By In Stuff

Playing Through Pain

There’s something small I will remember about the Australian Open men’s final last weekend. In case you missed it, Stanislas Wawrinka beat Rafael Nadal in four sets to take his first grand slam title. The result of the match was somewhat muddled.

On the one hand Nadal wrenched his back very early in the second set and was all but immobile for the remainder of the match.

On the other hand, Wawrinka was utterly dominating Nadal before the injury became obvious* and was playing about as well as I’ve seen anybody play — he was crushing forehand and backhand winners and serving insanely well. My guess is that it would have been Wawrinka’s day even if Nadal was healthy.

*Nadal did say he felt at least a twinge in his back from the start.

But what I will remember is something different, something that I kept thinking while watching the match. If you saw it, you know: Nadal was almost helpless after the back injury. He went off the court for six minutes and returned to boos — people probably thought he was playing a little gamesmanship. Nadal is not above gamesmanship, but in this case he was in agony. It became very clear right away. He could not move.

So, he was spinning in his serve at less-than-club-pro speeds. He would not even bother to chase after a ball that was two or three steps away. One thing you always notice about Nadal is that he’s an outrageous sweater — the guy rains sweat all over the court. This is because of the way he digs into a match — it’s like he claws himself into another dimension. The sweat is staggering. If you wrung out one of those disgusting towels those poor ball-retrievers hold, you would have enough sweat to soak Rhode Island.

Well, he more or less stopped sweating after the injury because he more or less stopped moving. He could not dig in. He didn’t even go and get his sweat towel. He was too hurt to run.

For a stretch of time in the second set, it seemed inevitable that Nadal would default the match. There seemed no compelling reason for him to continue. He had no realistic chance to actually win the match, he was obviously in pain, he was just prolonging the inevitable, there was no point to it. But, well, it was the final of the Australian Open. And so Nadal played on, if you could call what he did playing. He puffballed in 80 mph serves. He might return shots that were within his general swinging range but that was it. It was a sad thing to watch.

And then the third set — I will remember that third set. It wasn’t exactly gripping tennis. Nadal was still immobilized (the announcers kept saying, “Well, maybe he’s loosening up” every time he returned a shot, but he did not seem to moving any better). But something interesting was happening. Nadal seemed to decide, hey, he might as well just try something. And here’s what he did: He started to hit this slice serves that had a little weird spin to them. And he tried to guess where Wawrinka was going to hit his shots before he hit them — not unlike the carnival barker who tries to guess your weight. He would go to a spot and wait and hope Wawrinka hit the ball there.

It was just a tiny bit of genius from a wounded man. He would move to that spot in anticipation of a Wawrinka shot and then unload a risky shot of his own to try and end the point. Sometimes he guessed wrong, of course. But often, shockingly often, he guessed right. And he did hit that winner. This happened often enough that Nadal broke Wawrinka. And, improbably, he took a lead in the set.

Wawrinka, for a few moments there, lost his head. He did not seem to know what to do against this desperate strategy. Wawrinka misplayed returns off nothing serves. He hit shots right into the middle of the court, the one place where Nadal could respond. He seemed to hit the ball where Nadal anticipated it time after time after time. Let’s face it: He was overwhelmed by the moment — he clearly didn’t want to hit cheap drop shots against an injured Nadal, he didn’t really have a strategy for this sort of match. Here he was on the brink of a dream, on the cusp of winning his first grand slam event. And it was nothing like what he he dreamed.

Nadal had to know his spell wouldn’t last. Sure, maybe he did hope that he could bluff his way through for a little while and his back would loosen up at some point and he could get back in the match. Nadal is a fighter. But I tend to believe, deep down, he knew the loss was inevitable.

No, I think it was something else driving him, something that might just be my own wish. Here’s what I think: I think Nadal wanted Wawrinka to EARN the championship. And I don’t think he wanted that for himself or for the sanctity of the tournament or anything like that.

I think he wanted it for Stan Wawrinka’s sake.

