To see a great sportsman at the peak of his or her powers, is one of the reasons why top level sport can be so compelling. By the same token, it can be painful to witness a sporting great searching for one of their superpowers. And so it was with Rafael Nadal at the All England club yesterday.
Rafa’s opponent, Dustin Brown, whilst talented, had only won four times previously at Wimbledon. But short of the vital champions currency of confidence and self-belief, Rafa was pushed aside by Brown playing the match of his career.
Nadal didn’t fall short through lack of will, endeavour and desire. That would be impossible as those qualities are engraved into his tennis playing soul. No. It was more a case of what happens when a champion can’t perform at the level that he is used to. The level that has made him such a formidable opponent and fans favourite.
Nadal was searching for that champions feeling that has seen him win so many games when not as his best. But the feeling wasn’t there. Short of gold dust, it’s very hard for a champion when they feel ordinary. It’s not normal!
Why have the tennis gods deserted me? And how can i woo them back? This is the champions dilemma. And one Tiger Woods is familiar with. When you are so used to playing at a base level of 8/10, it is very difficult to get a feeling for your game, when you are strugglig at a 3 or 4/10.
The things which were once second-nature, are now hard work. The sense of timelessness you had in the big classic finals, is a distant memory. Now the game feels rushed and out of rhythm.
And with the lack of rhythm the doubts start to creep in. Doubts that were non-existant in the Championship winning days. Now doubts grow across the basic areas of your game like a virus. And you don’t know how to stop it. Because it is not familiar. This is the champions dilemma.
The press start to write your sporting obituary. Maybe you believe some of it yourself. But Rafael Nadal, if he is still physically in top shape, should not buy into any of it.
Roger Federer is currently demonstrating that age is no barrier to supreme excellence. Rafa may have to find a slightly different way of playing that crystallizes his tennis knowledge and experience, with a style of playing that is kinder to his body.
And for a time he may have to adopt the role of the hungry underdog as he pits his wits against the top players. But there is one thng a champion craves more than anything else.
And that is to experience more of those magic moments when they are with the tennis gods. When they are hitting shots that they don’t know even know how they made them. When the ball is as big as a football. When time slows down so that you are playing in slow-motion. When you experience these not-normal moments, you are as alive as it is possible to feel.
And its the yearning and need to experience such moments again , that will drive Rafael Nadal forward. As the virgin Queen Elizabeth The First said on her death-bed, ‘I will give all my earthly jewels, for another precious moment of life’.