Know When to Stop

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.

This point was emblematic of the match. Both players pushed their limits — just look at how close Fritz’s backhand down the line came to bouncing twice, and at that almighty stretch on his forehand side late in the rally — Nadal just…did it better.

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.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

15 thoughts on “Know When to Stop

  1. Dear Owen, Please leave Rafa’s injury concerns to Rafa himself and his well-educated(much much more educated than you) doctors. You don’t know what’s wrong with his body cuz you don’t live his life with his intensity or determination. It’s tone-deaf to comment on the same. STOP!!

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  2. Nicely done, Owen. Being Condescending also helps in absorbing criticism. Yes, you’re so spot on that I was worried that Nadal will look to your opinion and make one of the worst decisions of his life: “GIVE UP” which is antithetical to him and yet your opinion will persuade him to do just that. I was extremely worried about that. Thank GOD you cleared that up. And I don’t think you really care If Rafa is injured or not. This is how I sum up your article: You saw Rafa in pain yesterday as if it was the first time you saw him in that condition. You’ve never seen him in that condition before and you decided to question “Why is he not giving up ?”. And when he didn’t and played out the whole match, you couldn’t tolerate it let alone relate to it. And then you had an idea about your new article on your fledgling website and you decided to rip through his decision-making aptitude.

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    1. I’ve watched a lot of Nadal matches, so yes, I have seen him in that condition before. It wasn’t a surprise to me that he didn’t retire from the match (given that he was injured, I think “giving up” is the wrong way to describe not finishing the match). I could relate a bit to his decision, hence my inclusion of the running anecdote.

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  3. Three factors that I think kept Rafa on the court:
    1. He knows from experience how it feels to retire in a Major QF or SF, and he “hates” the feeling (his word).
    2. Yesterday’s may well have been the last Wimbledon QF of his career.
    3. The possibility of his calendar-year slam — the only chance he’s ever had and probably ever will have — while hanging by a fine thread, still exists.

    Absent these — were he ten years younger, for example — I think he might well have taken his father’s advice.

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    1. Good thoughts, Cynthia. I agree fully with the first two, and partially with the third, I honestly don’t think the possibility of the Grand Slam made Nadal much more invested in winning than he already was. I think the first one was decisive in the end — have you seen the clip circulating on Twitter of him telling Toni there was no way he was going to retire during the 2011 Australian Open quarterfinals?

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  4. Dear Owen, Here’ a link to a video for your enlightenment

    wherein Gill gives his take on whether Nadal’s decision to continue playing against Fritz was the right call or not. I suggest you give it a watch if you care about tennis at all
    PEACE OUT.🤔🙂

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  5. Dear Owen, Here’ a link to a video for your enlightenment wherein Gill gives his take on whether Nadal’s decision to continue playing against Fritz was the right call or not. I suggest you give it a watch if you care about tennis at all
    PEACE OUT.🤔🙂 It starts at 3:00

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    1. I agree in the context of Fritz and the lucky loser debate. To be clear, I don’t blame Nadal for what he did, it’s more that I was concerned about him making his injury worse.

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  6. Okay. So what you’re saying is that you don’t blame nadal for the “clearly wrong” decision to continue playing. Rather you blame someone else. I mean someone has to take the brunt of the “wrong” decision, Right? Someone has to take the blame. And you’re saying Nadal shouldn’t take the blame. Then who should? Should the team take it?. But I’m pretty sure the team was as concerned as you about him playing and even his father and sister were signalling to him to stop playing. Are they the ones to blame for the “wrong” decision because you already cleared it that Nadal is not the one to blame. Which one is it? Someone has to take the blame for the “wrong” decision, right? Or will you say there’s no one to blame? Because if you choose the latter, then it’s gonna appear even more illogical and demented to say that the decision was “clearly wrong”. So, what do you choose?

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    1. I don’t think all wrong decisions necessarily require that someone take blame. I don’t think what Nadal did was smart or beneficial, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it was understandable. It certainly doesn’t reflect badly on his character.

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      1. I’m sorry you’re upset with my argument here, but me thinking something is “wrong” doesn’t mean I think it’s “morally wrong,” it can mean I think it was “incorrect or a mistake.” That’s all I have to say regarding this.

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  7. I just don’t understand your argument. Your argument is filled with logical fallacies. I just don’t know how you think Nadal’s decision was a mistake. It wasn’t. It was the right thing to do and I think 95% of people would agree with, the rest 5% being his haters. I mean you said you don’t think all wrong decisions necessarily require that someone take blame. That is just so….. and I can’t think of a nicer word to describe it — “Stupid”. It’s actually stupid. A decision is made by a human agency. Not a robot. And you argue it was the wrong decision. Yet you are saying no one is to blame. How is that a reasonable explanation for your argument. Even Andy Roddick said Nadal made the right choice by continuing to play. Even Gill Gross disagrees with you and both of them have logical explanations for Rafa’s decisions. Both argue that he should’ve tried to win and then hoped that the MRI scans he did the next day weren’t that bad and that he could recover in time. They weren’t and he can’t recover. Then he made the reasonable decision to withdraw. The same guy who made the decision to keep playing because he was hoping that it won’t be that bad. Hoping is not a wrong thing. You are essentially arguing against Hope. Your entire argument is “You should not hope. If something’s wrong, give up and rest and be ok with the QFs instead of the SFs”. I just don’t know where you’re coming from and I think you are just completely wrong. THANK YOU

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