Everyone loves a good comeback story, but perhaps none should be as celebrated as Rafael Nadal’s long journey back to the top.
The beauty of sports is that it has a unique ability of transcending the highs and lows of everyday life. Time can feel suspended in the face of such heart-stopping thrills like David Tyree’s miraculous helmet-catch or Joe Carter’s walk-off three-run blast to clinch the Toronto Blue Jays their second consecutive World Series title. Do not let the gauged ticket prices, the occasional ill-advised ownership decision bereft of ethics or the over-saturation of media coverage twist your logic. Sports, despite all of the dollar signs attached to it, is first and foremost an escape.
And it is because of that time-freezing aspect of sports that we often overlook the harsh consequences of such a reality where after years of being pushed past their usual limits bodies break down and careers can be irreversibly altered or prematurely ended. The fans mourn but eventually move on, as there is always a new wave of talent ready to fill the void. Time goes on. Even the super athletes are not immune. Father Time, unsympathetic to the subtle charms of sports, always finds a way to collect. Eventually, even icons cease being bigger than the game, because sooner or later the hardships of life find a way to morph into our sacred sanctuary of sports and bring us all back to earth.
Few athletes possess the dedication, prowess and will necessary to find their way back atop the apex of their respective sport after enduring such adversity. Those who do comprise a beloved group of comeback kids who regain that unique ability to transcend the game just when it appeared to be passing them by in the rear view mirror. The comeback is a timeless classic that has beguiled and shocked since a down-and-out Napoleon emerged from the depths of obscurity on the island of Elba and reclaimed his power. There have been many great comebacks, but perhaps none more impressive as that of the Man from Mejorca, Rafael Nadal.
The 2017 Men’s U.S. Open included a field that would make the casual tennis fan groan and promptly change the channel with the absence of household names Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Add the withdrawals of multi Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka and top 10 stalwarts Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori and you would expect to have a tepid audience who may very well bypass what was ultimately two weeks of thrilling tennis with a perfect blend of star-making performances and nostalgia. On paper, the only redeemable feature of a ravaged men’s draw was the never before seen Arthur Ashe dream match-up between Nadal and Roger Federer.
The potential semifinal showdown was made all the more compelling by the duo’s recent discovery of the Fountain of the Youth. The year’s two top players, something that arguably has not been true for latter part of this decade, facing off in another classic clash, but this time under the bright lights of Flushing, New York. What more can any fan want? But in the words of Mick Jagger “You can’t always get what you want…..But if you try sometime you find you get what you need.” And boy did America need to see an in-form Nadal mow through competition of all sizes and skill set on route to claiming his 16th major title and his second of the year.
While a Nadal-Federer clash should be relished now more than ever, it is important to remember that these are two icons who need not be perennially dependent on their historic rivalry to be recognized as stand-alone all-time greats. They will forever be linked, but this was Nadal’s tournament. He finished what he started at the French Open with another dominant big-stage showing as he looked like his old self. His routine dismantling of South African big man Kevin Anderson was the culmination of a long trek back up the mountain top, one many people including myself thought was unfathomable. In fact, I even wrote as much in the first article I had published here at SQ.
Nadal’s tendency for inopportune injuries, inconsistent play and his physically relentless style of play all seemed to whittle the all-time great into a shell of his former shelf. Rarely, does an athlete embattled with such adversity manage to sustain success for much longer. That is most true in tennis. Seizing the moment is everything because when it passes you by there is no guarantee it is going to swing back around again. It is a cruel game, made more perilous when you’re past the age of 30. There have been many unexpected revivals before, some of which we’ll get to, but the history as well as the optics all indicated that Nadal’s days as a torchbearer for the sport were numbered and possibly behind him.
While his showing in the French Open speaks for itself (he dd not drop a set), people will be hesitant to accept his dominance at the U.S. Open as he faced a gauntlet of competitors that did not include a player ranked inside the top 20 in a tournament bereft of star power. Nadal can only play the cards he is dealt, and he did that masterfully. He stayed healthy, overcame sluggish starts and got a 6-foot-6 lovable monkey off his back in the form of 2009 U.S Open Champion Juan Martin Del Potro, whose merciless straight-set thrashing of the Spaniard is now but a faint memory that this writer now doubts even happened in the first place. Nadal’s rebirth is exactly the type of thing that freezes time.
