I've had all I can stands, I can't stands no more. I get the insidiously short term memory of a tennis fan - this sport relies more on momentum than almost any other, and if you ain't got momentum, you ain't got nuthin - but losing faith in Rafael Nadal is, to me, absolute idiocy.
On the eve of the defense of his 2009 Indian Wells title, it's hard not to see how significantly the Spaniard's stock has fallen in the last twelve months. He was untouchable, brutalizing his way through the spring and losing only one match (to Juan Martin del Potro in Miami) en route to near clay-court domination. And then his knee and his parents' marriage gave out, and he's been trying to catch up ever since.
It's been tough to watch as a Rafa fan, for a number of reasons. First, we've never seen him struggle. Not once, since he first stepped foot on a tennis court. Has any player had the kind of pure upward trajectory this kid has laid claim to since he made his debut nearly ten (!) years ago? Second, he's a beast! He can always be counted on to get that ball back, no matter where in the parking lot it lands. Lastly, he's just hands down one of the nicest, most humble guys on tour.
So to see his confidence shaken, particularly as the result of forces beyond his control is, at best, a serious downer. But to be sounding the alarm on his career as we knew it is ludicrous. "The beast is broken!" "He's dropped to No 3!" "He's in a Shakira video, why isn't he on a practice court?!" "FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, SOMEBODY DO SOMETHING!"
I'm doing it right now. I'm slapping you out of it.
Don't count out this man!
First, let's take a look at his struggle. Since returning from injury in August, Nadal hasn't won a title. That's bad. But take a look at the players he's lost to: Del Potro, Djokovic, Cilic, Davydenko, Soderling, Murray. Hardly chumps, and in fact all possessing the very best hard court games today. He's made four semis and two finals. Not exactly vintage Rafa, and far from his own personal standards, but far from the Hindenburg disaster the media is making it out to be.
Rafa's certainly not floundering under the weight of anyone else's expectations but his own. He's never been driven by ego. You want proof, check out his unwillingness to gripe in the slightest during the years he spent playing second fiddle to Roger Federer in the rankings. Simply put, Rafa loves to play, and Rafa loves to win. And he's more than willing to tweak his game to make that happen, from beefing up his serve to flattening out his groundstrokes. Rafa evolves. He adapts.
Some don't question his will or his commitment, but his body. How can it hold up with the grueling nightmare he puts it through match after match? We've been hearing this argument for years. And yet, when he finally succumbs to an injury (as all non-Swiss players must at some point), it becomes a prophecy fulfilled. See? Told ya so. But consider this: He'd played a ridiculously packed schedule leading up to last year's knee injury (brought to the brink by an epic four-hour 3-setter v. Novak Djokovic in Madrid), something he swore he'd never do to himself again. And the injury he suffered in Melbourne was unrelated. So could he be breaking down? Sure. But no more than anyone else (in fact, of the entire ATP top ten, only Djokovic enters Indian Wells this week without some physical issue). The difference is $27.5 million. That's the prize money Nadal's earned that he can put towards physios, trainers and witch doctors to make sure he's strong like bull. Stronger even.
And I don't doubt he'd use up every penny of it doing just that. Why? Are we that collectively brainless that we can just forget what got him to the top spot in the first place? Are we so willing to give in to our fears (or in the case of the more fanatical followers of his competition, dreams come true) that we're willing to write off the single solitary characteristic that makes Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal? Fight, dammit!
Rafa fights. That's what he does. Uncle Toni didn't teach him this, it's in his blood. He fights for every title, every match, every set, every game, every point. He fights.
They say you learn more about a person's character in times of adversity than you do in times of success. Rafa may not defend Indian Wells. He may struggle on the 2010 clay. His points may drop off, his ranking may sink. But when all is said and done, whatever you think you know about the lefty from Mallorca, prepare to get schooled. In a way you'll never forget.
Follow me live from Indian Wells at twitter.com/JamesLaRosa.