Rafael Nadal’s first-round loss at Wimbledon wasn’t overly surprising, but it quashed much of the tournament's anticipation. Before tennis fans could even settle in, Nadal was already packing his bags, waving at the crowd and telling the media that it was not a tragedy. It’s like finding out your tickets to the opera are really for a B movie.
We’ve seen this before from Nadal, but we never see it coming. We think we know him, but we don’t. There are discernible themes to his career, but his timing can be unpredictable.
In about a two-week span, he reached another pinnacle with an eighth French Open title, persevering through the hot Paris sun and a supreme semifinal test of Survivor, only to show up at the fresh, green lawns at Wimbledon and take a beating from an older journeyman.
What next? Is he hurt? Will he show up to play the North American hard-court tour? Will he hide out in a dark cave for more Jedi meditation and emerge with a reinvented backhand and serve? Can he recapture his championship glory in the face of another setback?
For all of Nadal’s astonishing talent, Grand Slam success and clay-court wizardry, he is always in the process of another comeback. The past four years has been a cycle similar to the mythical phoenix:
- He rides a hot streak to epic success.
- A single match produces an inexplicable crash and burn.
- Media grasps for information about Nadal's injuries and other theories.
- After a lengthy absence, he recommences the cycle.
Right now, Nadal is in stage three, and we wonder about the length or brevity to stage four. This is both the appeal and frustration for tennis fans who follow Nadal.
Love him or hate him, everyone takes a side. If he’s not polarizing, he is a paradox. He may fly back to his sanctuary in Mallorca to escape media and fame, but still become the biggest headline in tennis.
He is a contradiction. He may shun attention and insist that he does not want to talk about his injured knee, but there it is, heavily wrapped and the prime subject in the match against Steve Darcis.
There is no blame for this either, even if it's the elephant in the room. Nobody really has any idea to what extent the knee was injured, yet it's part of his career baggage.
He will not be ignored. Modest and humble in interviews, he nevertheless creates much of his image with Nike headbands, tight shirts on bulging muscles, shadowboxing, fist pumps, scissor kicks and frosty sneers.
He is the ultimate fighter on the tennis court, but many despise his ritualistic habits and stoic manners. He has the audacity to intimidate his opponents through sheer will. There is nobody who would not bet on Nadal if he were placed in a steel-cage death fight with the more hulking Tomas Berdych.
Soap Opera Drama
He is unlike his other great rivals. Roger Federer is the shot-making artist who plays tennis with imagination and beauty. He can shed empathetic tears for the joy of winning or pain of losing. Above all, he is consistent with his greatness and everyman charisma.
Novak Djokovic is an engaging and genuine personality, but someone who turns into a tennis cyborg with his overpowering and perfectly lethal groundstrokes. He is the definition of relentless and hard-driven pursuit, the outer-planetary Star Trek Borg against whom resistance is futile.
Andy Murray is the scruffy sidekick who does everything with his intensity bubbling over a little too much. He borders on greatness, but is still turning pages to find where his star will land.
But Nadal still borders on mystery even if he is the central figure to this Golden Age of tennis. He is compelling, great champion. Has he won his final Grand Slam title? Will he win six more? We just don’t know.
It’s like tuning in to an ongoing soap opera. He’s an open-ended narrative with episodes where he will dominate the scenes or disappear. He is the lead or might not appear at all. As soon as one episode ends, we have about three other storylines that may or may not relate to what just happened.
As always, there is turbulence around Nadal. Emotional and career conflicts seem to hover in his sky like swelling rain clouds. If things were calm and easy, he would cease to be Rafa the fighter.
Will he show up at Toronto, Cincinnati and the U.S. Open? He’s like an elder Elvis Presley, a larger-than-life rock star playing to invigorating fan reception. His career has changed him physically, but added more economy to his movements. He senses when to peak or when to drop the microphone.
Rest assured, there will be more Nadal moments and images. We never see him performing anything halfway, whether winning, losing or not showing up. He will dig in when all seems lost and hit a running banana-curve forehand up the line.
Rarely does Nadal's narrative project the details of his next performance. It’s pointless to wonder if losing in the first round at Wimbledon will have any meaning for his chances at the U.S. Open.
What are Nadal's chances he will bounce back and win the U.S. Open? It's anybody's guess.
When it comes to Rafa, expect the unconventional route to more success.
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