Look: Here’s a guy everybody in tennis seems to love. He’s the second-best player from Switzerland, which is a bit like being the second-best golfer named Tiger, and he’s been around for a decade or more, and last year was the first time he’d ever reached the semifinal of a grand slam event. This was obviously the first time he’d ever reached a final. Everyone admires the guy, the way he’s improved his game, the way he’s hung in there through the hard times. This is a guy who has a Samuel Beckett quote tattooed on his arm: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

And I think Nadal didn’t want to retire, didn’t want to give in, because he wanted Wawrinka to WIN his championship, to face his demons and, if he could, overcome them. I think Nadal — perhaps without even thinking about it — thought Wawrinka deserved the chance to defeat a worthy opponent. So he tried to be as worthy as he could. He shook Wawrinka’s spirit in that third set. He got into Wawrinka’s head. He won the set though he could barely move at all. It was now up to Wawrinka to settle himself and finish the job.

Wawrinka did finish the job in the fourth set. He was shaky for much of the set and Nadal still showed an uncanny talent for anticipating where the ball would be hit and for testing Wawrinka’s nerves. We’ll never know for sure if Wawrinka could have put away a healthy Rafa Nadal, but that’s playing what-if history. And it’s beside the point.

When Wawrinka did win, he did not celebrate much out of deference to his friend Nadal. Instead he leaned over the net to check on Nadal’s health. And while we could not precisely hear what Nadal said at that moment, you could tell that he was saying: “I’m fine. Enjoy your moment. You won.”

And then afterward: “Stan, he really deserved to win that title. I’m happy for him. He’s a great guy, a good friend of mine.”

He did deserve it. Nadal made sure of it. That’s the beautiful gift Rafa Nadal gave Stan Wawrinka in Melbourne. He played through pain and put up a fight and made his friend Stan Wawrinka win it.

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31 Responses to Playing Through Pain

  1. Richard Parmar says:

    nice, interesting take on the match.

  2. adrianpankie says:

    I didn’t think Nadal would play through that,he displayed great character

  3. spencersteel says:

    I wouldn’t want every major final to unfold as the 2014 Aussie did, but it was utterly fascinating to watch an injured Nadal try and formulate a strategy on the fly to compete as exactly the opposite type of player that he is when healthy. He guessed right and befuddled Wawrinka for the entire third set, and while I never felt that Nadal was going to prevail, there was a game early in the 4th set with Stan serving at love-30 where the previously unthinkable notion of a 5th suddenly seemed within reach. We can disagree on what is wrong with sport, but every single that happened on Laver in the early hours of the United States Sunday morning is what’s right with it. Corny as it sounds, it was a privilege to watch that match and those men.

  4. Grzegorz Brzeszczyszczykiewicz says:

    Can we be sure that Nadal was actually injured? What was the exact injury anyway?

  5. Artie says:

    I started to write this comment in the wake of Joe’s Richard Sherman remarks, but it rings true now, too:

    Joe, you’re a brilliant writer. (I always describe Posnanski to those who don’t know him as “The Best Sportswriter in America”.) You have knack for finding stories other people don’t and telling them in ways other people can’t. You write prolifically, and all your work is free to the general public. You clearly love your family–it’s wonderful to hear you describe your daughters, your father, your brother. You were never handed anything in life, and you succeeded despite, as you’ve mentioned, not really knowing what you wanted to do with yourself. You have impeccable taste in music. You have the coolest friend ever, and you tape your conversations so we can share in your cleverness and joy. You review iPads.

    But none of these things are what I most admire about Joe. Instead, it is his willingness to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and I mean this as sincerely as I can. To be able to see the good in people when they are not at their best, that is truly an admirable trait. From Richard Sherman to Dayton Moore to Mike Brown to Pete Rose to Nick Saban to Chad Knaus to the anti-stat anti-blogger anti-baseball cowards of the BBWAA (look, I can’t do it)… Joe is capable of recognizing something that most people can’t see in others, that most people probably can’t see in themselves. And for that, I am grateful.

