Court Calamity Part 2: the super & human

Note: The following article is a continuation from last week’s ‘Court Calamity’. It infuses the events from Rafael Nadal’s summer, alongside my return to the humble courts of Bahrain. In it I also discuss the heavy expectation, criticism and judgment of professional athletes. If you want to read part one click here

When we look at professional athletes we tend to attribute them with unparalleled strength. We see them as the titans of the sports that we follow, and rightfully so, they have twisted and turned their bodies daily to achieve these heights. On the other hand their constant victories open the floodgates to the critics and naysayers to parade all over their accomplishments at the first scent of blood before it even hits the floor, be it a loss or an injury. God forbid they begin to flinch on court and we start to question their herculean integrity. “What!? Federer lost in the Semi Finals? He’s done.” How dare he not reach a final, how dare he become human again? Rafael Nadal was injured last year and he did lose early at Wimbledon. Indeed according to fashion it was easy to get on the he’s done parade, surely his knees cannot handle the hard court swing of the season? I know these critics were writing about him, but I couldn’t help as see each piece as a reflection of my issues.  My chondromalacia isn’t going anywhere so am I also done?

The summer of hard courts has come and gone, and the sun has settled over Flushing Meadows as the final grand slam of the year reached its epic conclusion. We all know what happened, but once we take a closer look at the statistics we begin to see the feat that Nadal has accomplished, especially after coming back from an injury. His current track record is 65 wins, 3 loses this year, capturing 2 grand slam titles and winning the Emirates Airline US Open Series Bonus Challenge being awarded $3.4 million, the highest one day payout in tennis history. Here is another Stat for the beloved critics, as I write this Nadal ousted Thomas Berdych in the semi finals of the China Open, attaining the #1 ranking and get this, he hasn’t lost a single hard court match this year. Pretty good for a guy with bad knees ay?

Again, again and Again Nadal with his Cincinnati,Montreal and US Open Trophies
Again, again and Again Nadal with his Cincinnati,Montreal and US Open Trophies

I’ve only been back on the courts quietly training for about two weeks, and even those sessions left me reeling at night. The pain was an unwelcome after taste that remains disguised, leaving me to wonder the fine line between soreness and chronic.

I gently place my water bottles beside my bench and begin to jump and kick my legs behind me. The gate creeks open and in walks Wael Ghalayini my friend and first opponent since July 2012. I remember comfortably beating him in the quarterfinals last year at the same tournament but my injury and absence has branded me the connotation of a broken athlete. I knew I would become a different player and I was about to find out how.

I remember breaking his serve and feeling the rush of energy fill me up again. The absence left me not only hungry but fueled with aggression. I wasn’t taking uncalculated shots, but I was playing brave. Whatever time I had left as a tennis player I wanted to go out on court and be a fighter. I went for my shots and was able to close out the set 6-3.  My wife, my sister ‘agent/coach’, alongside my physiotherapist and best friends were all there cheering me on, and I felt invincible.

Although I was nourished by the high of competition, I let the relief of being one set up linger too long and soon enough I was engulfed by fear. I remember approaching the net and volleying the ball long and causing me to drop 2-4. My serve was broken and it was the first moment where my invincibility was replaced with the realization that I could in fact lose this match. I felt vulnerable and needed to shake of the mental rust and fight off the fatigue setting in. The critic this time wasn’t a reporter or an online article but my own doubts clouding my head as I walk back towards the baseline to start the next game. I try to ease my mind as the ever-present concoction of adrenaline and heart palpitations symphonize within me.

On course, I lost the second set 3-6. Our fate was to be decided in a tiebreak. Here I turned on the calculated aggression and was the first to secure ten points and with it the match. With each win I found confidence in my second life on court and cherished each point, blistering through the next two rounds in straight sets. I refused to let anything get in the way of my resurgence and the cramped scheduling and falling on my ankle during the quarters wasn’t enough to keep me away from securing a place in the semi finals.

