Rafa doesn't buckle under pressure

SEE the photograph. See his face. See his pleasure. It's as if the picture reverses the cliche and deserves a thousand words. But let's settle for one to describe Rafael Nadal's win at Indian Wells, a week so inspired it is best addressed with an inventive word. As commentator Robbie Koenig tweeted: "PHENOME-NADAL."

Nadal's career is a study in limits or more precisely his refusal to be defined by any. Arthur C. Clarke wrote: "The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible." Clarke wrote science fiction. Nadal's victory almost seems to fit that genre. Simply he won a title he shouldn't have.

His entire week was struggle at its most edifying for there was an integrity to his play. A player not quite himself, yet a competitor honest in his willingness to suffer.

Nadal limped off Wimbledon in June and limped back into Chile in February. In that time, Novak Djokovic played 51 matches. Andy Murray 48. Juan Martin del Potro 37. Roger Federer 43. Tomas Berdych 46. Barring the odd niggles, they were tuned and match-fit. Nadal, a physical player, was not.

The Spaniard is a child of labour, but no session at home in Manacor as he rehabilitated could have simulated such competition. No match in Chile could entirely replicate the adrenaline, distraction, invention required against an elite field in a major event.

Still Nadal won in Indian Wells, at times moving as hesitantly as a man on an ice floe. Still, he beat Federer, Berdych, del Potro. Still, in the final, often parked a distance from the baseline, he ran down balls as if the pain of losing outweighed any agony in his knee. A knee that has led to a pull-out from this week's Sony Open. Nothing Nadal does comes easy.

No returning athlete can be sure of the return of skill as it once was. Tiny deterioration of footwork occur, imperceptible decays in confidence occur. As Abhinav Bindra, the Olympic gold medallist shooter, who took a self-imposed 18-month break once, says: "Your mind in critical moments gets tentative, you lose the concentration you had."

All sport also centres on engineering a consistent precision, a basket, a pass, a shot that is given enough hip turn, spin, power to arrive perfectly at a pre-determined point. At their most fluent, athletes offer the illusion they can do this blindfolded. But when injury benches them, they lose this pitch of perfection.

In 1995, the year he returned to basketball from baseball, Michael Jordan famously hit an air ball at a key stage of a play-off game. "He didn't look like the old Michael," said a rival. Tiger Woods' injury layoff led to topped drives and flubbed chips, more frequently demonstrated by tipsy amateurs.

Precision requires feel, and feel requires competition. Nadal had only 13 dry-runs against mostly middle-level rivals (six outside the Top 50, four outside the Top 100) on clay in Chile, Brazil, Mexico. But this was hard court, his least favourite surface, of different spin and altered pace; this was hard court on which he hadn't won a title since late 2010.

His imprecision was obvious, it was there, but still he won and said: "Seriously, it's impossible to have better comeback, no?" Yes.

It points to his capacity to adapt and the lucidity of his thought process. Del Potro played for a period like a lead actor from a slasher flick, just brutalising every ball. Yet Nadal's unique coding of DNA keeps him from panic.

He met mistakes with a snarl. He kept driving his forehand, down the line, inside out, till the clay-court player finished with 33 winners to 28 from tennis' most muscular hitter. He kept an undiluted pressure on del Potro's second serve (the Argentinian won 41 per cent of second serve points, Nadal 71). In the end, Nadal's struggle left the Argentinian too tired to do the same, except to say: "He's very strong mentally."

To his good fortune, the match-ups suited Nadal. Now he is 13-3 against Berdych, 19-10 against Federer, 8-3 against del Potro. To his good luck, he did not face Murray and Djokovic, against whom he is 0-6 collectively in recent hard-court meetings. He will not care for he is running again and relevant again.

In the book The Perfection Point, author John Brenkus considers the limits of human performance. He concludes that the fastest 100m ever will be 8.99 seconds (now 9.58) and the fastest 50m freestyle will be 18.15 seconds (now 20.91). As a species, this is apparently our limit.

There is no figure, however, for the limit on grit. No science can distil attitude to a numeral. But if endeavour in sport has a human measure right now, a person to compare others against, then it might well be Nadal. He is the perfect picture of sporting struggle.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 19, 2013

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