    • Iowa Eye Doc says:

      I totally agree. Thank you, Artie, for putting into words many of the thoughts that have been formulating in my head for the past few years.

      Joe, I hope you keep up the fantastic work for many years to come. With the sheer volume of your output, I sometimes worry about burn-out. I especially enjoy the columns/postings that bring in your family.

    • Pat says:

      Yeah, but remember we still have Joe’s “In Defense of Skip Bayless” post to look forward to.

      More seriously, great comment.

    • Spencer says:

      What a wonderful comment Artie!

      He sees the best in others even when they aren’t at their best is a great way to put it. It’s a trait I try to have myself, I’m not as good at it as Joe.

      Also for a moment I thought your comment was going to become very negative, as seemingly too many comments on here have been lately (most are still positive but I think the baseball top 100 has brought out a strange group that didn’t used to be on this blog). You’ve renewed my faith in the commenters here, at least temporarily.

  6. AJK says:

    First time, long time. The romanticization of sport is part of the reason why I love reading your blog, Joe. But I think the premise here is off. (1) Nadal is an incredible fighter and bully on the court. He changed styles in the third set to try to win the match. Not to legitimize his friend’s victory. The great ones believe they can win always. Underwater, with one arm, with no arms, in a back brace. And (2) there is no need to play the game of History What-If here. A healthy Nadal wins the match. Even assuming Wawrinka still takes an early lead, which I’m not sure would even happen, at some point he realizes he’s Stan Wawrinka in a Grand Slam final with a set lead over Rafa Nadal, and he tightens up. And that’s the only opening a healthy Nadal would need.

    • John Gale says:

      Disagree. Wawrinka really dominated the first set and was already up a break in the second. Nadal’s post-injury strategy was kind of like a basketball team switching to a zone because it doesn’t have the athletes to play man-to-man. It got inside Wawrinka’s head, and he was really beating himself a lot more than Nadal was beating him (he had 49 unforced errors to just 32 for Nadal, with a whopping 19 just in the third set, about double what he did in each of the other three sets). But there are ways to beat zones, and Wawrinka eventually figured it out. In a more conventional match, I think Nadal manages to win the third set as well, but I think he still loses in four. I think a straight set win for Wawrinka is more likely than him actually losing.

    • Bill Caffrey says:

      I thought this result reminded me of the way tennis used to be. What I mean by that is that, for most of the Open Era, guys from 6-12 or so in the world would occasionally break through and win a grand slam tournament. Noah, Cash, Chang, Korda. Slightly better guys like Rafter and Kafelnikov might win 2. The current Big 4 of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray have all but eliminated that for nearly a decade. Those 4 have won ever Australian since 2004 except for 2005 (Safin) (and noe 2014)., every French since 2005, ever Wimbledon since 2003 and ever US since 2004 except for 2009 (Del Potro). They had just completely eliminated the previously common occurrence of the good but not great players sometimes breaking through to win.

      It was an amazing run (and it’s not over), but it was not sustainable. Sometimes the good but not great players are going to put together two great weeks and win a tournament, as they always had throughout the Open Era prior to 2004.

  7. John says:

    I didn’t realize Wawrinka had that Beckett quote tattooed. It might be my favorite line in all of literature.

    • invitro says:

      I wonder how many NBA players have a Samuel Beckett tattoo.

      I haven’t gotten back into watching men’s tennis, but it’s getting closer, partly thanks to Joe’s articles. I just need to believe that serves are less than 70% of a match.

  8. Mike says:

    The only way Nadal was retiring in a grand slam Final is if there was a visible injury (turned ankle etc.) that is visible to the viewers. Otherwise he would become subject to the treatment Justine Henin got for quitting against Amelie Mauresmo 4 games short of finishing the 2006 Austrailian Open final. We are conditioned now with tennis players to only believe injuries we can see.

    • Robert says:

      I don’t know Nadal, so I suppose that your take is possible. But, I think it more likely that it is fantasy to imagine that the thing at the center of a premier athlete’s mind when he’s trying to play through injury in one of the biggest matches of his life is what the fans will think. It would be nice to think that we, the people watching, are the center of the universe, but we’re not.

