LONDON, Jan 26 (Reuters) - The sight of a stricken Rafa Nadal being finished off by fellow Spaniard David Ferrer at the Australian Open on Wednesday was a stark reminder of the precipice he walks in search of sporting perfection.
Just three games into the contest, it was clear something had broken in the 24-year-old’s highly-tuned body, depriving him of the athleticism and explosive power that had pushed him to the brink of completing one of the sport’s rarest and most treasured collections.
His straight sets quarter-final loss, having playing most of the match in clear physical distress with an apparent hamstring injury, means there will be no ‘Rafa Slam’ and Rod Laver, back in 1969, is still the last man to hold all four majors at the same time.
When Nadal retired injured against Andy Murray at the same stage last year, some predicted his days at the top could be numbered as his joints rebelled against the daily punishment inflicted on them by a playing style that borders on violence.
The vultures were soon dispersed, however, as the Mallorcan burst into life during the claycourt season, not losing a single match, and went on to claim the a fifth French Open title, a second Wimbledon and a first U.S. Open title.
With ‘only’ nine majors to his name compared to the 16 of the amazingly injury-free Federer, however, his latest setback could set the tongues wagging again.
Nadal, however, remained sanguine despite the obvious disappointment of his 6-4 6-2 6-3 defeat, saying there was no cause to hit the panic button.
“I came here last year after probably six, seven months which were really hard for me with injuries,” Nadal, who won the Melbourne title in 2009 before his year turned into an annus horribilis, told reporters.
“Last year (at Melbourne) I had problems too and finally had the best season of my career -- I had a fantastic year and won three more grand slams.
“It is almost impossible to repeat that. Last year I was very lucky. I was healthy most of the year,” added Nadal, whose full-tilt physical style puts huge strain on his knees and ankles. “I was playing unbelievable all year.
Tears shed, Nadal was philosophical about the future.
“It’s not possible to be 100 percent all the time,” he shrugged. “That’s part of the sport -- accept it, keep working, try my best in the next tournament.”
Nadal’s dreams of matching Laver were ended after just 23 bruising minutes on Wednesday, the moment when he looked up to uncle and coach Toni and shook his head with a grimace.
However, Nadal’s decision to battle on and give close buddy Ferrer the satisfaction of a win, albeit a rather hollow one, said as much about his heart and his class.
He could have walked off and saved his muscles two further hours of torture but instead continued fighting, close to tears at one point, as defeat loomed.
“I hate retiring,” said Nadal, who stopped during his quarter-final with Britain’s Murray last year because of a knee injury. “I didn’t want to repeat that.”
Quitting is not in Nadal’s make-up -- as witnessed in Doha this month when hit by a flu bug during a defeat by Nikolay Davydenko. He was not 100 percent well in Melbourne either.
“In Doha I wasn’t healthy. Today I have another problem. Seems like I always have problems when I lose and I don’t want to have this image,” he said.
He can rest assured that he will leave for home with his reputation enhanced and with a little rest and recuperation it would be surprising if Nadal does not work on another “Rafa Slam” when Roland Garros comes around.
Additional reporting by Alastair Himmer; Editing by Brian Homewood. To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org
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