If you like team sports, an injury to your favorite player is devastating, but at least you have the colors to keep rooting for, and the team will carry on. But what happens when you follow an individual sport and your favorite player is out for seven months? Sure, you like other players, you like the game itself, but it’s not nearly the same: your preferred entity is not even competing. This is what the many fans of Rafael Nadal have gone through since they last saw him play on June 28th, 2012. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Nadal fans have had to deal with endless speculation about the 11-time major champion’s injury, his future on tour, an aborted comeback a month ago, and pretty much everything in between. I can’t possibly claim to know what these seven months have been like, so I asked my wife, a long-standing Nadal fan, to let us into what her tennis life has been like during this tough stretch.
In the last seven months, I feel a bit as if I’ve been going through the motions of a tennis fan. Yes, I watched tennis virtually every week, but it differed from years past. I didn’t have the same sense of urgency for the moment, nor did I have the same sense of excitement. Sure, there were moments that really captivated me: I celebrated Andy Murray’s accomplishments in London and New York, cheered Ferrer’s M1000 breakthrough, marveled at the display by Azarenka and Kerber in Istanbul, desperately wished that Almagro could prove Berdych wrong in Prague, and swore off sleep to catch the action in Australia. But, something was missing for me. And that something was Rafael Nadal.
And, yes, I know that Rafael Nadal has not really been missing since that Wimbledon defeat because he’s certainly kept us abreast of his comings and goings on both Twitter and Facebook. I loved his enthusiasm for Spanish athletes during the Olympics, oohed and awed over the cute photos with his cousins, and laughed at his Poker Star commercials. Although, would it have been too much to ask that he have a weekly video that opens with “hello everybody guys?” That may have helped fill the void I’ve felt since that fateful day in June.
Believe me, I tried to fill it. I’ve watched highlight clips and old press conferences on YouTube (As an aside, the press conference below will always be my favorite of his. I still smile every time he says “windy,” I love his confusion about the phrase “run away with the match,” and I laugh every time he demonstrates how he elevates his feet.
And, while I feel Rafa has provided me with memories to last a lifetime, I still can’t help feeling as if those memories are not enough. I’ve felt his absence keenly at every tournament, and I can’t help but think of all that I miss when Rafa’s not present.
I’ve missed seeing him stride out at the start of matches, with his racket in hand. I’ve missed seeing his legs bounce jitterly in his seat during changeovers. I’ve missed seeing him arrange his water battles, towels, and bags. I’ve missed seeing him do his Rafa run to start the warm-up.
I’ve missed the butterflies in my stomach before a big match begins. I’ve missed yelling “SERVE” at the TV when he’s being slow between points. I’ve missed critiquing his shot selection. I’ve missed the amazement he evokes in me when he makes a shot I thought there was no way he could make.
I’ve missed the snarl, the sneer, the intensity, the fist pumps, the “vamoses” and “sís.” I’ve missed seeing him duck his head down and sprint for drop shots. I’ve missed hearing him say things like “we gonna see, no?” during press conferences.
And, more than anything I’ve missed his tennis. Oh, how I’ve missed his heavy topspin forehands that push opponents back, his dipping backhand passing shots, and the put away volleys at net. I’ve missed the thunderous ace down the T that always seems to come at the most opportune time. I’ve missed holding my breath when he goes to hit an overhead or gets caught in a cat-and-mouse-exchange at net. I’ve even missed his slices that sit up for opponents to tee off on, getting him in trouble.
So, I should be beyond excited about Rafa’s return at Viña Del Mar, right? I’ve been waiting, what has seemed like an eternity at times, for this moment. And part of me is. I can’t wait to see him stride onto court. I know that I will smile. I know that I will savor fist pumps and vamoses. I know that I will applaud his winners and groan at bad unforced errors. I know that I will celebrate, regardless of the outcome, at the end of the match.
But yet, I find myself wresting with other feelings apart from pure excitement. For starters, I feel a bit worn out. I was eagerly awaiting Nadal’s presence at the start of the season, and then I had to work my way through a cycle of emotions when he withdrew in succession from Abu Dhabi, Doha, and the Australian Open. First, I experienced disappointment, which turned quickly to worry over Rafa’s health and well-being. As I processed all of this, I did feel a bit of relief that Rafa was waiting to ease back onto the scene in a less intense setting, and I also managed to muster some cautious optimism for the season ahead.
But, even though I do my best to feel optimistic about this upcoming season, I have a sense of trepidation about Rafa’s return. I worry. I worry about the expectations that the media and fans have for him. I worry about the expectations that he has for himself. I worry that he will feel pressure to excel immediately and that he won’t receive a grace period in which to find his footing. While I feel like I should be relieved that he is starting the season on his beloved clay, the surface on which he feels the most comfortable and the surface which is easiest on his body, I honestly feel like returning on clay may be a double-edged sword. Yes, he is returning on a swing in which there is less of a media glare, and presumably less scrutiny and pressure. But I worry that his previous play on clay has set the bar so high that anything less than a tournament victory will be viewed as a colossal failure and trumpeted as a disappointment. And, of course, I worry that this return will be short lived. Seeing him practice with tape on his knee and hearing him mention knee pain hasn’t helped quell that fear, either.
Most of all, though, I worry that his return will become bogged down with whispered doubts and negativity. I don’t want to think about how long his career will last, how many more slams he will win, or anything of the sort. I just want to see him play. I’ve missed his presence more than I can articulate, and I’m worried that others may impede my ability to fully appreciate and savor this moment.
I hope, though, that those worries will start to recede as the number of matches under Rafa’s belt increases. I’m hoping that all this worrying is just due to my anxiety about his return, and that once things become “familiar” again, I’ll start worrying and focusing more on draws and opponents. I really feel like I’ve been in a purgatory of sorts these past seven months, and I’ve had far too much time to dwell on my fears. I haven’t been able to escape yet, but I hope that Rafa’s presence on a court will help me ascend. I’m hoping with all my might that I reach a point where the glow of Rafa’s return will wear off, and that I will experience the normal gamut of emotions that fans go through during the course of a season: the thrill of victories and the agonies of stinging defeats.
So Welcome Back, Rafa. I’ve missed you.