Me during my first round match against Wael. 6-3 3-6 10-3
Me during my first round match against Wael. 6-3 3-6 10-3

PBS’ Charlie Rose’s interview with Nadal was laced with questions regarding his absence and mental preparation required for such an epic comeback in which he responded ‘When you are coming after a low moment you know that you are stronger’. Although injury might weaken a specific part of your body, the rest of it does indeed strengthen. Throughout the swing this summer Nadal was evidently more aggressive and focused, and some might even begin to question the injuries. I remember leaving my opponent puzzled during the second round after tenaciously returning his shots, refusing to let a single ball wiz past me.

During the interview Nadal was also asked about regaining the number one position for which Nadal answered “The number one was never a goal for me, I’ve always felt you are number one or you are not, you cannot try to be number one. I go day by day and do my best and if I have a chance to be number one at the end of the season then that’s great.” Here we see a display of his humility and an indication of where Nadal’s focus is, not the ranking but his game. Those three loses that he endured this year could have been enough to place seeds of doubt and send any athlete through a downward spiral, however he refused to entertain the concept and instead he battled on. Rafael Nadal didn’t let the three loses define him and get in the way of his 65 victories one of them ending like this…

Nadal collapses after championship point at the US Open 2013 Final
Nadal collapses after championship point at the US Open 2013 Final

He can finally let go. Collapsing in an incontrollable heap on the floor his tears blend with his sweat as his chest shakes from the gushing sense of relief and emotion. Just like Murray’s triumphant Wimbledon capture, the superhuman and human side of the athlete collide to bring forth a brilliant display of athleticism and desire. When Rose asked Nadal what ingredient was necessary for all this to happen he simply replied with one word

”passion”.

My semi-finals was a repeat of last year where I beat Mo Gaith to reach the final and become JC’s Academy’s first champion, however this time my run would end there. Again we can look at matches based on loses “Oh what Mo lost in the semi’s he’s done.” Or we can see the dynamics within that match. I did come back from 4-1 down to tie 4-4, I remember being at the net where I smashed the ball away from my opponent to the roar of the crowd. When Nadal was facing calamity during the US Open Final (end of 2nd set) the momentum was shifting towards Djokovic he commented on this point “I needed to resist that moment, Djokovic has the best back hand on tour, and I needed to create confusion”. This is a very honest and loaded statement by Nadal that speaks volumes of the dynamics of battle, proving just how focused and willing he was to dismiss the inner critic and not let the ‘most dangerous backhand’ or playing opposite the then #1 ranked player to regain the momentum and bring home the US Open trophy.

Nadal's post US Open interview with PBS' Charlie Rose
Nadal’s post US Open interview with PBS’ Charlie Rose

That night although I lost, the crowd gave me a magical moment, celebrating my birthday and my warm return to court. The pain was lingering in my knees and tears swelled in my eyes during my post match interview. I whole-heartedly wished that I could have won for them after giving me their time and energy. I remember looking up at the heavens during match point and saying ‘Sorry Maryam’ to my sister who was away, and hoping that I could win for the late Dr. Khalifa Bindayna who lost the battle to cancer 48 hours before, having dedicated his life to saving his patients. But in the end I already felt that I had won by gaining their love and support.

With my beloved team (top) and below from my opening match with Wael (left) and finalist Mo Gaith during practice (bottom right)
With my beloved team (top) and below from my opening match with Wael (left) and finalist Mo Gaith during practice (bottom right)

Although I remain separated from Nadal by zeros in our paychecks and far from the sports lenses, my circumference reaching hundreds rather then millions of people. I admit that I do not come equipped with the most consistent backhand in the country, but my heart is on full display during every match, so I guess there is something that unites me with Nadal after all…

Passion.

A world apart, united by passion.
A world apart, united by passion.

