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Sporting Life

Nadal's struggle to renew himself is a noble battle

Rafael Nadal the tennis player and Lynnette Seah the Singapore Symphony Orchestra co-concertmaster and violinist are both virtuosos of the stringed instrument. Notionally they are not without similarity. Nadal's grandfather was conductor of a local orchestra and Seah was once a swimmer and runner. Her knees are now shot, her lower back aches. Nadal knows the feeling.

Artists who marry technique with dedication, and emotion with imagination, are echoes of each other - irrespective of field. Seah says a "rehearsal is like a performance" and it sounds like Nadal at practice. She says, "I give 100 per cent from first note and you cannot let go of concentration till you finish your last note", and it could be Nadal talking.

In a sense, Nadal and Seah are part of one large creative tribe. He plays like a heavy metal musician and she speaks of herself as an "athlete performing on stage". But there is a difference, for as she laughs: "We don't get such big prizes." Ah, but perhaps that is paid to athletes as compensation for their abbreviated careers.

After all, as Seah says: "As you mature as a person you develop deeper understanding of the art form. In musical expression, I am at my peak now." She is 58. Nadal is only 29 and he is fading gently like a water colour masterpiece left in a drizzle.

Rafael Nadal shows his frustration during his Argentina Open semi-final against Dominic Thiem on Feb 13. The Spaniard held a match point against the Austrian but was beaten 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (6-4) in the clay-court event.
Rafael Nadal shows his frustration during his Argentina Open semi-final against Dominic Thiem on Feb 13. The Spaniard held a match point against the Austrian but was beaten 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (6-4) in the clay-court event. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The decline of the great athlete is familiar to fans yet its misery always seems new. In an exaggerated sense, it resembles the death of something beautiful. So people, without irony, say "quit" to athletes whom they once championed precisely because they never quit. They say "quit" as if a legacy may be ruined, though in truth the past is unerasable: Michael Phelps may come last at the Rio Olympics but Beijing will always be unforgettable.

The decline of the great athlete is familiar to fans yet its misery always seems new. In an exaggerated sense, it resembles the death of something beautiful. So people, without irony, say "quit" to athletes whom they once championed precisely because they never quit.

The invincible athlete offers us a peek at perfection but the struggling champion represents a certain nobility. You can strip Nadal of titles, scrub his aura, confront him with indignity and still he tries.

His life is a fellow named Pablo Cuevas daring to say in Rio, "I came out here thinking I could win". It is the press asking him every week, "what happened?" as if he knows. And yet he keeps coming out to play, on a bad day, a good day, a tired day, an uncertain day, because he's sure one day it will turn. No?

Obstinacy made Nadal somebody and it will return him there. He is driven by an unassailable logic: He overcame hardship before (i.e. injuries), so why not this slump? He sweated and found answers, so he'll sweat again. He won before we thought he could (the French Open, at 19, on first try), he won more than we thought he could win (nine French), so why can't he win when some think he can't any more?

The past has told him persistence works so to stop persisting would be to ignore the evidence he has collected over a lifetime. He was great because he believed and it's only if he believes that he will be great again.

In his brilliant book, Inspired, the five-time Olympic rowing champion Steve Redgrave writes about how he understands why Muhammad Ali fought too long:

"That's the trouble with self-belief. It's not supplied with a tap, you can't turn it off, and it follows that people hard-wired to believe in themselves go on believing long after the body can cope. The head is dealing with miracles, while the body is subject to reality."

Nadal is not as physically spent as the old Ali - he has time - but he has the same defiant genes. For him this slide - he's gone 12 tournaments without a win, lost five straight times to Novak Djokovic, lost six times last year on clay - is another problem to solve. And he solved Roger Federer, who was tennis' version of Fermat's last theorem. He solved Wimbledon. So why not this?

It is said he should let go of uncle Toni and hire a Boris Becker equivalent. It is said he should be more aggressive - in the depth of his shot and position on the baseline - and he knows that but somehow is mentally stuck, infected by a version of the amateurs' disease where we know what to do but lack the trust in our skills to execute. There is no hesitancy in greatness but he is indecisive.

He held a match point against Dominic Thiem in Buenos Aires and lost. He led 2-0 in the fifth set against Fernando Verdasco in Australia and lost. He is confronting sports' most telling questions: How do you forget how to win? And how do you remember?

Yet no activity in life has more revivals than sport: Phelps from retirement, Andre Agassi from silliness, Ali from his ban, Alexander Popov from a stabbing. As Nadal said in Melbourne: "Let's keep going, that's the only thing."

The Spaniard was only answering to his competitive coding. Or as Redgrave wrote: "A competitor competes. That is what we do... competitiveness doesn't fade away with the last strains of the national anthem. It survives, getting older, getting fatter, even getting beaten. The goals may change but the principle remains: In competition, I will do everything I can to win."

Nadal's outcome is unknown - I believe he will revive - but there is a desperation to such athletes which is glorious because their self-worth is so tightly tied to how well they hit a ball. The faltering champion in pursuit of his last great self is impossible to look away from.

Perhaps when he retires years from now, Nadal will never pick up a racket again. He is not the violinist who might play only for pleasure - he must triumph. There is a poignant tale of the artist Pierre Auguste Renoir, whose hands were terribly twisted by arthritis. Yet even in his 70s, when a brush was placed between his fingers, he painted. Renoir, even when in agony, pursued beauty; Nadal, even as it is agonising, chases his winning self.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2016, with the headline 'Nadal's struggle to renew himself is a noble battle'. Print Edition | Subscribe