Nadal’s rise was a meteoric one that quickly foreshadowed his impending place on the Mount Rushmore of tennis. Nadal was tapped to be one of the future faces of the sport and he quickly proved the hype was real, and in fact a little undersold. He came within one win of making it to the second week of Wimbledon at just 17 years old. The Grand Slams followed a couples years later, and on the strength of superb court coverage, an all time-great forehand and a one of a kind aggressive style of play that leaves opponents in a heap of exhaustion, he soon established himself as Federer’s biggest roadblock to achieving complete domination.
Rafa evolved from a clay court specialist who has amassed 10 titles each at Roland-Garros, Monte Carlo and Barcelona to a complete player who became the youngest man ever to earn the career Grand Slam at the age of 24 when he won the 2010 U.S. Open. Nadal had become “the guy,” as Federer continued to struggle against his friendly foe. Even in the midst of one of the most top-heavy eras in tennis (Djokovic rose to No. 1 in 2011) Nadal looked poised to remain in contention for major titles for several years to come.
And then the chinks in the armor began to show. Despite his seemingly endless reservoir of energy, his body began to falter and his air of invincibility gradually faded. His 2012 Wimbledon defeat at the hands of No. 100 Lukas Rosol was not the stunning fluke it appeared to be at the time but rather a precursor of the grueling pitfalls he would have to endure the next few years. The historic upset was compounded by a knee injury that kept him out of tennis the rest of the year. A stomach virus forced him to no-show the Aussie Open, and suddenly he was out of the top five. When in doubt go to Paris and that is exactly where Nadal went to regain his form when he won the 2013 French Open. Rafa then shook off an even bigger upset at Wimby in Steve Darcis before winning the U.S. Open to regain his No. 1 world ranking. The comeback was complete.
The damage, however, had been done. He could never quite seem to sustain good health or consistent play for an extend period of time after his up-and-down year. He incurred a back injury in the 2013 Aussie Open final that left him severely limited against eventual champion Stan Wawrinka, who failed to win a set against Nadal in 12 meetings. He battled back just like the previous year, and once again claimed the French, but also in keeping with his bad case of deja vu he fell to an unknown challenger in Nick Kyrgios and succumbed to a wrist injury that forced him to miss his second-straight U.S. Open.
Nadal’s inconsistency spiraled into a series of devastating losses-Dustin Brown in the 2015 Wimbledon, Fabio Fognini in an after-hours thriller in Flushing, an aging Fernando Verdasco in Australia and Lucas Pouille in the 2016 U.S. Open. Sandwiched in between were more injuries and a visible dip in skill and endurance as matches progressed. Nadal could no longer find solace on his beloved clay, as Djokovic pummeled him in straight sets.
Nadal handled the seemingly never-ending nightmare with the utmost class. He did not berate umpires or flip out on a reporter when things appeared most bleak. What he did was adapt. He sought the advice of Carlos Moya who joined Nadal’s coaching team and quickly took on a active role in match preparation, something people thought he overdid based on his notoriously grueling practice sessions with his coach Uncle Toni (Nadal). Fast forward to this moment and Nadal is on his way to wrapping up a year in which he did not withdraw from any major tournaments due to injury, appeared in three Slam finals, won two and returned to world No. 1. That is not a comeback. That is Benjamin Button.
Rafa’s run in 2017 is befitting of every tired sports cliche known to man. It truly is incredible, and should be given strong consideration for the greatest resurgence in sports history.
I could already see the eyes roll and the lips beginning to purse, but give some more thought about the obvious comeback stories that are burning a hole in your brain right now. Sure, there have been returns that have evoked more emotion, carried more weight and entailed a level of courage that goes beyond the game. It is important, however, to not allow oneself to get lost in the narrative.
Nadal did not get diagnosed with a deadly disease or get attacked during a match, but the prowess he exhibited on his way back to resuming a reign of dominance that was already four years removed cannot be overlooked. The criteria then does not focus solely on the coming back aspect but rather more on the ability to regain top form and sustain it for an extended period of time. Nadal represents the perfect combination of overcoming his struggles and displaying skill so reminiscent of his old self that the decline seems incomprehensible.