  9. winnipegdave says:

    In my work, we talk a lot about observation, interpretation and application. I have to say Joe, that this piece is an absolutely wonderful example of interpretation. Really – brilliant. As for application – being a worthy opponent in the face of defeat – is a great place to start for any of us.

  10. Dave B says:

    Typical Nadal. Whenever he loses, he always gets “hurt”.

    • Grzegorz Brzeszczyszczykiewicz says:

      And the “injury” cannot be specifically diagnosed. What was that injury exactly? Muscle cramps? As Joe pointed out, he felt a “twinge” in warmups. Why do I get the feeling the twinge would have gone away had he won that first set? Whatever. The bigger issue is the fact that no prominent journalist can see the parallels with Lance Armstrong. He’s doing something. It’s not just diet and training.

  11. tombando says:

    Nadal = Jose Canseco. Discuss.

    • Byrne says:

      well Nadal isn’t doing anabolics, one would assume. More likely Nadal = A-rod/Braun. I really liked Joe’s take on Nadal’s “sweating” habits.,,what with overt sweating also being a classic indicator of a certain 3 letter PED acronym. As for his decision not to retire, I have a difficult time imagining he was thinking of Stan’s legacy in any manner. Not that he doesn’t respect Stan, but I don’t think any athlete is entering that type of out of the moment zone. More likely, he was grasping for time to see if the painkillers or anti-inflamitories were going to enable him to get back into it.

  12. bl says:

    This pretty much eliminates Nadal from the GOAT argument. If he were the GOAT he would have beaten the #8 player in the world injured or not. I think of Michael Chang beating world #1 Ivan Lendl in the ’89 French Open while battling leg cramps. He tried every trick in the book in order to get the most out of what he had. Nadal barely put up a fight.

    Of course I only mention this because as a Lendl fan that may have been the most devastating tennis defeat I’d ever experienced.

  13. MRCS says:

    Whatever really happened in this case (I’m not sure I buy Joe’s interpretation) I don’t think there’s any disputing the fact that Nadal is a class act. But then the same is true of the rest of The Big Four ™ — they are never less than gracious in victory and generous in defeat — and of most of the top men’s players. (I wouldn’t necessarily say the same for some of the top women).

    Referring to the earlier GOAT discussion, I don’t personally like Nadal’s game — too much brute force and not enough finesse — so I would have hard time rating him above Federer and some of the old time players whose style is/was the height of elegance. The fact that Federer manages to combine such great style with so much success puts him at the top in my view.

  14. MCD says:

    So this Nadal guy is #55 ? Never heard of him.

  15. Fin Alyn says:

    Unless he’s completely incapable of playing, Nadal will play. He’s a champion in a Final. It’s what he and these other guys live for. I don’t think he was playing for Stan, but I do think he wasn’t going to let Stan win on a default. Stan was going to have to win the match. Also, I think Stan lost the third set in part because he wasn’t going to take advantage of the injury. As Joe pointed out, he could have started drop shotting, lobbing, and just try to run Nadal out of the match. If it had reached a fifth set? I’m sure he would have, because at that point you don’t give the win to the other guy just because he’s hurt.

    • Byrne says:

      of course he wasn’t playing for Stan. That narrative is borderline ridiculous. He was extending the match to see if whatever he took during his medical timeout was going to benefit him. Second to that, one would assume he’s well aware of the heat/criticism Djoker received when he’d tap out early in matches prior to his transformation of 2011. Fed never retires, like ever. I don’t recall Murray tapping out in a match that meant something. I mean he retired in the 3rd set in Rome last year, but we know that his back was legit injured given the surgery last fall.

  16. Dunboyne says:

    Here’s another narrative.

