Rafa at his best is ‘eternal delight’

RAFAEL Nadal says he “can live without tennis.” There can be no doubt that he can, after having skillfully pulled off some of the most astonishing feats of endurance on almost all surfaces, after making sure that he will always be known as the mightiest of men on his favourite clay.

What Nadal said is very much true. But in the narcissistic world of professional sport, the truth about truth is this: only the rarest of champions has the will to confront it head-on.

“I am a competitor and I know the world is not forever the tennis career,’’ said the almost unbelievably self-effacing Spaniard at Acapulco recently. Not long after, the Emperor of Roland Garros went to play the best tennis he has played in well over two years on a hard court to win the season’s first ATP 1000 Masters at Indian Wells.

After a seven-month break which, in the intensely, almost insanely competitive world of men’s tennis could have triggered a career-ending slide, what Nadal has accomplished is nothing less than phenomenal.

No season in sport is quite complete without the sometimes-sweet, sometimes-bitter cadences of a few comebacks. But few, if any, in recent times could have had the emotional resonance of Nadal’s return from a long injury-layoff.

Twenty eight years ago, at the end of the 1985 season _ a year after he ran up an unbelievable 81-3 season record _ John McEnroe said he was going to “take a step back and appreciate what I have.” He returned in the autumn of 1986 but was never again the magisterial whiz that he used to be at his peak.

In Nadal’s case, the supremely athletic man from Majorca has had to deal with a dodgy pair of knees for the most part of his career, and the injury that forced him out of the game last year was thought to be serious enough for him to have considered quitting.

But the question now is not whether Nadal can live without tennis as much as whether the men’s game can live without one of its most charismatic and gladiatorial performers. Surely, life will go on, and so will tennis; as it did when Bjorn Borg packed up at age 26, never having played with anything other than a wooden racquet until then.

It will be impossible for today’s generation to imagine Rafa doing what he has done with a wooden racquet. But with his indomitable courage, unmatched athleticism and near-mystical self-belief, I am sure the Spaniard could have more than matched Borg.

For, this is a man who has dominated the most gifted player of all time _ Roger Federer _ in the Grand Slams more often than not; this is a man who plays with a special brand of preternatural intensity rarely witnessed at the highest levels in sport.

Whenever I get to see Rafa at his best, I think of William Blake’s words: “Energy is eternal delight.”

It was the kind of energy that, quite inappropriately, led to a misleading fixation on Nadal’s physicality. But energy, in itself, is like dark matter; you need to channelise it to turn it into a thing of beauty. The Spaniard has done that with the kind of grace that no high-intensity performer in any era might have ever matched.

This is precisely why millions of sports fans will be hoping that Nadal’s knees stop misbehaving and allow him to play into his 30s _ he will turn 27 during the French Open. And an equally fond hope would be that Federer, aged 31, and nursing a sore back, will hang around some more.

For, few rivalries in the entire history of the sport have elevated the men’s game to such exalted levels as the Nadal-Federer classics. They have had so many grand and soaring operatic plot lines that even the legendary Borg-McEnroe duels will have to settle for second place.

“You have nowhere to go when you play Roger,’’ said Andre Agassi after enduring a thrashing at the hands of the Swiss maestro.

Nadal alone knew where to go _ and it was a place where even the greatest of them all could meet him only at his very best.

Federer, winner of 17 major titles _ three more than the second-best, Pete Sampras _ has lost to Nadal 19 times and has beaten him on just 10 occasions.

Then again, no matter that skewed record, this was an era-defining rivalry. As fiercely competitive and unyielding that the two men were on court, there was also a gloss of gentility to their duels.

This is because of the respect they have for each other, and the genuine friendship that they share _ which, of course, does not mean they text each other over breakfast or dinner every day.

Good luck to Rafa’s knees and Roger’s bothersome back. As greedy aesthetes, we need them to stay in shape.