By Jay Young
I can remember hearing some tennis announcers comment early on in Rafael Nadal's career. It usually went something like this: "Man, this guy is really hard on his body."
Rafael Nadal’s physical game has often left him injured, but it has also made him great.
Watching Rafa in those early years sprint from baseline to net and back again with reckless abandon while firing wild top-spin forehands, it was only a matter of time before injuries came into play.
As a result, it was no surprise when Rafa was forced to withdrawal from the U.S. Open with a wrist injury that had plagued him throughout the year.
We are reaching a point in Nadal's career, as he sits just three major titles behind his foil Roger Federer, where people will begin to ask the question, ''What if?''
What would have become of Rafa if he did not miss so much time with nagging injuries?
Still only 28 years old, the Spaniard has 14 majors under his belt, the same as Pete Sampras. Since his first major championship in 2003, Nadal has missed a chance to play in seven Big Four tournaments due to injury.
On the flip side of the coin, you have Federer, who not only refuses to look tired while playing five sets, but has seldom ever been injured and is now closing in on his 60th consecutive major.
Rafa's bold style of play has caused recurring knee injuries since he was barely 20, while back, foot and, most recently, wrist problems have also caused withdrawals.
And yet despite all of this, he still remains as one of the two best players in the history of the game.
The recent parallel that springs to mind is Heisman winner Robert Griffin III, who entered the NFL under a lot of scrutiny for his physical style of play.
Now in his third season playing professional football, it seems as though Griffin just does not know how to play the game any other way, as evidenced by his recent pummeling in a preseason game.
The same can be said for Rafa, who has chosen "El Toro", the bull, as his personal symbol for a reason.
See NADAL, Page B2
From Page B1
Nadal has laid claim to 64 career singles titles because his is a ferocious opponent. He is the bull to Federer's elegant matador. There are certain athletes who just play the game their own way, whether that means gracefully or clumsily or angrily.
You only have to watch Nadal step onto the court before a match to find out what kind of a player he is. No matter the occasion, Rafa sprints out of the tunnel like banshee, bobbing and jumping around like a title fighter ready to pummel his opponent. It is really a fitting entrance for a player who leaves everything out on the line, including his body.
For sportswriters and tennis fans, it is easy to say that Nadal's career would be different if he played a little bit softer, if he let up on a few points to save his knees for a few more years.
But that is a silly idea to ponder. You are talking about changing the character and the attitude of a player so that his career could be extended by a few years.
If Nadal didn't play every point like his heart was going to explode, yelling and crashing around the court, he wouldn't have 14 majors to begin with.
I'm not sure if the questions about injury would even arise if it were not for the longstanding rivalry with Federer, whose game is so conducive to longevity that he rarely even sweats.
It's not that Rafa's game cannot change, and has not changed for the better over the course of his career. The player that Nadal has become is far smarter, more versatile and sustainable one than the one of six years ago.
But Rafa will always play the type of game that bangs up his knees, ankles, wrists and back. He'll always dive even when he can't make a shot, and torque his arm a few extra degrees to try and blast a passing shot cross-court.
It is what makes him such an exciting player to watch, it is what makes him so great.