Open Minded

Retirement so painful for an aching Rafa

At 11.30pm last night one of the most dazzling movers in sport limped gingerly along the fourth floor of the press building. He wore a cap but on his face no expression. He entered the main interview room and very slowly climbed the two steps to the platform on which a chair awaited him. Behind him on a canvas were two photographs of him, the world No.1, in full cry. But Rafael Nadal did not shed a tear.

The Spaniard lost 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 2-6, 0-2 (ret) last night to a brilliant Marin Cilic and a betraying body. He was overcome by a Croat's relentless shotmaking and a disobedient muscle high on his right leg. He said he did not know precisely what muscle it was and that an MRI today would determine that. What he did not say was that it is one of the great ironies of sport that an athlete of such astonishing physical prowess is undone so often by injury.

On court the crowd cheered him as he left but he was beyond comforting. Too much of him was hurting. Over the years his knees (2010), hamstring (2011) and back (2014) have halted him at this Open. Yesterday, it was his leg and the quantum of his pain was evident from the decision he took. A scrapping man was forced to surrender.

"In this tournament," he said, "(it's) already happened a couple of times in my life, so it's really I don't want to say frustration, but is really tough to accept."

Nadal came here as the world No. 1 in pursuit of a unique feat - to become the only man in the Open era to win every Grand Slam title twice. He leaves unfulfilled, unsure of when he will return but only that he will. "Accept, recover... keep going." He said it like a too-familiar mantra.

He paused, he spoke slowly, as if struck by a despairing sense of deja vu. Perhaps for the rest of his life, the "what ifs" will haunt him. What more could he have been?

"It's a negative thing, but I don't going to complain because happened to me more than others. But on other hand I was winning more than almost anyone. That's the real thing. But who knows, if I didn't have all these injuries..." Then he trailed off.

Andy Murray is rehabilitating his hip, Novak Djokovic is discussing his elbow and now it is Nadal and his leg. Roger Federer better take his vitamins today because the Big Four is currently falling apart. Age is their common foe but also, said Nadal, it is a matter of surfaces.

Nadal came here as the world No. 1 in pursuit of a unique feat - to become the only man in the Open era to win every Grand Slam title twice. He leaves unfulfilled, unsure of when he will return but only that he will.

"Somebody who is running the tour should think little bit about what's going on. Too many people getting injured. I don't know if they have to think a little bit about the health of the players. Not for now that we are playing, but there is life after tennis. I don't know if we keep playing in this very, very hard surfaces what's going to happen in the future with our lives."

Sitting next to me courtside was a professor of creative writing and even she might have found this a hard script to imagine. After all, even before the retirement, this was a wild night of time violations (Cilic, not Nadal), a crying baby, 29 break points and shifts in momentum.

It began undramatically, full of clean strokes but no evident tension. Cilic's soles squeaked, Nadal look more oiled. The Spaniard led by a set and then Cilic, the Wimbledon finalist, began to return audaciously, skimmed shots over the net like a stone over water and turned into 1.98m of undiluted aggression. By the end, he had 83 winners.

He won the second set 6-3 and then shadow-practised his footwork. He had awoken Rafa, which is like poking a beast, and knew a lot of running was imminent. The crowd sat up, for this is what they had come for, a fistfight at 70 paces and an animated Rafa who snarled, grimaced and bared his teeth.

At one juncture in the intense third set tie-breaker, five straight points went against serve, a baby cried its approval, a flash went off and Nadal lit up. He took the set 7-6 but the leg was about to go.

The crowd mourned the fallen man yet acknowledged Cilic's skill for he had tested Nadal's joints, his knees, his muscles. The Spaniard will go to hospital, but play will go on. It always does. The Open feels gloomy but today the forecast is sunshine.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2018, with the headline 'Retirement so painful for an aching Rafa'. Print Edition | Subscribe