Rafael Nadal was clearly not himself as he battled supposed underdog Taylor Fritz at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden yesterday. As always, he persevered; his trademark resolve remained a constant. Yet, in his aim to preserve a win streak that had, by then, stretched to 20 matches, he labored far more than usual. And for all his checkered history with injuries, the reason for his inability to be at his best with the BNP Paribas Masters title on the line had to do with his breathing. As he noted in his post-mortem, “When I try to breathe, it’s painful and it’s very uncomfortable. It’s like a needle all the time inside. I get dizzy a little bit because it’s painful. It’s a kind of pain that limit[s] me a lot.”

Not that those from the outside looking in needed any confirmation. Nadal’s difficulties manifested itself early and often, and were readily apparent even beyond the two medical timeouts he called. Which, in retrospect, made the outcome, while unexpected, ultimately inevitable. Yesterday, Fritz was the better player by far, aided in no small measure by the handicap that had the top seed committing uncharacteristic errors. Significantly, the eventual winner came close to withdrawing from the final due to a sore ankle carried over from the semifinal round.

Nadal was his typical gracious self in the aftermath. He couldn’t have but acknowledged the result, of course. Fritz played excellently, hitting the ground running to jump to an early lead, and then not looking back. There may have been a second-set tie-break, but, really, there could be no discounting the achievement, which has the highest-ranked American on tour moving from 20th to 13th in the world. Not that the player at the top of the rankings has any complaints; after all, he was close to hanging up his racket at the end of 2021 prior to claiming the Australian Open for his 21st major triumph and going on his extended run.

“The last two months have been amazing, unforgettable, very emotional,” Nadal disclosed. “I enjoy things that I never thought I could live again a few months ago.” That said, he’s entering a period of uncertainty, made all the more perturbing by his advancing age. He’s slated to regroup as scheduled in his native Spain before embarking on his French Open campaign, but question marks abound. “The thing that worries me now, it’s about what’s going on there, what I have to do now to recover and how long it’s going to take.”

Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.