There has been in recent years, and rightly so, an emphasis on the mental toll that the game of tennis can take on a player: the anxiety; the bouts of depression brought on by strings of losses; the nagging, worrying doubt that can take hold and drift down into a loathing of the game, and then of the self. But this crucial awakening to the psychological should not obscure what professional tennis, as played today, does to the body. The hard courts, the long season, the rallies that can go on and on, the pace and spin that racquets and strings (and fitness) now provide and force a player to absorb—the physical toll of the game is greater than ever before.
No player has embodied and endured that harsh modern-day reality like Rafael Nadal. His unorthodox technique and grinding, unyielding style of play have worn out his muscled body and forced him out of tournaments and off the circuit with injuries to his elbow (2003), wrist (2004), and left foot (2005). Throughout this past fall, he worked to recover from yet another recurrence of that foot injury which he has had to painfully manage, or try to manage, for most of his career. Whether he would even play in this year’s Australian Open, in Melbourne, was in doubt. This past Friday, after he defeated Matteo Berrettini in the semifinal, he said that, in the months leading up to the tournament, he’d had conversations with his family and his team about how it might be time to “say goodbye” to tennis.