AO2011 article

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01/26/2011 - 7:45 AM

In his pre-tournament press conference last Saturday, Rafael Nadal said that it was “almost impossible” to win four straight Grand Slams. He said this even though he came to Melbourne as the owner of three of those Slams. It turned out that he was more than right. For the 42nd consecutive year, it was impossible for a man to pull it off.

Another thing we know is that Australia Day is not Rafa’s Day. Last year he lost under the fireworks here to Andy Murray. This time it was to David Ferrer. Both times Nadal was hampered by an injury. Ferrer was impressive, no doubt about it, but this result is nothing but a bummer. We keep coming up short. A Federer-Nadal final seemed to be a sure thing at the U.S. Open. Didn’t happen. A semifinal lineup of the Big 4 seemed to be a foregone conclusion when the evening session began today. Foiled again. The sense of deflation won’t go away soon. It may last through the rest of the tournament. There’s a hole in it now.

We’ve heard for years that Nadal’s physical style will make his career a short one. There’s been no evidence of that yet. But it has led to injuries at inopportune moments. In the two majors before his loss to Murray here last year, he pulled out of Wimbledon and was shredded by Juan Martin del Potro when he had an abdominal tear. Nadal may not pay as much as we think for his style in the long run, but it has already cost him. In this way he is the opposite of his rival Roger Federer in one more way. Nadal is the fragile one, the human one, the one who pushes too far, the one you watch anxiously, waiting for the worst. It can happen any time.

“That’s part of the sport,” Nadal said as he stared at his thumbs afterward, his red jacket zipped up around his neck. He tried to avoid talking about his injury, and never named it. He said he was tired of losing when he had a “problem,” and didn’t want to seem like he was making an excuse. Most of the time, Nadal looked down absently. But there was one moment when his eyes became fixed. He was thinking. It looked to me as if the defeat, the disappointment, was registering.

“If I can accept both the high moments and the low moments,” he said, “then I can play my best again.”

High moments and low moments. You have to accept the latter in order to savor the former.

High moments and low moments: Isn’t that what Nadal gives us, too? More than any other legendary athlete I can think of, even as he’s winning, he holds out the possibility of disaster. He plays matches on razor’s edges and always seems one lunge away from his next injury. With every mad scramble across the court, he seems to be taking a day off of his career.

The flipside is that while Nadal knows that disaster is possible, hope is as well—not just excellence, but hope, which is deeper. When he won the French Open in 2006, he thought back to that January, when he had been forced to pull out of the Australian Open. Because of that, it became the French title that meant the most to him. Nadal runs the gamut of emotions; for better and worse, we run them with him. We, or at least, I, run that same gamut every day of my life anyway. Nadal is not an athlete I look to for perfection, for something above the normal run of humanity, the way you might look to Federer. I look to Nadal for the human, for the striving, for the victory that’s tinged with the possibility of defeat every step, lunge, and swing of the way. There's a reason he can win three straight Slams and yet still say that winning four straight can't be done. That's just life.

High moments and low moments: One can't mean anything without the other.

Nadal knows this, and those of us who write about and follow him understand it better because of him.

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