Twelve months ago, the (then) nine-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal withdrew from Roland Garros after two matches with a serious wrist injury. He was understandably devastated, his fans depressed and many pundits had declared it to be the end. After all, how much could a 30-year-old athlete who has wrecked his body with as many as nine big (that I can count) injuries endure?

But that’s not the big story, this is:

Twelve months after his wrist forced him to withdraw from his favourite Major, he came back to win an unprecedented 10th title at Roland Garros without dropping a set and losing only 35 games.

No man has ever won more than seven titles at a single Major; Nadal won 10. Only one man has dropped fewer games on his way to the title. No man has won more titles at the Slam considered most difficult. Only one man has more Grand Slam titles than him.

Sport writing is often prone to biblical clichés – David vs Goliath, Prodigal son, Lazarus rising. But when it comes to Nadal, perhaps resurrection is not hyperbole. True he didn’t die, but the fact that he is alive and kicking and winning is as good as a medical marvel.

  • This is the player who has suffered from an injury almost every year for the last 15 years.  
  • Who had to withdraw from Majors with injury even before his Grand Slam debut.  
  • Who suffered a rare injury that should have ended his career back in 2005.  
  • Who missed a whole of seven months with injury but came back to win two Majors in a year and become No 1 again.  
  • Who hadn’t won a Slam in three years and slipped as low as No 10 in the rankings. (He is ranked two now)  

Here’s a breakdown of all his injuries – from 2003 to 2016

For any normal human, top athlete or otherwise, that list of injuries is staggering.

But that’s not the big story, this is:

Nadal has overcome these debilitating injuries and gone on to win almost as many Majors as he has had breakdowns. Because limits are for mortals, not athletes like Rafael Nadal who has climbed onto the pantheon of tennis on sheer willpower, when all else failed.

Here’s a list of all the Grand Slam titles Nadal has won:

15 Slams & counting.
15 Slams & counting.

How does Nadal do this? What is the secret to this resilient longevity?

At this French Open itself, he didn’t just beat opponents; he overpowered them. Nadal demolished Stan Wawrinka 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 in a brutally one-sided final, he decimated Dominic Thiem 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 in the semi-final, weeks after the Austrian had become the first (and only) player to beat him on clay this year. In fact, the most number of games won against him at Roland Garros was a measly eight, in the second round by Robin Haase. This was domination, this was the kind of tennis that leaves the opposition no chance but to give in, this was Nadal at his brutal best, simply too strong.

There may be no answer other than miracle to this, but there have been plenty of hints from the man himself over the last fortnight – he did with his mind far stronger than his body. Consider these quotes:

“I have doubts every day but that’s good as it makes me work hard with more intensity,” Nadal said after his La Decima win. “You have to be humble and accept that you have to work to improve things. I have doubts today, I had doubts in the last three years, I will have doubts in a few days.”

Before the final, he had said, “Nine here is probably difficult. If I did it, probably somebody else [is] going to do it, because I don’t consider myself very special. I am not the right one to say, but to play 10 finals here is something difficult. But the thing that I am more proud of in my career probably is 2013. I had too many problems on my knee, so I was not able to practice at all. And I finished the year being world No 1, winning here [in Paris], winning the US Open. So that’s the thing that I am more proud.”

Before the semi-finals, he had said, “I don’t know how many games I lost this year, but I really don’t care about this. I only care that I am in the semi-finals. My only goal is try to be ready to play my best.”

Mind over matter

These quotes gives you a fair idea about how the method behind the madness of Nadal’s records. It’s all about mind over matter, a trait that has defined more than half his career titles. True, he has a chronic injury and a physically intense game and a superiority on clay, the most demanding surface.

But he also possesses a weapon far bigger than his forehand, more powerful than his two-handed backhand but probably just as lethal – a burning zeal to be the best, razor-sharp concentration on his game, a work ethic that would put bees to shame and the hunger to go out there and give it his all to win. You can scarcely overcome him if you can’t wear him out first.

From arranging his bottles to pin-point precision court-side to placing his serve with the same drive, Nadal is as fierce in his focus as he is in his tennis. He puts his mind through the grinder before grinding out results on court.

Injuries forced him to rework, adapt and change his game; but he made this change a process of evolution. His serve may have some of its bite and his forehand drop intensity and his position at the baseline changed; but he soaked it all up and channelised his energy into making sure his changed game was still challenging. Continuing with tennis was a do-or-die battle and the “matador”, as the Spaniard is often called, took the proverbial bull by the horns to not be tamed.

In his own words, he has doubts which he overcomes by working hard on improving his game. All he has cared about is pushing his body so he can start playing his best again, and his best is good enough to set a new record every time.

Two months after he pulled out of the French Open last year, he won an Olympics gold medal in men’s doubles and reached the bronze medal match in the singles. A month later, he bowed out of US Open and didn’t play for the rest of the season, raising questions about his longevity for the umprteenth time.

But that’s not the big story, this is:

Nadal reached the final of the 2017 Australian Open, losing in five sets to Roger Federer. He reached two more finals, at Acapulco and Miami. He then dominated the clay-court season with titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid, setting a new record for titles on the surface. He lost just one match on clay all year and took his French Open record to a staggering 79 wins and just two losses.

Despite more than a decade of multiple injuries, Nadal didn’t just survive, he thrived.