No Boundaries Nirmal Shekar

Where do Rafa and Roger go from here?

The French Marxist theorist, Guy Debord, described post-modern life as “the society of the spectacle.” And several thousand miles away, Mario Vargas Llosa agreed with him, calling modern culture as the “civilisation of the spectacle.”

Almost 50 years after Debord’s comment, few modern activities fit in perfectly with what the two giants of philosophy and literature dwelled on as much as sport; and neither of them, we can be sure, spent their lives living on huge doses of sporting spectacle on television.

But there are some very special people who have played sport with a certain sense of outsider-hood that proves Debord and Llosa wrong. And we are lucky that they have played their best sport with such compelling illusion to make us think time itself is an illusion. And we are extremely fortunate that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are of the same generation. It is an insultingly simplistic argument to say that they were destined to be who they are, good friends and great rivals.

Tennis without Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal would not only be a greatly diminished thing but also it will deprive us of the champagne stuff that fizzed, sparkled and sprayed on the audience.

And now that both are nearer to the finishing line rather than the starting blocks, we are once again reminded that the best of sport is ineffable. And this is the reason why Nadal versus Federer took tennis way beyond sport. It was much, much more than a mere spectacle.

Then again, as both have called time on their punishing schedules this year and have said that they would resume their careers only next year, we can view men’s tennis with a peculiar cocktail of emotions. It’s great that they are still around. But given their injury woes, how long into the future?

But it is Nadal’s slump that seems devastatingly career-threatening. For he has been so much prone to injuries — the very opposite of Federer — that one fine morning he might decide not to get out of bed and go to the practice court.

Yet, it is almost impossible to imagine that the greatest conquistador of clay court tennis, and one who has won 14 Grand Slam titles before turning 30, could find himself on a freefall after a long layoff because of injury.

So what do you make of Nadal’s struggles on the court through most part of the year? Is his slide irreversible or is it just a short or medium term setback in form and confidence — something that one big victory will help him leave behind?

No surprise

For a good number of fans and critics who have always maintained that given the nature of his game, which depends on mind-boggling physical fitness, it may be no surprise that the nine-time French Open champion should find himself where he is now. They can say with a dismissive look: “Didn’t I tell you so?”

Yet, having watched the genuinely nice and humble man — a rarity in our time and age — for over 15 years, and having seen him bare his noble soul playing as if he was ready to lay his life on court rather than lose, it is impossible for me to conclude that Rafa is history.

Despite all the frustrating injuries, Nadal keeps coming back because he still loves playing the game, as much as tens of millions have enjoyed watching him display a special brand of searing intensity fuelled by jaw-droppingly solid willpower.

Almost every player — great and good — has gone through the comeback routine; it is as much a part of a sporting season as setbacks and controversies.

And tennis players, much more than athletes in many other sports, stop and start all the time. However each comeback is slightly different from others. Some come back from mid-career injuries; others retire and then realise that they left the game too soon. A tiny minority go broke — Bjorn Borg, Mike Tyson, George Best — and do it for the money alone.

But more often than not — especially in the case of top rated superstars — they come back simply because they suddenly stop hearing the noise of the crowd ringing in their ears and cannot find anything, away from the game, that can help them access the magic drug that sport offers — that rush of adrenaline.

Like actors who cannot ever live without the smell of greasepaint and the roar of the audience, some champions find it impossible to stay away from the action, away from all the adulation and the serotonin-induced high.

“Sometimes, to keep playing is not the solution. Sometimes the solution is to practice and stop [playing on the Tour], and continue the process of training,” said Nadal, who has a 40-14 record this year.

It is understandable, then, why Nadal has already given up on the season and seems keen to prepare for 2017. For a man who came back from a long layoff this year, it might indeed be the best thing to do — forget 2016 as a bad dream and start all over again next season.

It is a rare coincidence too that two of the finest players of this — or any — generation have taken similar decisions to deal with injuries.

The absence of Nadal and Federer for a long time may not be hard to digest after the Grand Slam season is over this year, but the time is not far away when men’s tennis will not feature the names of these two great gladiators.

And that, as Marcel Proust said about literature, may “feel like a life not fully lived” for most connoisseurs of tennis.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2022 12:19:42 AM |

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