Rafael Nadal lives up to Ultimate Warrior image at Rio Olympics

Ahmed Rizvi writes that if Rafael Nadal 'does go on and add to his collection of 14 majors' his determined Rio Olympics run 'will be mentioned as the turning point'.

Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts during his match against Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina in the 2016 Rio Olympics tennis semi-final. Toby Melville / Reuters / August 13, 2016
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Earlier this year, American tennis star John Isner, a self-confessed "die-hard fan" of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), attempted to draw "some parallels between the two worlds" he knows best, "the ATP World Tour and the WWE", in a tribute to WrestleMania on The Players' Tribune website.

Roger Federer, he wrote, was "our Shawn Michaels" and Novak Djokovic was Brett "The Hitman" Hart of tennis. Andy Murray was the British Bulldog and Nick Kyrgios the "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.

And Rafael Nadal? He is the Ultimate Warrior, of course.

“That raw, intense, one-of-a-kind energy,” Isner wrote. “Both won championships, and both packed stadiums.”

More Olympic tennis

• Final: Juan Martin del Potro knocks out Nadal in an epic, will meet Andy Murray

• In pictures: Rafael Nadal shows off fitness with singles-doubles same-day double-header

So true. The tennis stadium in Rio for Nadal’s men singles semi-final clash against Juan Martin del Potro on Saturday was the perfect example of what Isner meant.

There was mayhem in the stands, especially towards the end of the third set when Del Potro served for the match after breaking for 5-4.

Nadal, the ultimate warrior, broke back to level and then raised the roof with a fist-pumping celebration routine that would not have looked out of place in a WWE ring.

In the next game, Nadal fought back from love-40 to hold serve, but eventually lost the match by two points in the tie-break.

Nadal, who had won the doubles gold with Marc Lopez for Spain on Friday, had few regrets however.

“Until 25 days ago I did not practice, I was at home, could not hit forehand,” Nadal said earlier in the week.

There were rumours that he might opt out, but there is a reason why Isner described him as the Ultimate Warrior of tennis.

For years, he has been putting his limbs on the line – “writing cheques that his body can’t cash,” as Andre Agassi once said – and this time, there was an added incentive: the honour of carrying the Spanish flag at the opening ceremony.

“Being chosen as flag-bearer helped me to take this decision,” Nadal said. “I did not want to give up on carrying the flag.”

Bestowed the honour, Nadal has surely made his nation proud, spending six minutes short of 20 hours on the court this past week, playing 10 matches across seven days, including two each on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, to win one of Spain’s three gold medals until now.

He could add a bronze as well if he defeats Kei Nishikori later Sunday night.

“What he is putting his body through this week is a testament of how much he cares,” James Blake, a former American tennis player, marvelled on NBC. “If I am a Spanish athlete, I would be so proud to have him as a flag bearer.”

Nadal was scheduled to play a third match on Thursday, in the mixed doubles alongside Garbine Muguruza, but the doctors managed to convince him to withdraw.

A wise decision, for three matches a day would have been an overload.

Even two matches a day must have been tough, but Nadal was definitely not complaining after his semi-final loss. Instead, he was counting the positives.

Nadal’s wrist was not “100 per cent” at the start of the week, but he did not look in any discomfort as he battled through the crazy schedule.

There were no signs of rust either, even though he had not played since withdrawing from the French Open, hours before his third round match in late May.

Most importantly, there was no sign of the anxiety that has plagued Nadal since the start of 2015 and that should be a good omen for the rest of the season.

Roger Federer is away until January to heal his body and Novak Djokovic has been looking fallible in recent times.

This, then, is an opportunity for Nadal to put himself back in the conversation for the big titles and if he does go on to add to his collection of 14 majors, then the Rio Olympics will be mentioned as the turning point in the footnotes.


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