Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Rafa Slammed, Hurt, Goes Down Fighting

MELBOURNE, Australia -- So history is lost. Rafael Nadal is out. Even he can't win on one leg.

Nadal hurt his hamstring in the first few minutes, and then limped on, tried on, fought on. No way was he going to Cutler this thing. He couldn't push off on his serve, couldn't get anything into his shots, couldn't even run, really.

He had no chance. But he fought on anyway. In the end, David Ferrer beat Nadal 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 in the Australian Open quarterfinals Wednesday.

The Rafa Slam is gone.

"I tried my best,'' Nadal said. "I couldn't do more.''

Because of the injury, right?

"You know, for me it is difficult to come here and speak about (it),'' Nadal said. "In Doha, I wasn't healthy; today, I have another problem. Seems like I always have problems (excuses) when I lose, and I don't want to have this image, no?''

Nadal declined to talk further about the injury, declined even to say what it was. He requested, out of respect for Ferrer, that no one ask him about it.

Then someone asked.

"You are listening to me?'' he said.

Meanwhile, Ferrer said that when Nadal isn't injured, he wins in straight sets. So it's "not like a victory, really.''


It was 100 percent a victory for Ferrer. He was better than Nadal. That was Nadal's point. That's what tennis is, one person standing there alone, testing his mind, heart and body. Physical condition is not an excuse, but instead part of the match.

It feels as if something was cheated, that tennis' chance at history -- just the fourth time someone would have won four majors in a row -- had simply never happened. But that isn't right. It did happen.            

Look at it as a lesson of what sport is supposed to be about. The important thing is that Nadal kept going and didn't pull a Cutler. In the U.S., the sports world has been talking about Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who tapped out on his team Sunday in the third quarter of the NFC Championship Game against the rival Green Bay Packers. It was The Big Game against The Big Rival for the Bears, and Cutler, who had strained his knee ligament, just sat down.

The argument has been about whether he was really hurt. But that's beside the point. Assume Cutler was hurt, and hurt bad.

Still, someone should have had to wrestle him down to keep him out of that game.

Instead, he separated himself from the moment. Nadal wouldn't give up on his. Which is the tough-guy sport again? Football or tennis?

Do you think about retiring from the match?

"I hate retirements,'' he said.

You did it last year, when your knees flared up.

"I hate that moment. I didn't want to repeat that.''

While the big, tough NFL player was sitting down with a boo-boo, Venus Williams hurt her leg, screamed, had it wrapped up, and put herself back in. She won that match, and two days later, with everyone around her telling her not to risk permanent injury, she went back out again.

"You have to kind of get past the fear of it getting worse ...'' she said.

She played just seven points before her body completely gave in. Later she said she had done the right thing that it was important to her to know she had given 100 percent.

Nadal's first-round opponent, Marcos Daniel, was so hurt that he couldn't even straighten his leg. He was a journeyman playing maybe the greatest player of all time on a stage where he could easily embarrass himself.

But he fought on, anyway, until he just couldn't stand anymore. He didn't win even one game, but there was no embarrassment.

If you haven't torn a hamstring before, I can tell you this: Last time I did it, my leg turned blue and I could barely walk for nearly two weeks.

But while Nadal fought through pain, the relationship between Nadal and pain has become too frequent. We learned this once and for all:

Nadal's body is not reliable.

His style of play is too violent on his body. He storms the court, throws everything into every shot. Already, he missed months in 2009 with tendinitis in his knees. That's a wear-and-tear injury. He tore an abdominal muscle in the 2009 US Open, and now this, re-injured his knees in Australia last year.

And when the never-ending tennis argument picks up again -- Federer or Nadal? -- Federer's longevity and durability might deserve a little more weight than it has been getting. It is not just a mark of attendance.

I asked Vera Zvonareva, ranked No. 2, about what goes into the decision to quit from injury during a match. When do you decide to stop?

"I always play through injuries,'' she said. "It was not a good choice some of the time. For example, the surgery that I got last year, before coming here to Australia, I could have avoided it I would not have pushed myself that hard.

"Each person has different limits, and they have to know themselves really well to make that decision. ... There are people around you, your team, and they can give you advice. But it is really you have to make the choice. You try to make it smart.''

Do you risk being dumb if it's the big moment?

"For sure, there are some times there is a match like that,'' she said. "If you're in a final of a major or something, you make a choice to play through injury. Yes, there are moments like this.''

Nadal tried everything he could after getting hurt in the second game, including coming to the net to shorten points. Ferrer runs everything down, keeps the ball in play. It was the worst type of opponent for Nadal, who didn't have the power or leverage in his legs to hit winners. Ferrer hit 44 winners to Nadal's 14.

"The tennis career, you have higher moments and lower moments,'' Nadal said. "I had almost all the time very, very happy moments and very nice moments in my career. That's part of the sport.

"Accept. Keep working. Try my best in the next tournament. That's what I can do.''

But the Rafa Slam is gone for good.

"I think he can win the next four,'' Ferrer said.

You know he'll fight for it.

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