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The French Open is now offering compelling evidence that Rafael Nadal, still only 23, may be back at the top of his game.
BOSTON — Irony, sarcasm, hyperbole, all those tools that writers relish, can prove treacherous terrain. At least they have in my hands.
I recall one particularly clumsy effort when I attempted to debunk those sportswriters who made pronouncement about an athlete's future achievements, be it A-Rod or Tiger Woods, based on their early career numbers. They seem to ignore the toll that age, injuries and the vagaries of life can take on athletic destiny. (And in both A-Rod's and Woods' lives, a whole lot of unexpected vagaries have certainly fallen.)
I got in trouble a few years back — at least with some outraged readers — when I proclaimed Rafael Nadal the greatest tennis player in the history of the sport. As proof I offered nothing more than his six Grand Slam titles before he turned 23 years old, a pace that, I insisted, guaranteed that the young Spaniard would someday obliterate Roger Federer's record total of 16. I thought it was a clear exercise in the preposterous, a mockery of calculator wisdom or other claims to prescience. Readers missed the nuance.
The truth seemed obvious to me — and regrettable. Nadal is the most compelling competitor in the game. But unlike that Swiss master of precision, Federer, Nadal isn't built to last — certainly not long enough to accumulate career records. He plays with such ferocity and abandon that his game exacts too much of a toll both physically and emotionally for him to endure at top form or grunt for another decade.
And the inevitable — that which I dreaded — happened even more quickly than I had imagined. Over the past year nagging knee problems took much of the bounce out of Nadal's step, too much range out of his reach and some of the power out of his extraordinary repertoire. As a result, he has gone a full Grand-Slam cycle without winning another title or indeed even reaching a finals, something he hadn't experienced since he was 18 years old.
But the French Open is now offering compelling evidence that "Rafa," still only 23 years old, may be back at the top of his game. He insists he is healthy — 100 percent, he says — and appears ready to reclaim ownership of the tournament that he won four years running from 2005 to 2008. Through five matches, Nadal hasn't lost a set and Wednesday reached the semi-finals with a 7-5,7-5, 6-4 victory over his countryman Nicolas Almagro. With two more victories, Nadal will not only take the title, but will reclaim the world #1 ranking that he wrested from Federer in 2008 and held for almost a year.
For years Nadal has been about the only thing predictable at the French. This year tennis fans have been lamenting the upset of Federer in the quarterfinals, dashing the hopes for another classic Federer-Nadal championship scrum. American fans in particular are quick to dismiss the French with its un-American red clay, even more so now that the last U.S. player, Serena Williams, has been ousted from the singles competition.
But none of those surprises or disappointments compare with the renewed pleasure of once again watching Nadal's brilliant tennis theater. Tennis needs Nadal's comeback as much as golf needs a return to championship form by Tiger. Nadal is the fire to Federer's ice and it is only as a duo — not necessarily as opponents — that they elevate the sport to its greatest heights.
Sure a Nadal-Federer final is the peak offering. But right up there is watching Nadal playing anyone in any round. His passion and game combine to represent the very best in sport — and not just his sport. So catch him while you can. My fear is that the window won't stay open long enough — and possibly not very long at all.