He used to be a muscular edifice of thoroughly grounded foundations. Both aspects were open for all to see.
One was amply bared by the limbless tees and the other by the amazing willingness to admit that he lost—when he lost—because the opponent played better than him on the given day.
And the muscle and mindset were thoroughly reinforced by nerves of steel—an almost unbelievable ability to channelise one's energies towards only one aim—fight. That and the openness to keep improving as player and person.
Probably, more than his game, his person will be what immortalises him in the minds of tennis fans. A role model for any young man who hunts for success.
But then something happened. Cracks appeared on the builiding's plastering, and the foundations appeared to shake a bit under the pressure of losses. The former was appreciable, the latter subtle.
And both these faults came into view in the French Open.
His physical injuries prompted quick action in the form of competitive inactivity.
The sag in the normally taut mental fibre came started taking part in match analyses.
"I returned very short; that's why he won. Of course he played a great match."
And by the end of the year, the process that could have been triggered as early as his loss to Juan Martin Del Potro in the beginning of the year in three tight sets reached some sort of completion and the result was there for all to see—a battered locomotive puffing on steam while the rest were playing electrifying tennis at him and around him.
The natural penetration on the top-spin forehand was missing, the ability to drive through for the winners in a rally was non-existent, and the smart construction of crucial points finishing them off at the nets was invisible.
His game which had taken the form of that of an offensive baseliner was becoming more passive, and the top spin that was supposed to assist him assisting his opponents instead.
How are things going to hit the positive curve again? How is the graph going to tilt up?
Of utmost importance is for Rafael to get his ruthless self back—that unparalleled ability to shut off the rest of the world when playing the game, and be in symphony with the racquet, the ball, the net, and the lines.
It is said that he has had familial issues.
Then of course the inability to defend his French Open title, which he could have taken for granted, and an inability to play his favourite Grand Slam tournament all could have added to that.
But such debilitating things have a shelf-life. And a break from competition and the feeling of a fresh start that the new year brings could very well erase the crude lines drawn by these mischievous (to say the least) events.
Three weeks of non-competition has only seen him practice and not lie down and take rest.
It could be said that the injury in the earlier part of the season has been taken to full advantage by him by practising during the end-season. It is as if he just had a different schedule for his vacation.
Surely three weeks of non-competitive training do not compare with two months of absolutely nothing. But with added belief, it could very well help him re-calibrate his strokes better than what we saw during the World Tour Finals.
At least he could try things without the fear of losing.
He needs a strong initial dose of momentum.
A part of this has already been provided by the Davis Cup finals, where one could see that Nadal was bent on pulverizing his opponent in the first rubber, Berdych (tall, flat hitter), with winners all over the court. It could be pointed out that all of those came on clay, but then the feeling one gets from winning sometimes is incognitant of the surface type.
That said, he needs a couple of good victories on the hardcourts as well.
At the time this is written, he already has recorded a victory against Ferrer in the season-inaugural exhibition event at Abu Dhabi in straight sets, and meets Robin Soderling next (who shocked Roger Federer this time).
A victory against Le Sod would do be like a couple against Andy Murray, say.
In any case, it is not at all possible to write off Rafael Nadal—writing him off would not even rank anywhere close to the most erratic weather forecast.
It was pretty unfortunate that he had to take a sabbatical while he was retooling his game. But at the time he started waning, he had all the gifts to beat all the top players.
And given his incomparable attitude to accept, move on, and improve, and the ability to learn so fast, he could well be back on track in a month or two.
It would only help that the Australian Open is held on the slower Plexicushion which allows for more setup time on the returning strokes. Nadal having a game which is built up from a clay-court game would definitely be more at home here than at the US Open which uses the faster Deco Turf.
Indeed a lot depends on how his preparation for the first Grand Slam tournament of the year goes.
A good mix of victories would surely help—conclusive victories would build confidence in his game, and clutch wins would reassure him of his mind and knees.
Nadal could realistically hope to be able to defend a descend proportion of his points in the first quarter of the season. However he has proved even his optimistic fans pessimistic in the past, like last year when he did not really shine before the Australian Open, but nevertheless went on to win it.
While he has a lot of points to defend the summer down under, he has a lot of points to gain the summer in the northern hemisphere. French Open should again be his forte if he remains healthy. And in Wimbledon probably he will only need to worry about Federer, with no other player, Andy Roddick excepted, having a game to rival these two on grass.
But the season end always brings Rafael to his knees.
The French Open was denied to magical Federer for over half a decade. And this in spite of the fact that he has been the second best clay courter all these years.
The US Open to Nadal seems a bit more knotty than French Open has been to Federer.
There are a bit more than one player better than Nadal currently on fast asphalt. But while Federer showed no signs of improvements against that one opponent who was better than him on that surface, Nadal has improved by leaps and bounds against his competition on hard compared to what he was when he was moulding enchanting success stories with clay.
While it is indeed important for him to pick up the broken pieces right now, Nadal will surely have a special place in mind for the missing trophy.
Here's to a great season for Rafa.