Peyton Manning boasts perhaps the most improbable comeback of all. The man returned from multiple neck surgeries neck surgery, an injury far more severe than any Nadal had to contend with, and found a new home with the Denver Broncos where he went on to enjoy a few more seasons as an elite quarterback that saw him break nearly every passing record, win his fifth MVP award and go to a couple more Super Bowls. He even got to ride into the sunset as a champion a la John Elway.
Manning, however, had the luxury of leaning on his teammates given the co-dependent nature of football which is always a far smoother transition than the solitude a tennis player deals with while on the court. Manning needed tremendous grit and determination to overcome a grim diagnosis, but Nadal had to do similar without 10 guys to lean on and another 11 to occasionally bail him out. During the course of a match, Nadal had only his racket, quick feet, and a million idiosyncrasies and superstitions to will himself past the guy on the other side of the net.
However, that can be seen as a cheap cop-out as that would make his comeback inherently better than almost every other athlete. So here is perhaps a more cogent argument. Manning was unable to claim championship glory during his post-comeback peak, needing Von Miller and one of the best defenses in NFL history to carry him to his second and last Super Bowl victory. Nadal won two major titles, which no matter the competition (he did not beat any member of Big Four on route to winning his two slams) still requires consistency and excellence that Manning simply did not possess in his final season. He was unable to lead his team past another all-time defense in the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom as Manning and company were thoroughly drubbed following a regular season in which he set the single season records for passing yards and touchdowns on route to winning his fourth MVP award. The Sheriff (a nickname that still confuses me) was basically shooting blanks in 2016 by the time he hoisted the Lombardi Trophy for a second time.
And in case people need more convincing I don’t believe I saw Nadal bypass Uncle Toni and Carlos Moya over to Mark Parker, the president of Nike, (his biggest sponsor) and give him a smooch right after winning the U.S. Open.
Michael Jordan is another big name that comes to mind right away, but his case is easier than Manning’s to disprove when juxtaposing his comeback with Nadal’s. The six-time NBA champion’s return to basketball after a year-and-a-half retirement that saw Jordan switch to baseball in fulfillment of the wishes of his father, who was tragically murdered. He did not take long to shake off the rust and in less than a year he solidified spot on the throne and restored order once more atop the sports hierarchy. It all sounds glorious. The king returned to reclaim his castle and the league got their star back. The comeback added a layer of immortality to Jordan’s legacy, not to mention three more championships that round out a resume with perhaps the strongest claim for greatest athlete of all time. But that’s not what this article is about.
Jordan left basketball has an able-bodied, healthy man at the peak of his career. He was not fighting to overcome injury like Nadal had been tasked with on multiple occasions. Yes, the loss of a parent in such a horribly random manner is something the Spaniard fortunately cannot fathom. Jordan, like anyone, was not ready to lose the man who had such a profound impact on his path to greatness and he used baseball as his way of honoring his father and staying close with him.
The question, however, when Jordan rejoined the Chicago Bulls always concerned his mental state, not his ability. It did not matter that he was over 30 years old. He still maintained the ability to transcend the game with both his talent and star power. Nadal’s health only worsened after his first comeback and his skills visibly diminished. That is something that coaches can dance around in a team sport, but it usually spells a death sentence in the one-on-the-one environment of tennis. Nadal played great tennis throughout 2017 after losing his form years earlier while Jordan simply picked up where he left off with only rust being his real deterrence.
George Foreman’s world title win at the ripe age of 45 may be the most difficult obstacle for Nadal to clear. Foreman, like the Spaniard, competes in a solo sport, and needed to muster all of the will in his aging body to stun the World Boxing Association heavyweight champion Michael Moorer in 1994. The grill master’s feat was not just about one last run, but rather avenging his own title loss to Muhammad Ali in the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” more than 20 years earlier. Foreman never fully recovered and carried the shock and disappointment of one of the most iconic events in sports history throughout his life. He was intent on laying rest to his traumatic past in his 1994 title bout and he did just that when he knocked out Moorer in the 10th round. This time he was the one who shocked the world.
