As Rafael Nadal, with his hands covering his mouth, started to slowly tear up while Roger Federer gave his last interview as a professional tennis player at the Laver Cup in September 2022, the internet exploded, but some tweets hinting at Nadal's retirement left a bitter aftertaste.
The retirement buzz got incessant after his long-time rival and friend’s grand farewell to the sport, with headlines shouting, ‘Nadal may have dropped a hint’ and ‘shocking retirement admission’. It felt as if there was a bated breath wait for the Spanish tennis champion to say his goodbyes. At a recent press conference, ahead of his participation in the Australian Open which begins on January 16, the usually patient Nadal gave a stern response. “Don't keep going (on) with the retirement, because I'm here to keep playing tennis.” He said it with a light smile, but his voice couldn’t hide the tiredness of it all.
Questions about retirement have been quick to follow Nadal’s injuries. As his physical battles became more evident, the more frequent the questions became.
In 2014, when Nadal played against Stan Wawrinka in the Australian Open finals, it was a particularly painful match for Nadal to play and for the fans to watch. The familiar force that he wields on court was missing as Nadal struggled to put enough power into his forehand shots or run across the court to answer Wawrinka’s strong serve and volley plays.
At one point, between sets, he buried his head in his towel, shoulder sinking, almost mimicking the fans' reactions worldwide. It was one of the matches where the extent of injuries were clearly visible to the world. Wawrinka’s first major title, an unexpected and much-deserved win, should have dominated the headlines, but it was overshadowed by the question: How long can Nadal continue? The end was near, many speculated.
Eight years later, in 2022, there was another unexpected win at the Australian Open finals. Nadal had won his 21st Grand Slam.
Fresh from this win, Nadal entered the Indian Wells Masters as the hot favourite. In the finals, Taylor Fritz halted his 20-match winning streak and the dream of a record-equaling 37th Masters title. To no one’s surprise, the retirement speculations gained momentum again. A few months later, Nadal went on to create history with his Roland Garros win, becoming the first male player to win 22 Grand Slams.
That’s the thing about Nadal: writing him off before he puts the racquet down has rarely been a good idea.
Although playing with pain is not a role model behaviour that we would necessarily pass on, the love and respect that Nadal has showed for tennis since he entered his first ATP final as a 17-year-old shy boy, smiling awkwardly during press conferences, and bursting into easy laughs, has made him who he is today: a resilient player fighting to play the sport he has loved since he was three years old.
In his interview after the 2014 loss to Wawrinka, an emotional Nadal apologetically said, “I tried very, very hard.” In 2022, after the Indian Wells loss, he reiterated the same sentiment: “I had a good fight to the end I think, and I am happy about that."
Nadal has entered the 2023 Australian Open at Melbourne, Australia, with the promise to do what he does best: try. It's time the world lets him.
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