1. Rafael Nadal’s five-set win over Taylor Fritz today was at times exhilarating, but I spent much of the match away from the screen, or trying not to be interested when I was watching. The first set was great. Nadal started in god mode, but Fritz reeled him back in when on the cusp of going down a double break, then polished off the set with some superb serving. Early in the second, though, Nadal was in visible discomfort. He touched his torso. He bent over after a couple serves. He started to double fault. He looked close to tears on a changeover. Some speculated that Nadal’s father and sister were gesturing him to retire from the match, which Nadal confirmed later.
It was a dire scene. Even compromised, Nadal was making the second set a battle, setting Twitter ablaze with takes that 1. he was going to retire imminently or 2. he was playing possum to throw Fritz off his game. (To his credit, Fritz said after the match that Nadal was indeed visibly suffering, hence the reduced speed on his serve. It’s not that hard, people.) I felt that both players were in a terrible situation — Nadal was injured and possibly worsening his ailment, Fritz couldn’t get too optimistic because Nadal was still a factor in the match, even as visibly impaired as he was. Once I saw that people were saying members of Nadal’s team wanted him to retire, I started to feel the same way. I was shocked and impressed when Nadal ramped up his forehand to win the second set, but I knew I couldn’t take at least two more sets of the stress. I turned off the TV and went for a walk with my friend.
2. In 2018, I ran a half-marathon for the first time. In the preceding year or so, I had intermittent sharp pain in my right glute whenever my weekly mileage got too high. It would be manageable for a bit, but at its worst I couldn’t bear the pain and would have to cut back. Midway through the race, it flared up. I tried to work through it at first since the pain wasn’t intolerable. Around the eighth mile, I had to alter my stride to momentarily give myself a reprieve. I was really frustrated, because I felt okay aerobically, it was just this damn injury holding me back. I mentioned the pain to someone next to me — I was running in a group of six or so — who told me that I had many years of running ahead that I shouldn’t jeopardize. It was pretty clear advice to stop. I kept going, the pain lessening in the last few miles, and finished with a time I was really happy with.
At the start of 2020, I played an indoor tennis match. My left shoe had a hole in the sole right below my big toe. The day after the match, I woke up with the toe feeling sore. Not thinking much of it, I trained through it for weeks (I was running 25-30 miles a week to get ready for that year’s local half marathon, having set a new personal best the year before), even when the pain started stabbing at me during eight-mile runs. Eventually, it got to be too much. An MRI revealed I had a stress fracture in a tiny bone in my foot, the sesamoid. I spent some time in a boot and used something called a bone stimulator. Neither helped that much. I have orthotics in my shoes now to take pressure off the area. I wear flip-flops whenever I’m not wearing my shoes. It’s reduced the problem to the extent that running is possible, but the area still isn’t pain free. Fitness-wise, I haven’t gotten back to where I was when I first picked up the injury.
3. The discourse surrounding injury in sports is completely broken. Some think a player merely taking the court automatically means injury will not play a role in the ensuing match. Some think it’s dishonorable to talk about injuries at all, whether they affect you during a match or not. It’s transparently dumb. Injuries can be severe physical impairments. They might not be fun to talk about, but pretending they don’t exist doesn’t lessen their impact; an ignored injury is still an injury.
Nadal has been dealing with injuries for a couple of decades now, from his Muller-Weiss syndrome to his knees to his back. Sometimes they’re bad enough to completely knock him out of a match, but sometimes he plays through them. In the 2009 Madrid semifinal against Djokovic, his knees were giving him trouble early, but he played out the rest of the match — which wound up being a four-hour thriller — and ran himself into the ground despite escaping with the win. In Rome this year, his foot flared up against Denis Shapovalov. He was dead in the water early in the third set, but played until the inevitable finish line, knowing he couldn’t make the foot any worse.
Playing through an injury is completely different from playing through fatigue. Battling fatigue is about willpower. It’s about pushing your limits. Battling an injury is actively fighting against your body, running when it tells you to walk (or stop altogether). Nadal is great at playing through both fatigue and injury. The former is admirable — he can come up with great tennis at the very edge of his physical abilities — but the latter is dangerous. This very injury, the abdominal, had been bothering him a bit earlier in the tournament, but he said it started to feel worse during today’s match. From a health perspective, he should have stopped as soon as he realized something was more than slightly off, but he saw a path to a win that went around the pain and tried to take it.
4. When Fritz won the third set, which I saw via live scores on my phone, I started to mourn the loss of a potential Djokovic-Nadal final. I wanted to write another long piece about their next match. (I hated myself for it, but I just love the rivalry too much.) I read on Twitter that Nadal’s forehand was reaching new levels in the fourth, and when he won the set, my timeline exploded with declarations that his fight was unmatched, that he was the greatest competitor ever, etc. I agreed with a lot of it, but hated that his latest comeback was through injury rather than simply fatigue. I didn’t want people watching on TV to think that they could or should try to emulate him, or for the guy himself to think what he was doing was a good idea. His parents, wife, and team were up there in the box, watching him continue to go through pain.
Realizing I would probably regret it if I didn’t watch the end of the match, I pulled up ESPN on my phone. I saw that Nadal was playing more freely than he had been and Fritz was meeting him on even terms, creating a high-level push-pull match that tennis fans dream of watching. I felt some tension despite telling myself that I had watched enough Nadal matches to know that he was going to win.
And he did, because that is what he does, he takes your best tennis and absorbs it, then hits back with his own. Some said Fritz lost because of a mental failure, but I watched most of the fifth set, and I was really impressed with him. He got broken in a titanic game at 3-all — surely a backbreaker, I thought — and immediately broke back to restore parity. He served well enough to get to a tiebreak. Once there, he didn’t even choke, Nadal’s forehand just took over proceedings as it often does. Nadal had needed an extremely high level to squeak over the finish line.
5. I wanted to revel in the joy of this match, this five-setter between two top players. A friend I play pickleball with (forgive me, it’s really fun and you should try it) texted me Owen!!! Did u watch the Fritz Nadal match?!! The possibility of a momentous Djokovic-Nadal final is still alive, which makes me happy. But for me, today’s match was marred by the fact that Nadal contradicted what his body was telling him. He fought through a health issue, not fatigue, and in doing so he may have hurt himself more badly. He said during his on-court interview that his first priority going forward was simply making sure he was fit enough to take the court for the semifinals.
There is a lot to admire about Nadal. He is one of the greatest to ever pick up a racket. His forehand has more different ways to destroy his opponents than John McEnroe has ways to bring up the fact that he used to coach Milos Raonic. His tactical mobility is unmatched. His endurance is incredible, his mind strong. But his ability to play through an injury is something to be concerned about rather than to admire. Playing sports is fun. It’s an opportunity to get fitter, to do things you didn’t know you were capable of, to chase your dreams, and all of that is great, but you should always listen when your body tells you to stop.