Commentary

Nadal's struggle to make it all work in unison

Rafael Nadal did not need to talk because his face said enough. At roughly 5pm on Friday in the main interview room in Paris he looked out of the window, he looked down, he looked grim. Then, to a chorus of clicking cameras, he exited the Open.

No one is ever surprised any more, but most are sad. Nadal's greatest foe has not been Roger Federer nor Novak Djokovic but his body. He only knows one way to play, every day, every ball, and it comes at a cost. It's as if he has made a deal with life: He will run himself to greatness and yet also into the ground.

This time it was not the knee, or back, or abdomen, or hamstring. It was a left wrist. Every piece of Nadal seems to be falling apart and yet somehow he has not broken. On Friday, you could understand why. In all the explanations of his injury, it was easy to miss his resolve. He is forever the competitor refusing to be beaten.

"I gonna keep going hard to recover as quick as possible and try to be back (here) the next couple of years.

"We're going to work hard to be ready for Wimbledon.

  • Rafa's injury woes

  • 2003: Elbow injury

    2004: Stress fracture in left ankle.

    2005: Foot injury

    2008-09: Knee tendinitis

    2009: Abdominal pull at US Open

    2010: Knee injury at Australian Open

    2011: Hamstring strain in Australian Open, left knee injury at Miami Masters.

    2012: Knee tendinitis keeps him out of Olympics and US Open.

    2013: Stomach virus before Australian Open.

    2014: Back injury during Australian Open final, wrist injury.

    2016: Wrist injury forces him out of French Open.

"It's just a moment to go day by day, to work hard, I hope to have a fast recovery.

"We need to work. I'll be back."

Everything with him is "work". The only way to defy his body and bad luck is with work. Grit beats injury. Patience overcomes hardship. Of course, the harder he works, the more he gets injured, the harder he must work.

If Federer has managed 65 consecutive Slams before he skipped one, Nadal's best run of successive Slams is only 13. His X-ray and MRI file is so encyclopaedic that we may forget that in 2003 he injured his elbow and in 2004 he missed the French with a hurt ankle. His life in retrospect seems an extended comeback.

That he has won 14 Slams is extraordinary; that his race to overtake Federer's 17 is being too regularly interrupted is evident; that these duellists who lifted tennis and us and each other are on the other side of their magnificent hills is clear. The rewind button never works how we want it to in sport.

A classy air has been let out of this punctured French Open with the absence of Nadal and Federer.They are not at the same stage, for the Swiss is 35 in August and Nadal is 30 in a few days, but their bodies somehow seem the same age. It was best when they were beating each other, for being defeated by time is less glorious.And yet it is the athletic life.

A classy air has been let out of this punctured French Open with the absence of Nadal and Federer. They are not at the same stage, for the Swiss is 35 in August and Nadal is 30 in a few days, but their bodies somehow seem the same age. It was best when they were beating each other, for being defeated by time is less glorious. And yet it is the athletic life.

Federer this year had knee surgery and then hurt his back. Nadal had painfully resurrected his game till his forehand started singing and now this. He knows he can run on painful knees but not dominate with a troublesome wrist. It felled Juan Martin del Potro but Nadal's case currently - we are never certain of the precise extent of his injuries - does not seem as debilitating.

Sport is a paradoxical place, alive with nostalgia and yet devoted to practicality, in love with old heroes and yet beckoning the young. This is still the tennis world of the Swiss and Spaniard but younger men, like Alexander Zverev and Borna Coric, both 19, are slowly starting to stake a claim.

Nothing stays forever but for Nadal that can also mean his injury. If he works, it will heal. He must hate rehabilitation but he will not fear it. As much as he has damaged his body he knows he has always repaired it. "Now is a tough moment but is not the end," he said. Ironman just needs time to patch up his suit again.

A classy air has been let out of this punctured French Open with the absence of Nadal and Federer. They are not at the same stage, for the Swiss is 35 in August and Nadal is 30 in a few days, but their bodies somehow seem the same age. It was best when they were beating each other, for being defeated by time is less glorious. And yet it is the athletic life.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 29, 2016, with the headline 'Nadal's struggle to make it all work in unison'. Print Edition | Subscribe