    Nadal was under enormous pressure to win the match. He was a heavy heavy favorite, having beaten Stan so many times without even losing a set. He was trying to be the first player to win at least two of each slam. He was trying to equal Pete’s record of 14 slams. Pete was there watching. Pete was handing out the trophy. His camp, and especially his hard-driving uncle, very likely couldn’t imagine him going down to Stan under those circumstances. The media too said it was all but impossible for Nadal to lose the match. Also, Nadal has a personality where losing is a hideously unpalatable option, even at the best of times when the odds are level. In this scenario, where he is a huge favorite, he has a history of being a bit of a narcissist and finding ways to minimize the “shame” of defeat (see his loss to Darcis).

    Nadal realizes after being down a set and a break that the odds of him winning the match are slim. It’s Stan’s day. Rafa takes an MTO, not at the end of the first set, but when down a break in the second, on Stan’s serve. He does this to “ice” the server. The knowledgeable crowd is on to him, though, for his gamesmanship. He returns from the locker room to a chorus of boos. Nadal gets so embarrassed and feels so slighted that a switch goes off in him. He knows that he’s not going to beat Stan on this day – he’s being pummeled – and it’s a day when the pressure of winning is more than he can bear. So he decides to get his honour back, somehow, and “prove” to the crowd that he’s really injured. He feigns injury, thereby setting up a “win-win” situation for himself: if he can win with an “obvious” injury, everyone will label him an incredible fighter who came back from the brink of defeat to win another slam, and his legacy will be cemented; if he loses, everyone will put an asterisk besides Stan’s victory and dismiss Nadal’s loss as “bad luck” and not really a true loss. Is he conscious of this scenario at the time? Is it well thought-out? Probably not. But at that moment, he could have easily intuited all of this.

    There are reasons why this narrative is more plausible. Have a look at the way Nadal was playing up until the break in the second. Maximum effort. No hint of a back injury. I’ve read a number of transcripts of the match and no one thought that this guy was playing with the slightest back injury. No one. Nadal said he tweaked his back in the warmup, and again at the end of the first set. I call Bull. Any athlete knows that if your back suffers a slight niggle, your play is affected; the muscles in the back are involved in every little movement. But not a hint of an injury for Rafa, that is, until it became convenient for him to get out of the match with his reputation intact. If he tweaked his back after the first set then why didn’t he take the MTO at that point? Because he wasn’t really injured then – he only took the MTO to ice Stan (Stan even complained to the umpire that Nadal has a history of these antics). Then, when Rafa came out to massive disapproval from the crowd, he felt “dishonoured” and flipped the switch. And by the way, what pro athlete in his right mind continues with a back injury? Did Nadal have an MRI done in the MTO so that he knew his back wasn’t going to get worse by continuing? If he had really been injured, it would have been an absolutely boneheaded move, jeopardizing his future in the sport.

    Joe’s narrative of Nadal wanting to “honour” his opponent by continuing the match is just pure Pollyanna Hollywood garbage. By not retiring, Nadal is effectively saying to his opponent, and everyone else, that the only way he (Nadal) is going to win the match is if Stan chokes. And the only way Stan is going to win the match is by getting through the huge mental obstacle of playing an opponent who’s giving fifty percent effort. It’s a setup where Stan’s failure becomes a very realistic possibility. So you tell me where the honour is in that. By not retiring, if he was truly injured, Nadal purposefully set up a situation for his opponent to face the ignominy of choking, or face the difficulty and greatly reduced glory of winning versus a lame opponent. There is absolutely no honour in continuing the match under those circumstances. It seems far more likely that Nadal was engaged in more gamesmanship, either hoping to win by choke, or lose with false “heroism”. Deep down, of course, he couldn’t bring himself to retire because he knew he wasn’t really injured.

    It seems far more likely that the whole scenario was a ruse to alleviate Nadal’s perceived shame of being hammered on a day when the whole world was expecting him to win, and on a day when those in attendance even booed him for poor sportsmanship. Nadal found an “out” and he promptly took it, and the media was quick to take the bait. Rafa just couldn’t give Stan his day in the sun without first protecting his own legacy. Illuminating stuff for those sports fans not looking at things through rose-coloured glasses.

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