint he demonstrates, his body remains stubbornly fragile. In Brisbane this week, Nadal has withdrawn from yet another tournament injury, this one a thigh issue. He spoke with the media and explained that he had done an MRI which revealed something that is not too serious. But Nadal recognized the dangers of attempting to move through the field in Brisbane and perhaps turn something relatively small into a larger and more lasting issue. He will keep practicing on a daily basis, and that will be necessary as he maintains his goal of appearing at the Australian Open in less than two weeks for the 14th time in his career.
Who can blame Nadal for that? No man in the Open Era has won all four major singles titles at least twice. Nadal has been within striking distance of that lofty goal repeatedly. In 2012, he lost the Australian Open final to Novak Djokovic in an absolute epic, falling in five hours and fifty three minutes. Nadal led 4-2, 30-15 in the final set, only to miss a routine backhand passing shot down the line with the court wide open. Djokovic rallied valiantly to take that encounter 8-6 in the fifth set.
Two years later in Melbourne, Nadal collided with Stan Wawrinka for the title. He had never lost a set to the burly Swiss competitor in 12 career meetings, but Nadal injured his back during the warmup and never looked like himself in a four-set loss.
In 2017, Nadal was once more poised to secure a second Australian Open crown to round out his collection, but this time none other than Roger Federer startled the Spaniard, winning five games in a row from a 1-3 fifth-set deficit to take the title away.
These series of hard-luck setbacks are surely locked, or at least lodged, in the back of Nadal’s mind, making him all the more determined to make amends and come through again on the hard courts in Rod Laver Arena for the second time. Not since he upended Federer in the 2009 final has Nadal been the champion Down Under. That is one of the reasons he elected to pull out of Brisbane this week. It is also why he decided to not play his third-place match in Abu Dhabi at the exhibition event there last week against Karen Khachanov. Nadal had lost a hard fought, three-set meeting with Kevin Anderson, and clearly did not want to overtax his body with another rugged skirmish.
So here Nadal is, trying to navigate his way through another injury, doing everything he can to make certain he can go full tilt at the upcoming Australian Open. But all of these disruptions in his schedule must be playing with his psyche. He has been a commendably good sport through it all, handling each and every injury with equanimity, refusing to feel sorry for himself, always looking past his physical woes toward a period of optimum health and peak efficiency.
But even Nadal must wonder how much more of this punishment he can take. He will be 33 in five months. He needs a long stretch where he can compete consistently, largely injury free, and able to bring out the essential Rafael Nadal. I am an eternal optimist about this utterly unwavering individual. No one in the history of his sport has measured up to his level of mental toughness. But even this singularly resilient fellow can only ask so much of himself.