After returning from a long injury layoff, Rafael Nadal looks set to brush aside any doubts regarding his short-term effectiveness.
In December 1981, Muhammad Ali’s stunning loss to Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas brought about an ignominious end to his illustrious boxing career.
Legendary sports writer Hugh McIlvanney, in a now renowned article for The Observer, likened the experience of watching Ali falter that day to ‘watching a prince leave town on the back of a dustcart.’
The Scot could have been moved to make similar comparisons when Rafael Nadal bowed out of last year’s Wimbledon in the second round and subsequently failed to return for the rest of the season due to tendinitis.
To make matters worse, the Spaniard’s conqueror Lukas Rosol was not in any way tennis’ equivalent of Berbick and his victory was one of the greatest upsets in the Championships’ history.
As Nadal’s extended lay-off extended into 2013, the frustrations and apprehensions of his fans and sceptics grew. Some speculated, quite ridiculously, that he was serving a silent doping ban while others contemplated the return of a Rafa who would be most unlike the Rafa of old.
However, those fears can be set aside for a while. After missing the Australian Open in January, the former World number one finally reappeared on the ATP circuit in Chile the following month.
Despite a loss in the final to another relative unknown, this time Horacio Zeballos of Argentina, Nadal has since won the last three tournaments he has participated in.
Of the three, the Spaniard’s biggest success came on the hard courts of Indian Wells in the US, an ATP Masters event. With Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and the rest of the top players featuring in a highly-competitive draw, Nadal was not expected to win the title on a surface which has suited his rival competitors better in the past (read Roger Federer, who he was drawn to play against in the quarters).
End of the Fed-Rafa rivalry?
After a largely untroubled passage to the last eight, the left-handed Spaniard faced Federer in what was undoubtedly his toughest test after the comeback from injury.
However, the contest turned out to be a damp squib. In 85 minutes, Nadal recorded an easy 6-4, 6-2 win in a match that resembled the meeting of ex-lovers after a long time.
At the height of their rivalry, Rafa and Federer were partners in a labour of love. By joining his left hand with the right of the Swiss master, Nadal engaged in a significantly long-lasting relationship which captured the thrill of romance and the pleasure of sex.
In their latest encounter, the lovers reminisced about their exploits in the olden days while reality tugged at their conscience. A few sparks flew and disappeared in no time.
Yes, they could still produce a rally which enthralled all those who were looking at them from the stands and the television sets but it was rare in its occurrence.
Errors could be spotted more often, especially from Federer, like old unresolved arguments which resurface at the first opportunity. The duo shook hands at the end and walked away, knowing well that the charm of the amorous relationship was lost.
They shall meet and amicably part ways again, until the reasons for further encounters wither away.
You could blame Federer for the rupture in their rivalry and yet, it would be unfair. The relationship broke down as much because of Nadal’s injury layoffs as the Swiss’ decline.
Two matches later, the Spaniard conquered Juan Martin Del Potro to win a record 22nd Masters title and leave himself well-placed to claim further success in the soon-to-begin clay court season.
Perhaps, we shouldn’t be surprised at the way Nadal has returned. The fighter that he is, this was probably the only manner in which he could have made his comeback.
With the regular spate of injuries that have blotted the Spaniard’s career, his urge to win as much as he can, before the inevitable end, should only grow stronger. In terms of fitness, Nadal’s predicament is similar to that of a patient suffering a life-threatening disease. You know you don’t have much time, so you try to go out with a bang.
The 26-year-old from Mallorca may not be considered elegant or graceful in the conventional sense, but those labels will stick to him if we amplify our understanding of them. That, however, is a question for another day.
For now, Rafa’s return, with his high levels of potency and competitiveness intact, is an enriching development for tennis.