Politician Dolores Ibarruri once passionately expressed that it is "better to die on one's feet than to live on one's knees."
Unfortunately for Rafael Nadal, the unwavering desire to live on his feet has caused him to die on his knees.
The amount of energy and commitment Nadal injects into his game is unprecedented. The warrior-like mentality that Nadal brings to virtually every single point can truly be regarded as special. He can be compared to a greedy child; one who is absolutely resolute on not giving up anything.
All tennis players seek to win as much as possible—this is obvious. But Nadal takes this inherent fervor to an unfamiliar level for players and fans alike.
This unyielding propensity to crave winning as if winning were food or water has carried Nadal to 10 Grand Slams, the world No. 1 ranking, several Davis Cups and a plethora of other commendable achievements.
But this superior trait acts as a double-edged sword. The physical and mental reserves needed to pull off these tremendous and seemingly inhuman efforts have taken their toll on the Spaniard's knee over the years.
According to Healthpages.org, "our knee is the most complicated and largest joint in our body. It’s also the most vulnerable because it bears enormous weight and pressure loads while providing flexible movement."
It goes on to describe that the knee is one of the parts of the body that "work together and depend on each other for function and movement."
As an athlete in a sport where movement is of the essence, any hindrance of mobility is difficult to sustain.
Let's take a look at several instances in which knee problems have resulted in Nadal's consequential exit from an event:
1. 2012 Miami Sony Ericsson Open (Semifinal vs. Murray)—retired before the match
2. 2010 Australian Open (Quarterfinal vs. Murray)—retired in the third set
3. 2009 Wimbledon—skipped the entire tournament due to knee issues
Now how does all this affect Nadal mentally?
On the court, I would say very little. Despite the knee problems, Nadal's style and execution of play has really not deviated over the years. He is and has always been the same tenacious fighter that we have come to expect.
Nadal has attested to this idea, stating "I try my best in every moment with pain, without pain, but when I see the situation is done and I cannot, I cannot."
Off the court might be a different story. Nadal's recurring knee struggles have probably induced uncertainty regarding the implications these knee issues hold for the rest of his career.
How long will I be able to last? When will I have to withdraw from another major event again? Can I keep playing the same way and expect to have the same results?
All of these questions unquestionably have swirled around the minds of Nadal and his loyal fans.
As far as answers go, they aren't simple.
Nadal believes that his knees are getting better, having told reporters after withdrawing against Murray in Miami: “Seriously the tendons are much better today than three years ago."
So while Nadal believes his knees are improving, the Miami incident seems to contradict this thought.
I think the ultimate answer will come from Nadal's strategy on the court. If the goal for the Spaniard is longevity, then I personally believe a possible (not certain) solution will come from a decision to amp up his level of aggression.
An amendment of strategy could take the shape of looking to increase the rate at which he attempts to become the aggressor and contract the length of rallies rather than maintaining a defensive, grind-based mindset, most notably on clay.
This is moderately similar to the strategy many players suffering from unsustainable fatigue or exhaustion will employ. They will seek to shorten points by heightening their level of aggression as to negate the effects of their liability as much as possible.
Rafael Nadal is one of the greatest sportsmen in the world, but "The Bull" is in danger of experiencing a draconian decline if his knees continue to serve as a further impediment on his career.
***I would recommend anyone who seeks a more medical explanation of Nadal's knee issue to read this article***