Rafael Nadal has entered the clay-court season intent on defending his French Open legacy. Yet it comes at a time when his career has run into questions, doubts and criticisms from fans and media.
Nadal is like a hero in an Ernest Hemingway novel who must battle through his physical pains and emotional fears in order to prove his worthiness one more time.
Hemingway, who loved outdoors adventure and sport, would have loved tennis had he watched Nadal.
In his classic novella, The Old Man and the Sea, an old fisherman is labeled as a has-been by his community. He has not caught a fish in 84 days, and must go out to sea one more time to test his own belief and manhood.
The following five slides examine Nadal's quest to capture one more French Open title and to silence his critics. Each frame is told through Hemingway's "code hero" formula as a parallel for measuring Nadal at this important time in his tennis career.
"Grace Under Pressure"
Nadal, like Hemingway's heroes, is a man of action. He has a bull fighter's mentality to dig in and fight back.
But now critics wonder if Nadal has lost his confidence and fight. Does he still have the machismo and mental strength to defeat his rival, Novak Djokovic?
At sea, Hemingway's old man hooks an enormous marlin. The second half of the novella recounts his determination to hold onto this prize catch, knowing it will be his last chance for glory.
Will Nadal be able to reel in one more French Open title to gain the renewed respect of the tennis world?
"A man who lives correctly, following the ideals of honor, courage and endurance in a world that is sometimes chaotic, often stressful, and always painful."
Nadal has always trusted his tennis game, win or lose. For the past seven years, he has had spectacular success with his routine strategy and physical endurance. It has always led to victory so long as he could execute his masterful strokes.
But even a tennis hero will have to face painful career changes, when his best may no longer be enough. Nadal must exhibit courage to overcome his own internal doubts.
In The Old Man and the Sea, the hero's quest to capture the marlin is steadied by simple routines in setting his equipment, talking to himself, and drawing strength from his past successes.
Nadal cannot control the critics, but he still has opportunities to win clay-court titles including the French Open. He will play by his own code.
"I hate a cramp, he thought. It is a treachery of one's own body."
Nadal, like all Hemingway heroes, has had to battle injury and physical trials. In 2003, he missed the French Open with an elbow injury, and a year later missed the clay-court season entirely with a stress fracture in his left ankle.
It was ominous foreboding for a man who has played with more physical gusto than perhaps any player in history.
He has suffered foot injuries, a shoulder problem and tendinitis in the knees. He places exaggerated strain on his ankles, and torques his wrist in hitting topspin.
As the old man tries to hold on to the marlin, his hand cramps badly. He suffers as he uses his entire strength to battle, hold on to the fish, and bring it to his boat.
Will Nadal likewise persevere once again through his physical trials as he battles the world's best tennis players?
"Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is."
Nadal has always proved his might on clay.
The old man knows that night will take day.
No tennis player can hold onto their prime for very long—peak condition will atrophy and someone younger and stronger will take his place.
But he will fight to hold onto his life's work, to bask in its warmth for one more hour, even as the sun must set and put to sleep his accomplishments.
The old man laments his physical decay, but stays awake all night to battle the marlin. If he can hold on, the sun will arise and allow him to haul in his fish and take it home.
Will fans and critics watch a determined Nadal fight for one more French Open title? Will hearing the cheers be enough to restore some of his championship luster?
"A man can be destroyed but not defeated."
One day Nadal will hang up his racket and watch his successors inherit what he helped to build. It's part of the cycle that gives as well as it gets.
Nadal may go down in defeat this spring, but it will not matter so long as he has the courage to play fearlessly. He can be defeated so long as he refuses to be destroyed.
The old man does catch the great marlin, but he is not able to enjoy the success and glory. Sharks circle about the boat feeding off the marlin (it is too large to fit in the boat) until there is nothing left.
Even if Nadal bites La Coupe des Mousquetaires to consummate the French Open title, how long will it be before the critics circle around his accomplishment and consume his glory, always ready for the next story?
It will not matter, so long as Nadal battles the way he knows that he must.