Thank you for taking the time to read the conclusion to my two part post. I hope that you have enjoyed the blog so far. I hope to keep sharing my energy and love for fitness and motivate people to find their inner strength and attain their personal success stories. I value you your interaction and feedback, after all this is written for YOU *awww feel special* Let me know your thoughts, your feelings on this piece, share your struggles and injuries, questions on fitness and anything else that crosses your mind. Leave a comment below, email me or send me a tweet. Would really love to hear what YOU have to say. With Love, Mohammed

Court Calamity Part 1 : The future of Rafa Nadal

A year ago Nadal was not only absent from the US Open, but was missing from Sport channel lenses since his second round loss at Wimbledon. During his seven-month privation I was due for Surgery midway. Before boarding my flight to the United States I picked up his autobiography hoping to gain insight on his injuries, rigorous training lifestyle and how he managed to overcome adversity and achieve such acrolithic heights. Unfortunately the book ends with his triumphant 2010 US Open capture. His current knee condition and the future of his career were kept under wraps and shrewd in mystery. Although digging up his past encouraged me to adapt a warrior mentality, his current position made the path ahead ambiguous. It didn’t help that the doctor’s diagnosis that my humble career has reached its end just as I was starting to breakthrough.

Rafael Nadal and myself back during Wimbledon 2012. The woman behind me must really think that he is yummy...
Rafael Nadal and myself back during Wimbledon 2012. I’d like to believe that the woman behind me was checking me out (not Nadal)

During my three months of consistent rehabilitation I found it hard to turn on the TV and watch a professional match. Every time I tried to do so, the slow motion replay of players constant sprinting and sudden stops was enough to make me cringe as the cameras zoomed on their leg. Like nails to a blackboard, I felt my knee strain without even being on the court. The doctors were eager to see how my knee would respond after surgery and rehab and I was put on court in early January. Unfortunately my knee-braced appearance encouraged my opponent to deviously exploit my weakness. Almost every return was a dropshot* and thirty minutes later I was wiped off the court, and the knee reeling in complete agony

*dropshot: is when a ball is sliced to fall closer to the net forcing the player to run from the baseline to retrieve that ball. Constantly doing this only aggravated my knee in the process*

My physiotherapy sessions at the Allentown Surgery Center (October 2012)
My physiotherapy sessions at the Allentown Surgery Center (October 2012)

I spent months absent from the gym floor and my ears deprived from the sound of my soles screeching against Bahrain’s finest hard courts. My early morning high-octane drive was curbed; instead of pushing my athleticism and fitness to new limits my physiotherapy routine only made me feel more broken. I had to give antagonizing description of the position and level of pain and endure consistent stretching and pressuring the knee to cooperate rebuild, hopefully to at least reach a point where I don’t have to feel like a button was automatically pressed to ignite pain every time I woke up. My physiotherapist and close friend Rashid is amazing at what he does, and it was never sufficient enough to just tell him ‘ouch it hurts’, there’s more to rehab than just that, and as it turns out there was more to my issue then just surgery and missing cartilage.

Sometimes I had to aggravate the knee further for me to reach any beneficiary result, alongside the fact that every knee responds differently, I was again a human experiment.

With Rashed during physiotherapy. A great friend who has always believed in me and pushes me through all of this.
With Rashed during physiotherapy. A great friend who has always believed in me and pushes me through all of this.

Before his return, everybody questioned Nadal’s integrity, and the King of Clay’s future had a big question mark on it. I cannot deny how amazed I was when he won the French Open earlier this year. The finals took place during my trek across Cappadocia. I enjoyed my recuperation with some Turkish tea as Nadal battled it out on the red dirt. His arsenal was still fully equipped, however what will happen to his tennis once we add hard courts to the equation. Unfortunately for Nadal, we did not have to wait for that. I remember walking up towards the players lounge at this years Wimbledon during lunch, and I noticed that the entire world around me stood still. The media rooms and player rest area was silent and everybody’s eyes were darted towards the nearest monitor. Nadal was a point away from being eliminated from the first round of Wimbledon against #135 Steve Darcis.

And it happened… in straight sets.

I saw the shock amongst the players, the technical team and officials behind the scene. They couldn’t believe what just occurred. It’s not going to get easier, the hard court season was just around the corner. What now for the Spaniard?

