This isn't the way it's supposed to end, is it? When we discuss sport, the word we often reach for is "heart." Less to describe the physical muscle that keeps a player upright and functioning than the concept of the heart as the athlete's storage place for "fight." The central point in the athlete's body where the will to compete pulses, rises, falls and ultimately leads the way to his or her fate as a champion or an also-ran. While we could never deny the impact of the figurative heart on the sporting landscape, days like yesterday remind us that there is far more than the heart at play.
Sport is ultimately the province of the body. The will to compete, to win, strong though it may be, is subject to being subsumed by fatigue, aches and pains that eventually neither the heart, nor the "heart" can overcome. We were reminded of such yesterday when with just a week to go until the opening of the planet's greatest athletic spectacle, the Olympic games, one of its biggest stars, and defending gold medalists, Rafael Nadal, lost by walkover to his body. Nadal was forced to admit he was "not in condition" to compete for Spain at the Games, nor would he physically carry the Spanish flag that he's planted in every corner of the tennis world. As regarded for his physique, as he is for his "heart," we suspect the decision was not taken lightly.
Nadal's body, which laid him low this week, has always formed the dark undercurrent of the his otherwise transcendant narrative. Where his heart has played a major role in elevating his tennis resume that day-and-date today would rank him easily among the top handful of players to ever pick up a racquet, his body always lies in wait to pull him back from those heights.
In 2004, before the legend of Nadal was writ, he missed what would have been his first Roland Garros with a stress fracture in his foot that threatened to end his career before it truly began. In 2009, riding high as the World No. 1 for the first time, having claimed his first Wimbledon and Australian Open titles, plus Olympic gold in the months prior, the knee tendonitis that had surfaced the prior fall worsened. The then 4-time defending French Open champion lost a shock fourth round match to Robin Soderling, then was forced to skip the defense of his Wimbledon crown due to the same injury. Upon his return, his bid for the US Open would be marred by a "broken" (torn) abdominal muscle. Nadal went 11 months without a title, but his 2010 would show the triumph of coeur (heart) over corps (body). Winning back "his" Roland Garros title, claiming a second triumph at the Wimbledon and earning the US Open trophy that many esteemed commentators swore he could only acquire on eBay.
Just as in 2009, Nadal was on top of the tennis world as 2011 crested. Playing for a "Rafa Slam" and a second Australian Open title, the Man from Mallorca was masterful in the early rounds. Then early in his quarterfinal against David Ferrer he injured his hamstring. Ferrer's routine 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 victory only looks hollow understanding his compatriot at the time held an 11-3 record over him. The reality is, that's sports. The athlete who brings it all together, the heart, the mind, the body is the one who emerges the victor. When Nadal's body failed, Ferrer, one of the most underappreciated men in the sport, was able to triumph.
Yesterday's news only makes the following 12 months look even more disappointing. Not just the physical issues in Australia, but the 7-match skid during which the Spaniard lost three major finals to Novak Djokovic, a man whom until last year, he was 5-0 against in Grand Slam events. We are loathe to quote from the "Book of If," but indulge us for a second, if Nadal continues his streak against Djokovic in majors last year, his 2012 Roland Garros title this year would have lined him up alongside Pete Sampras with 14 major titles each. But if doesn't exist, there is only what is.
What is today is a sidelined Nadal, yet again. After the 2011 Australian Open, we wondered aloud whether Nadal, who has frankly accomplished pretty much everything there is to accomplish in the sport, short of breaking some longevity-influenced records that Roger Federer is currently extending, would continue to put himself through this. We wondered whether having won as much as he's won, how many times he'd have the heart to go through the rehab process, grind his way back to the tour, suffer some dispiriting losses as his body finds equilibrium again and ultimately reassert himself among the game's elite.
Missing the Olympics for Nadal is a blow. Whereas some players commit to Davis and Fed Cup sparingly, Nadal has played and raised the Cup three times for Spain. He won the 2008 Olympics on his least favorite hardcourt surface for Spain and days after a shock loss at Wimbledon to Lukas Rosol, Nadal's mental therapy found him in Kiev cheering on his countrymen in the Euro 2012 final, watching them win as the Spanish footballers often found themselves watching him win. He hasn't fled Spain for the Monaco tax shelter, even though he certainly earns enough in the principality to buy a flat there if he so chose. He plays because he loves the competition, but he also plays because he loves Spain and the country loves him back.
Lost amid the incessant hullaboo around Madrid's blue clay was the rock star reaction the 26-year old Mallorcan received coming onto the court at the Caja Magica for his first match. Everyone seated in the upper decks seemed to come down to the concourse railing, getting as close as they could to their idol, snapping pictures furiously, chanting "Rafa, Rafa." We've never seen anything like it, not for Jeter at Yankee Stadium, not during Linsanity at Madison Square Garden, certainly not for Agassi (or anyone) at Flushing Meadows.
The fact that Nadal won't have another good chance at the Games, he'll 30 next time, also must weigh on his mind. Unlike his preternaturally healthy career rival, Federer, the odds of Nadal being physically able to play his best tennis at and around age 30 seem slim. For now, the body is louder than the heart. For the sake of the game, we hope that Nadal's heart amps up the volume again. We're sure that some won't miss his butt-picking, slow play, trophy biting, Federer-beating, but let's all be honest for a second. If you've ever seen a player on court who consistently played with more "heart" than Nadal, raise your hands. I suspect precious few have moved a muscle.