No gain without strain for Rafael Nadal

Career of world’s top-ranked male tennis player has been about crossing one pain barrier after another, the Spaniard tells Osman Samiuddin.

In the Rafael Nadal entourage – or clan, which is the better way to describe his support team – “endurance” is a big word. His uncle and coach Toni Nadal long ago taught him its importance. “Endure, put up with whatever comes your way, learn to overcome weakness and pain, push yourself to breaking point but never cave in. If you don’t learn that lesson, you’ll never succeed as an elite athlete.”

If that sounds uneasily like military motivational jargon, then it is probably a deliberate impression. When Rafael Nadal is playing tennis, the intensity he brings to it goes beyond just normal, competitive sport. It might not be war, for that is reducing the seriousness of war, but it is a graver matter than just sport, too.

Endurance of pain seems to be the prime implication. Nothing worthy, says everything about Nadal’s game, was ever achieved without a lot of pain being endured. Nadal carries pain on court, grimacing, grunting and looking spent. He is always glistening with sweat, as if the powers have ordained that he alone exists permanently under a patch of humidity and sunshine.

The arrival on court itself, hair wet from a cold shower but looking sweat-ridden, is carefully constructed, intended to convey the message to the opponent that he has already been through a battle and much pain before he even got here.

So Nadal endures. For years he endured Roger Federer. These days he is enduring Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. For seven months across last year and this, he endured the hell of a knee injury that most thought would end his career. Even he did.

“It was a very tough year, especially at the beginning, since I could not play in Abu Dhabi, Doha, or the Australian Open in Melbourne as I had scheduled after my injury,” he said in an email interview. “But I have to say that, after that, things went well, not without suffering, but they went very well.

“The doctor always told me that no one has retired due to an injury like mine, but it is true that I had my doubts as the pain was always there.”

“Not without suffering” … “the pain was always there” … would Nadal have had it any other way? From that pain and suffering has come a reclamation of the No 1 ranking and two more grand slam titles. Roland Garros, admittedly, he could conquer without knees, but to win his second US Open title, especially after a poor Wimbledon, was the marker for the season, the punctuation to his return.

“I think that I can say that me or my team didn’t think this would have been possible if you would have asked us at the start of the season and especially before that,” Nadal said.

The results have been amazing and could be considered the most merit of my career.”

Very different rivalries with Federer and Djokovic

If you believed in Roger Federer, nothing was as distasteful or as scary as the rise of Nadal. It was just so inevitable. In the middle and late 1980s, fans of the squash great Jahangir Khan must have felt the same queasiness when Jansher Khan arrived and beat him for the first time in September 1987. Jansher then beat a man – who had not lost a match in more than five and a half years until 1986 – eight times in succession.

Jahangir took squash to new places, both in his exploration on court and its many angles and its appeal to the world outside. Jansher was a contrast in many senses. His game in those earlier years was attritional: he just returned everything Jahangir hit at him. Beautiful as life might be, Jansher’s rise said, it must conclude in death.

Nadal, thankfully but also confusingly, for Federer fans, is not an idiot off the court. Unlike the Khans, Federer and he are friends, which is not necessarily good or bad as it is weird. But the nature of Nadal’s bettering of Federer on-court was, like Jansher’s dominance, ruthless.

Some matches, especially on clay, he made Federer look as much an anachronism in the modern, muscular world of tennis as Federer’s lighter-stepping style should always have made him look. That contrast heightened their bond: Nadal’s very physical, tightly coiled tension against Federer’s looser, freewheeling; Nadal the product of regime, Federer all individualised improv.

The duet with Federer is what has, in many ways, defined Nadal’s career, at least until very recently. But now, in this past year, as Federer fades, a new landscape can be descried. It is not strictly new; Nadal and Djokovic have been at each other for a long time now. They have played each other more times than Federer and Nadal (39 to 32); have more grand slam encounters (11-10) and a more competitive grand slam final record (3-3 as opposed to Nadal dominating Federer 6-2).

But the rivalry is not the same, let alone better, an acknowledgment implicit in Nadal’s response.

“The rivalry with Roger has been and is still an amazing rivalry that I believe helped both tennis and ourselves, making us better and more popular,” he said. “Novak is the one that has been playing more finals and therefore a new rivalry. We’ll see how things go. The matches are already there and have been for a while.”

It is not a ringing endorsement. It is, in fact, a little playing down, highlighting a quantitative rather than qualitative superiority. Could it be because his rivalry with Djokovic is still ongoing and Federer is more or less over, despite what Nadal says?

Djokovic will figure heavily, whether Nadal likes it or not, in the close of Nadal’s career. It may even define his winter as much as Federer defined his spring. That would be fitting because much more than Federer, the central theme of Nadal’s matches with Djokovic has been of endurance.

Nothing has wrought victory for either more than one simply out-enduring the other. Their best matches have been exhausting to watch: to play in, they seem to have resulted not just in a win or loss, but the acquisition for one of a little physical and spiritual piece of the other.

A rivalry with Juan Martin del Potro or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga might provide lighter relief.

Nadal can be two greats in one

Maybe he does not need a rival. Maybe by himself and what is within Nadal is enough. Fellow Spaniard and the former world No 1 Carlos Moya sees shades of one of tennis’ greatest rivalries within Nadal. “The secret of the tremendous appeal [Nadal] has worldwide,” Moya said in Rafa: My Story “is that you can see he is as passionate as [John] McEnroe was, but he has the self-control of [Bjorn] Borg, the cold-blooded killer. To be both in one is a contradiction, and that’s what Rafa is.”

If he combined the game of both, he would be the greatest ever, no argument brooked. But if it matters, the case is a compelling one. He says he does not think about Federer’s grand slam haul just yet, though he is, with 13, potentially if improbably, a year’s sweep away from equalling it.

“I have always said that only at the end of a career can you look at those things. My goal is to be healthy and ready to play and to have the chance to win tournaments, to compete to have a chance to win them. Seventeen grand slam titles are still far away.”

If it sometimes felt possible to question Nadal’s all-surface versatility, given that such a vast chunk of his majors had come on Roland Garros clay, 2013 has made those questions look increasingly churlish. The force generated by the scale of his achievement this year has blown away any residue of doubt.

He has a career grand slam. He has more French Opens than Borg. He is one behind McEnroe’s Wimbledon haul. He has multiple wins at Wimbledon and the US. There is no doubt, not to him, anyway. “I have been able to win other major titles.

“I have won the US Open twice, Wimbledon twice, and the Australian Open once, and have one Olympic gold medal. Considering that those are five grand slams, all in all I wouldn’t say that is something little. I don’t think I need reassure at this stage of my career with those wins.”

Now 27, normally you would think he still has two, maybe three good years in him. With Nadal and his muscular, fragile symphony, you cannot say. “I don’t have a set idea, but I know that as long that I am competitive and I can have the chance to win, and my body holds up, I will be playing at the highest competitive level.”

The choice, his uncle Toni told him, is between enduring and giving up. It was never a choice.