Foreman’s feat would not be believable even if it was being screened in Tinseltown. Boxing, more so than even tennis, is stingy with their second chances. Foreman, however, showed that a boxer’s punch is the last thing to go. He survived, and then knowing his quest for redemption was quickly fleeting out of the MGM Arena he picked his spot. It should not have been conceivable, but there he was embarking on his second world title reign two decades after his first. Foreman’s comeback was remarkable, inspirational and, for him, euphoric. But it wasn’t pretty nor was it better than Nadal’s.
Age certainly plays a factor in boxing, but anything can truly happen in the ring when two men face off. It only takes one shot or a series of impactful punches at an opportune time to claim victory. Sure, superiority tends to trump all else, but that was not the case in this match. Moorer controlled the fight for nine rounds, and was the consensus favorite of the judges by a significant margin until he hit the mat. Foreman used his boxing acumen and his remaining power to vanquish his opponent. He changed his fate in an instant while Nadal had to grind and battle through every point. Exhaustion was not an option. Nadal could not rely on a single blow to send him home champion. He sprayed his patented forehand all over the court, forcing his opponent in a battle of attrition they could not win and allowing himself to dictate the pace of the match. Foreman floundered and then surged, while Nadal simply dominated, especially in the French Open.
There are other classic comebacks that cannot be afforded the time or analysis as the ones above but they must be noted nevertheless. Magic Johnson’s return to basketball after he announced he had tested positive for HIV and Monica Seles’s championship victory at the 1996 Australian Open nearly three years after being stabbed by a crazed fan during a match obviously evoke an incredible amount of emotion and apathy, far more than any other aforementioned comeback, but neither athlete was able to sustain their former excellence for a significant period of time. Their triumphs will undoubtedly hold a special place in history as they were forced to bare crosses that we as fans naively never expect to exist in the sanctuary of sports.
Obviously, the elephant in the room is Lance Armstrong, whose seven straight Tour de France titles served as an emblem of strength and courage for years until he finally admitted to using performance enhancing drugs while cycling. His wins were voided, so his comeback cannot justly be given consideration over Nadal’s. And for the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) fans out there I haven’t forgotten about you. John Cena’s surprising entry in the 2008 Royal Rumble match, in which he returned from a real-life torn pectoral muscle four months ahead of schedule and won the over-the-top rope battle royal, was certainly exhilarating, but the accomplishment is diminished a bit by the fact he entered in at No. 30 as the match’s final entrant. And Oh yeah there’s also the part about the outcome being predetermined.
The case can be made that the triumphant tales of any of these comeback kids are at first glance more iconic, awe-inspiring and more memorable than that of Nadal’s. He never really plummeted in the world rankings or was diagnosed with a life-changing disease. His resurgence cannot touch the emotion elicited by Jordan’s return or the nostalgic appeal of old man Foreman laying out a man half his age. No amount of filibustering on my part is going to change the fact that his comeback will not be the first, second or probably even third to register in the consciousness of the average fan who tends to put tennis on the back-burner anyways. And that’s a shame because one does not need to fancy themselves a tennis junkie in order to appreciate the rarity and difficulty of what Nadal accomplished.
His body failed him and broke down. He suffered so many big-stage upsets to vastly inferior players that it became a torturous chore to will oneself through another one of his heartbreaking matches. Every time he seemed healthy and on the cusp of a resurgence, he would take one step backward. His decline was initially unfathomable, but it later became very plausible that his physically demanding playing style took a natural toll on him. The rehab and failure to get over the hump likely added mental anguish that could have easily served as a permanent hindrance to Nadal’s hopes of reclaiming his past glory. It did not matter that he was barely past the age of 30. All the signs indicated that his Slam count would be dead at 14. Yet, he made the necessary adjustments in practice, battled the draw placed in front of him and most incredibly displayed the vigor and speed of his old self.
Nadal’s comeback deserves to stand alone because he captured the essence of what encompasses a truly great comeback story. He came out onto the court and showed fans that he still had that ability to transcend the game on the grand stage. Comebacks tend to show the scars of the adversity that caused the decline in the first place. There were no visible wounds. There was no longer an aura of vulnerability surrounding him. He looked as good as ever. Nadal came into 2017 with not just glimpses of his former excellence but a year’s body of work that is proof he finally really is back, and hopefully here to stay.
Edited by Brian Kang.
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