Rafael Nadal during his first round to Darcis (Wimbledon 2013)
Rafael Nadal during his first round to Darcis (Wimbledon 2013)

During the Holy month of Ramadan, JC’s tennis academy was holding agility training sessions at night and I was encouraged to lace up my tennis shoes and hit the court. After months of rehab and skepticism I walked across the baseline for the very first time to greet everybody at the benches. Although I got the green light from both my doctor and physiotherapist, the final approval I was waiting for was from my knee. Talking to my tennis inspiration James Blake during his training at Wimbledon is probably what pushed me to try harder to make it back to the courts, himself having knee surgery and telling me to keep going with no regrets. Its funny how my year of constantly searching for answers and examples, ended with just a few sentences from Blake.

That night, I was slow and sluggish on the court, and it wasn’t the fasting or the gluten test I was on..

my knee wasn’t cooperating.

I eventually warmed up and started to return my shots with the fierceness that spent the last year in hibernation. My on court movement issues were only the beginning. My time on court aggravated the knee to the point where I had to unearth post-surgery Vicodin pills to help me go to sleep. I remember this point clearly. I cried myself to sleep, and after seeing my opponents overpower me during a mere practice season, I pronounced my tennis days over.

Two weeks from that date, both Nadal and myself began our hard court seasons. Although we are two different tennis players, in different stages of our career and playing on different spectrums almost a world apart, we remain united in uncertainty and doubt. Two weeks later we proved the world wrong in very different ways.

Rafael Nadal with his French Open Trophy 2013
Rafael Nadal with his French Open Trophy 2013

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this article. I really hope you have enjoyed it. I did leave some parts of my injury and other aspects ambiguous as I would like to tackle them in future articles. However Part 2 will cover the events that took place two weeks later and will be released Sunday October 6th 2013 and is now available to read by clicking here!

I would love to read your comments on what i’ve written. What has amazed you about Nadal’s fight to comeback? Has it encouraged you to push through with your own injuries or tribulations? Even if you do not play tennis, what does this article leave you with? Sound of in the comments box below 🙂

Behind the Baseline

There are moments once captured by your mind, engulf your thoughts repeatedly. Vivid images creep up on me whilst I’m training in the gym or driving on the road. Championship point; a cross-court forehand smacked right into the net. The forehand belonged to me, and the match was now his.Taciturn in sound the soft thud as the net absorbs the vital yellow fuzz has now determined my fate, forever echoing in my memory.

You leave the court sore and disappointed, questioning why you put yourself through such agony. I awake the next day sore in places I’ve never felt pain before, I decide to shake the regret that has sunk its claws deep into my back still trying to hang on. The gear is on and I’m at the courts before 6 am practicing my serves getting ready for the next battle. How did I get here and why am I so hungry to win one? Did it really just take an Olympic match featuring James Blake and a read through his autobiography and miraculous comeback? Now it’s a life of break points, heart palpitations, cracked pavements, higher seeds, left-handers and floodlights. Ahhh That’s life within a 36×78 feet box.

Back in high school I studied hard to attain the best grades possible, however when it came to P.E. I was well below the mark. It wasn’t easy moving my 42’ waist around any field without feeling like my lungs were going to eject every organ out of my chest. Losing weight wasn’t easy, so why would winning a championship be? I based my life around training. My sleep, food and fitness schedule was all set up to get me in the best possible shape to reach another final, and this time come out swinging. All this never stopped the visions of the final point from haunting me. Years later I’ve reached finals and lost but none stung me like the first one. I was never really able to forgive myself until I reached the JCs Final in 2012.

Although haunted by my past, I realized through experience on the court that it wasn’t just physical stamina and shot making that leads you to the big win. You need to flex your mental muscle, something that doesn’t grow with the number of push-ups, but by envisioning a way forward, moving past the sinking feeling of regret, doubt and fear. Tennis is not a team sport. Your coach is not on the sideline giving you advice during the match. You are left alone in the middle of the court with nothing but a racket and heart in your hand as a hundred eyes feast on your every move; your every breathe and heartbeat almost audible as you go for a serve.

Today I look on Blake’s story through a different lens. I am now a champion who is trying to overcome injury and surgery while still motivating others to develop a healthy and active lifestyle. Some doctors have questioned my ability to return to the sport that has once breathed new life into me. Chondromalacia, I’ll give you a game and even a set, but this match is far from over.

Tennis = Flying
Tennis = Flying