For Want of a Nail

Posted on May 25, 2014. Filed under: Tennis | Tags: , , , |

For want of a nail, a shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, a horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the message was lost.
For want of a message, the battle was lost.
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.
      All for the want of a nail.

When at a young age I learned this rhyming proverb, its vivid message deeply impressed my imagination. That a small difference, lack, or oversight could lead to progressively larger failures in a chain of seemingly inescapable consequences appalled me. For awhile I was haunted by the fear that a broken shoelace might lead to chaos of huge proportions—I wasn’t sure what form the ultimate disaster would take, but at some point, I knew, Godzilla was gonna manifest in my neighborhood. Extra laces, therefore, were always to hand.

Thankfully, nothing so epic ever resulted from one of my mistakes (knock on wood). This year, however, as I’ve followed my favorite sport, I have been strongly reminded of the proverb, more so as the months pass. I am thinking, of course, of Rafael Nadal.

In January, on the brink of the men’s final of the Australian Open, Nadal faced a most enviable crossroads. Should he win the match he would gain a 14th Major victory to complete a second career men’s Grand Slam, joining only tennis greats Rod Laver and Roy Emerson in owning that distinction. He would occupy a height above all others on the men’s tour and secure undying fame. Should he lose, he would gain 1,200 points in the Race to London, bolster his #1 world ranking, and be in good shape to compete in Indian Wells. The future shone bright on either path.

There was, however, a small matter of a nail lost—more accurately, some skin lost. Early in the AO campaign, Nadal had developed a blister on his left hand, right where the butt of his racquet fitted. In an unwise moment he popped the blister himself, rather than allowing his physio to tend the wound. As any mother could tell him, dire consequences swiftly followed. The open blister was painful and difficult to bandage. The uncomfortable dressing interfered with Nadal’s grip on the racquet. The looser grip caused the racquet to fly from his hand while practicing his serve and handicapped his play in matches against Nishikori and Dimitrov. To compensate for this difficulty, Nadal changed his service action. These ever increasing physical adjustments ended in disaster: during the final, Nadal’s back, thrown off by the unfamiliar compensatory movements, went into painful spasms, emphatically killing any chance for the AO crown and all that victory would have meant. For Nadal, it was worse than losing; he was unable to compete, glued to the court while balls whizzed by him untouched. (See For the Honor of Tennis.)

Sadly, the manner of the loss led to a third path completely unforeseen at that AO nexus. Nadal, shaken by the ever greater betrayal of his body, suffered a crisis of confidence, deeply doubting his ability to execute. He also lost time and fitness to the injury, missing a vital period of practice and training, falling behind his program of progressive improvement in form and execution. He had to skip one tournament, went out early in others, and lost finals—on clay!—he would normally have won. Ugly rumors and sly gloats gained momentum: Nadal was washed up, his career had entered an irreversible decline, his reign on clay was over. Even some of his most steadfast fans, spoiled by his wonted excellence, were shaken and angered by his drop in form. It was sometimes heartbreaking to watch. Yet, through it all, this humblest of athletes has soldiered through, grim-faced and determined.

Today begins Nadal’s tenth French Open campaign—a war he has won eight times already. In the past few weeks he has improved his play and strategy, has seemed more assured, but has not performed consistently. It is to be hoped, by all those who truly love tennis, that this great fighter recovers his confidence, his precision, his aggression. His is the strongest mind and the most competitive nature in the sport; it woud be a shame to see his defense of his Roland Garros title undone all for the want of a nail.

Best of luck, Rafael Nadal!

©Melissa McDowell, 2014. All rights reserved.

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  • About the title of this blog

    In Classical times, a man of Athens won a demanding competition against the best youth of Greece for the hand of Agariste, daughter of the tyrant of Sicyon.

    At the celebratory dinner following his victory, the splendid Hippokleides drank deeply--some said, too much--and began dancing upon the tables. (I think it was the Spartan war dance.) When the enraged father told the young man that his embarrassing foolishness had just cost him his prize, the youth gaily answered, “Hippokleides careth not,” and continued dancing. (You can read the story in Herodotus.)

    I identify with his response.

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