TENNIS.com is happy to announce that we've scored another rare, exclusive interview, this one with the left knee of Rafael Nadal. You know how much trouble Rafa has had with his knees going all the way back to 2009, when tendinitis played a major role in his fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling and forced him to sit out for a few months, unable to defend his Wimbledon title.
The left knee has been the worst. It caused Nadal to pull out of a semifinal with Andy Murray just a few weeks ago in Miami, and it now casts a pall over the entire, upcoming clay-court season—the time when Rafa traditionally shines. As recently as yesterday Nadal said, "I'm a little bit scared, but seems like today I am able to practice with no (problems).''
We're beholden to Toni Nadal, Rafa's uncle and coach, and to his publicist, Benito Perez-Barbadillo, for, as they say in our business, "making this happen." We caught up with the left knee while Rafa sat in a training-room whirlpool after a practice session. The knee was flecked with soap suds and the heat of the water gave it a weird, pink-ish tint, but it proved to be a surprisingly articulate, open, and intriguing interlocutor—as you'll discover in this wide-ranging and eye-opening interview:
TENNIS.com: Hey, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I guess we should just start with a general update. How are you feeling now, on the eve of Rafa's first match in Monte Carlo?
Rafa's Left Knee (RLK): I have good days and I have bad days. It's nice to be back on the clay, though. Those hard courts were really a killer, especially at Indian Wells.
TENNIS.com: Why Indian Wells? Miami was the one where Rafa pulled out.
RLK: Yeah, but it all started in the desert. It wasn't so much the courts as much as that Roger Federer. I hate that dude. Somehow, he hits these whizzers—what's the technical term, "flat" shots?—that make Rafa push off and then pull up extra hard. You know what it's like to have one of those hangover headaches where it feels like someone is whacking your head with a sledgehammer? Well, that's how I feel all over after going up against Federer.
It's a lot different on clay, with a guy like, say, David Ferrer. Don't let the similarity in those names fool you. That Ferrer just runs around hitting loopy shots from side-to-side. It's low stress for me. I don't mind the extra running on clay, even if that sliding takes a little bit out of me, because I can get into a rhythm. Then everything is cool. The pain is manageable.
TENNIS.com: So how far back does this now chronic knee thing go?
RLK: Way before 2009, I'll tell you that. Here's a scoop for you. You know how Rafa likes to drop to his knees, sometimes when he's still even running, when he wins a big match or a title? That habit has a lot to do with where we are today. The guy wins a ton, I mean a ton, of tennis matches and tournaments. Just do the math. It's not like I get an ice-cream cone every time Rafa wins. What I get is face-slammed into the surface, usually a pretty hard one. Like that singer said, "Isn't it ironic?" It all adds up.
TENNIS.com: How have you responded to recent treatment with drugs, if any?
RLK: Drugs!!! Did you say "drugs?????" Don't ever use that word around me. You know some of those wackos out there, like that pea-brained Frenchman Yannick Noah, will go with that. I have no comment unless you can be more professional, and use the proper terminology instead of vague, loaded words. Like ask me if the cortisone injection has helped. . . I don't want Rafa whacking me with a crowbar for saying something that can be used against him.
TENNIS.com: That's alright. let's move on. . .
RLK: I said, like asking about the cortisone. So ask. I have my reasons.
TENNIS.com: Has the cortisone helped?
RLK: Yes. The doctors shot me up with it two times. It's an anti-inflammatory. I just wanted to get that out there because you need to be precise about these things and we still struggle a little with communication.
Half the world doesn't know what Rafa is talking about half the time. LIke he said yesterday, "It's not easy to explain, in English especially. Even in Spanish it will be difficult. . ." Well now, that makes things kind of tough, right? What's Rafa proposing to do, "explain it. . ." in German? Swahili? But anyway, he goes on to explain, if you can call this an explanation: "I had a little broke in the tendon on the top, but especially behind the knee."
You know, that ticks me off. It's not like you can really separate the two, the tendon and me. But the way he said it sounds like the tendon just has this teensy-weensy tear, like a paper cut or something, and I'm just this thing, this blob of cartilage and bone, in front of the tendon. If you knew what I feel like after a match, you would understand the price I have to pay for that . . ."little broke."
TENNIS.com: Gee, you sound kind of like an angry knee. . . .
RLK: Read into it what you will. You're going to write what you want anyway. I know how you guys in the press are. You like to build someone up, just to tear them down. Anything to sell some papers or get those clicks. But let me say that at the end of the day I support Rafa 100 percent. I'm not like those back-stabbers who were on the ATP board with him.
TENNIS.com: But how can you support him 100 percent if you're just one of two knees?
RLK: Sheesh, it's sportspeak. you ought to know. It's like a player saying he's going to give 110 percent. Next question.
TENNIS.com: Do you honestly think the tendinitis is serious enough to affect Rafa's performance, day-in and day-out?
RLK: That brings us to the other half of the world, the half that thinks Rafa is just making excuses because, way back in 2009, he couldn't stand the idea of losing to that Swedish oaf, Soderling. And now, rumors have it that Djokovic, that Serbian guy who's always pounding on his chest like King Kong, has him running scared, too. So you tell me, how do these rumors make me look? Pardonez-moi, but I'll tell you how—like a goldbricker. Like a slacker, knee-division.
TENNIS.com: Well, you ought to know, is Rafa running scared?
RLK: No. He's just running scarred. Get it? Hey, can you stick an "LOL" in there in your story?
Look, that tendinitis was a killer. Some knees handle it better than others, and some knees just don't work as hard, and are less susceptible (I'm not naming names, but if you look slightly to my right. . .). And let's face it, last thing Rafa needs with the way this Djokovic is in his head is physical problems.
TENNIS.com: So, let ask you point blank—did Rafa pull out of the semi against Murray in Miami because he didn't think he could beat him because of you, or was it more a precautionary thing like he suggested?
RLK: The day Rafa is afraid of Murray will be the day I'll volunteer to be replaced by one of those titanium knees. Rafa owns Murray, lock, stock and cuspids. What kind of a tennis player is that guy, anyway? How can you be a pro tennis player but never, ever get tan? Just look at me, brown as a chestnut, or I will be once we get out of this tub. Granted it was a little different in those pirata days. . .
TENNIS.com: Thank you for the interview. Good luck in Monte Carlo and beyond.
RLK: Before you do—did you ever hear this one? So an elbow walks into a bar. . .