Now that I've returned from Portland,* I've also returned to watching the Australian open. That means that, last night, I watched Rafael Nadal do something he almost never does. I watched Rafa lose.
* Portland is an unusual place. Upon returning to Honolulu, I feel very much like the guy in this TV show trailer.
Rafa's opponent was David Ferrer, a fellow Spaniard ranked number seven in the world. Ferrer plays - or at least played last night - with ferocity and physicality despite his advancing age. At 28, he is reaching the end of his productive tennis-playing years, and indeed much as broadcasters and writers lament the possibility that a Roger Federer or Andy Roddick might not have many more chances to win a Major, it's players like Ferrer - who has never won a Major or Grand Slam event, but finds himself in the top ten late in his career - who remind me of the cruelty of a sport so devastating to the body that players only rarely remain in form past 30.
Last night Ferrer was on top of his game, however, obviously far from imagining the inevitable end of his career within the next few seasons. He was every bit Nadal's match, taking the game to him in a marathon, 20+ minute second game in which he eventually broke Rafa's serve. More importantly, however, Nadal injured his hamstring, likely due to the virus he had been fighting throughout the tournament, leaving him more vulnerable to other injuries.
I'm not writing to extol the virtues of tennis as a one-on-one sport,* nor to recount the stories of Ferrer or Nadal (the latter of which, if you watch any tennis at all, you probably know). Rather, I want to talk briefly about what happened after Nadal hurt himself, about how he lost to Ferrer, but simultaneously demonstrated why he wins so much.
* It does seem to me that only the pitcher-batter matchup in baseball comes close to the one-on-one intensity of tennis. Most of our other popular sports are built around working together as a team, about exploiting weak players by matching them against strong ones. In tennis, there is only you and the other guy, and in the Majors especially, where matches are best 3 sets out of 5, the competition can go on for four or five hours of running, pivoting, and swinging with everything you have. It's grueling physically and psychologically.
With his hamstring bothering him, Nadal took a lengthy injury timeout, and was consistently seeing a trainer between service games for the rest of the three-set sweep by Ferrer. The announcers speculated that Nadal would forfeit, as did the tournament organizers, who contacted the mixed doubles players who were next to go on the court and told them to "be read" as early as the first set. Nadal's body language was bad, to say the least. He was glancing at his box of coaches and supporters almost every point, grimacing and shaking his head. Ferrer, meanwhile, was showing no mercy, attacking hard and swinging with abandon, trying to knock Nadal out of the match.
Ultimately, Nadal was able only to win a couple of games along the way, losing 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, each set tilting further towards Ferrer. What was impressive, then, wasn't how Nadal played, but that he played, that he still tried to hold serve in his games, and that he fought to break an opponent moving and hitting better than he had any hope of doing with his leg hurt. All the while, on change-overs, when the players switch ends of the court, Nadal would sit and stretch and receive treatment, nearly crying at the lost opportunity that defeat last night meant (he had won 3 Grand Slam events in a row, meaning a win in the Aussie Open would have given him a "Rafa Slam," as the media had called it, as he would be defending champion of all for of the biggest tournaments simultaneously).
Because tennis is such a physical game, even a minor injury can be the difference between easy victory and total defeat. One can only imagine that Nadal's injury was not so bad, because he continued to play. But watching him play, it was hard not to imagine that his hamstring was worse than almost anyone else would dare to play on. He could barely move to try to get to Ferrer's smashes down the line, shots that a healthy Rafa would return easily. Perhaps more telling than any physical sign, however, was that he looked defeated.
What separates Rafael Nadal from the rest of the tennis world, then, is that he played anyway. He played because he was on the biggest court at prime time, because his was the most anticipated match of the day. He played out of respect for tennis as a sport, and for Ferrer - his countryman and Davis Cup teammate - as a player. He played because, deep down, I think a part of him believed he could still win, believed that if he just hung in there and put enough shots in play Ferrer would start making mistakes, would start missing on those shots that were just barely clipping the baseline.
In short, Rafael Nadal showed why he has won so much in his career, even though he suffered one of his most difficult losses. It's almost a cliche in sports, but even the best players lose, and often how a player confronts losing tells you a lot more about their ability to win than anything else. In contrast to his first round opponent - who forfeited the match to Nadal midway through the second set thanks to the beating he was receiving, Nadal stood in and took his beating, demonstrating why - in addition to his physical gifts - he has become the best player in the world. He showed the psyche of a great player last night, the mind and determination of a winner.
It would have been so easy for Nadal to give up, to forfeit the match to Ferrer in the second set, by which time it was clear that he was going to lose. But he didn't. He kept fighting, he played as hard as he could with his leg barely working, he hit winners and pumped his fist. I'm fond of saying that one of the most important qualities in a professional baseball player is that, even though they make an out some 60 to 70 percent of the time, they legitimately believe they will get a hit every at bat. The same is true for tennis players; even though, on this night, Nadal knew he would struggle to win points, deep down he undoubtedly believed - without fooling himself - that he would win every point. Or, at the last, that he would make Ferrer earn every point.