A Little Less Life and Death

Monday, August 20, 2012 /by

RNEach August, news pundits in the U.S. remind us that, no matter how important their words and stories may be, no one is actually paying attention to them. According to most columnists and talking heads, the Great American Unwashed apparently spend too much time on the miniature golf course over the summer to be bothered with what’s going on around the world.

I wonder about that, though, because the opposite is true for me. Even when I’m at the beach or in the boonies, having time off means that I can finally read the paper from front to back, finally watch Jon Stewart and the Newshour regularly, finally catch those Nova and Nature shows on PBS that I miss each week (the one on hummingbirds is really good, btw). Isn’t this everyone’s idea of a relaxing vacation?

Amid that vast morass of news, much of it grim as always, one piece of tennis information stood out: Rafael Nadal won’t play the U.S. Open because of his continuing knee problems. This is sort of the sports equivalent of a hurricane or an earthquake, an especially frustrating event because there’s no way to be partisan about it, nothing to argue over, no behavior to judge, no other side to blame. All you can say is that it’s a bummer for Nadal, the Open, and followers of men’s tennis.

Of course, other things will be said, because...well...because there are sports pages and websites like this to fill. Mostly there has been speculation about whether this is the “beginning of the end” for Rafa, whether he’s finally at a point where he’ll need to alter his schedule or his playing style, or find a new treatment for his tendinitis, or even just hang up his racquet. As the Australian put it this weekend:

NADAL ON BRINK OF OBLIVION AS HIS GREATEST FEAR ARRIVES 

That headline is obviously over the top, as are the article’s comical assertions that, “Nadal has a fantastic fear of everything,” that "thunder and lightning terrify him," and that he “drives like an old woman lest he crash his car.” But the writer, Will Swanton, also makes the point that while Rafa’s labor-intensive style does his knees no favors, the problem didn’t originate with that on-court pounding, or even in his knees. It began in his foot, where a congenital disease has deformed its bridge. Since making that discovery in 2005, Nadal has worn orthotic shoes. 

“The cost” of those shoes, as Swanton writes, “would be significant: his knees and/or hips and/or back would eventually buckle under the additional shock-absorbing stresses.” 

Nadal says this round of pain began in February (not long after his six-hour Aussie Open final with Novak Djokovic), but he remains optimistic that he’ll return this season. He says he’s currently hoping to play Davis Cup for Spain on clay against the U.S. next month—it depends, as Rafa puts it, “on the captain and the knee.” If long-term history is any guide, Nadal will eventually return to full strength. His career has been one of ups and downs, of pain and relief, of suffering and overcoming. 

That he’s going to miss the Olympics, two Masters events, and a Grand Slam sounds borderline disastrous, but he’s been here before. In fact, you might say he’s right on schedule. Nadal missed the 2006 Australian Open with the aforementioned foot injury, then came back to win the French Open and reach his first Wimbledon final that summer. In 2009, he couldn’t defend his Wimbledon title because of creaky knees; the next year he won three majors. Last week his doctor diagnosed Rafa with Hoffa’s syndrome, in which “fat inflammation” in the knee causes pain. (It sounds better, anyway, than having your body buried under the end zone in Giants Stadium, Jimmy Hoffa-style.) But the doctor also said that it while this was annoying, it wasn’t career-threatening. Rafa’s always-optimistic uncle Toni once said that, “we hope to get two more years out of him.” That was in 2005.

Roger Federer’s comments on the situation in Cincinnati were a good summation of both views of Rafa’s situation, the concerned and the level-headed.

“Twelve days before the Open,” Federer said when he heard Nadal had pulled out, “you figure he might still have time to fix what he has to fix to get ready. If he pulls out that early before the Open, it must be something serious. That’s what is sort of scary.”

Two days later, Federer, asked about the future of his rivalry with Nadal, said that he fully expects to see Rafa across the net from him again. “I hadn’t thought about it, that I might play Rafa less," Federer said, "because I’m convinced he will come back strong sooner or later....I think this is not the end, just because he’s injured. One time one top guy misses a major, I think some people make a big deal of it. It’s true that it’s a big shock, but at the same time, it does happen from time to time." 

What are Rafa’s options? “I have my game,” he has said, and he’s not going to save his knees by turning himself into a serve-and-volleyer. We do know, however, that he can pick his spots, conserve his energy, and still win, because that’s how he said he got through the 2009 Aussie Open final against Federer, two days after his five-hour semifinal win over Fernando Verdasco. As far as his schedule, Nadal already plays few non-mandatory events. He may have to cut a few hard-court mandatories in the future if he wants to make sure he’s fit for the Slams. Inevitably, that would mean his ranking would suffer, but that’s a sacrifice he seems willing to make. After six years in the Top 2, Rafa said recently, being something like No. 6 doesn’t worry him. As far as treatments, there’s blood-spinning, stem cell therapy, and arthroscopic surgery, but for now rest seems to be the only sure, if temporary, way to go.  

By January, Nadal may be running rampant again in Melbourne, and his withdrawal from the U.S. Open will be long forgotten. But it’s not January yet, and we still have the Open to play without him. It was one thing for him to miss the Olympics; the novelty and spectacle of that event, as well as Andy Murray’s breakthrough win, were enough to cover the loss. But not having Rafa in New York is more noticeable, and more of a drag for several reasons.

—There’s history to consider. While few will recall Nadal’s absence from this event 10 years from now, you want the Slams to be won against full-strength fields.

—The nights won't be as fun. More than any other major, the Open emphasizes, and thrives on, star power. Rafa, with his loud clothes and flashy game, is made for the evening sessions in Ashe.

—Federer-Djokovic is great, but it’s not Federer-Nadal. As Federer said of his rivalry with Rafa last week, “We’ve had great matches, great fighting spirit, fair play, different type of matchup being a lefty, me being a righty. The way we play is completely different. I think it’s been the sort of set-up that has it all: me with one-handed backhand, him with double, you name it.” 

The Swiss and the Serb often produce excellent tennis, and they generally bring an edge to their matches, but they don’t capture the imagination in the same way. 

—Nadal’s fans are silenced. Roger, Rafa, and Novak have all brought new people to tennis, fans who follow them specifically. Even when they aren’t playing each other, their supporters are always jousting. For these two weeks, that entertaining (and sometimes irritating) dynamic will be eliminated, and some of the tournament's edge and excitement will go with it. Nadal fans I’ve talked to this summer seem surprised by how little they want to watch the sport when he’s not involved. Tennis is blessed with stars at the moment, something that becomes even more obvious when one of them is missing.

What will we miss about Rafa specifically? I’ll say it’s the way he makes running across a tennis court and chasing a ball down feel like a moment of high emotion, of life and death. It’s the same running style that wears his knees down a bit more with each chase, but who would want to watch a different Rafa? Without him, and without the fans he inspires, the Open will feel a little less like life and death in 2012.

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