Journey Out of Oz

by: Steve Tignor | December 28, 2012

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Well, look at it this way: At least Rafa won’t have to sit in any hotel room chairs in Melbourne this year.
After a month or so of training in preparation for the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal announced today that he won’t be making the trip Down Under after all. Last week he began to feel the effects of a stomach virus; doctors told him that he would need to stay off the court for another week, which meant no practice and no warm-up events in Abu Dhabi or Doha. No practice, no warm-ups, no Oz.
“Because of the virus,” Nadal said, “I have been unable to get any match practice and simply would not be doing myself or my friends in Australia justice if I went down there so unprepared. You need your body to be at its best for the Australian Open.”
Nadal has hinted recently that he regretted playing, and losing early, at Wimbledon last summer, when his knees kept him from practicing for more than an hour a day. He obviously didn’t want a repeat of that, and, as his uncle and coach Toni Nadal said today, it didn’t make sense to throw him into a two-week, three-out-of-five set Grand Slam, potentially in extreme heat, after seven months away.
Which is a bummer for Nadal—he said today that the Aussie crowds “bring out the best in me”—and for tennis fans everywhere. In Melbourne, Rafa has been part of three of the best matches of the last 10 years: His semifinal and final-round wins in 2009 over Fernando Verdasco and Roger Federer, and his final-round loss to Novak Djokovic in 2012. Still, pulling out of the Aussie might end up being the best thing that could have happened to Nadal’s 2013 season.
Along with the thrills, Rafa has suffered his share of agony Down Under. In 2010, he retired from his quarterfinal with Andy Murray with a leg injury. The same thing happened in the quarters the following year, against David Ferrer, though that time Nadal managed to finish out a straight-set loss. Last year, the weekend before the tournament began, while doing nothing more than relaxing in his hotel room, he felt a “crack,” and extreme pain, in his right knee. He played the rest of the tournament with the leg heavily strapped.
That was, essentially, the beginning of the knee trouble that would end Nadal’s 2012 season after Wimbledon. His epic, 353-minute final against Djokovic in Melbourne couldn't have helped. He said he felt more pain in Indian Wells in March; three weeks later, in Key Biscayne, it forced him to default his semifinal to Murray. By the time the clay season was over, the knees were flaring again, to the point where he had to curtail his preparation for Wimbledon. Even as of last week, after weeks of practice and solid bills of health from doctors, Nadal said he still felt “something” in his knee.
Now, rather than subjecting himself to many hours on hard courts to begin his season, Nadal will—provided that he’s finally ready—kick 2013 off on clay, at the two-of-three-set event in Acapulco in early February. Whatever his exact schedule is from there, he’ll be able to work himself slowly into the Grand Slam season, and do much of that work on his favored dirt. In the best-case scenario, he would approach the year the way he did 2010. That season, after retiring against Murray in Oz, he spent the spring improving, without necessarily winning much. Despite losses to Ivan Ljubicic at Indian Wells and Andy Roddick in Key Biscyane, Nadal was upbeat about his game and his prospects. He was right to believe: He won the year’s last three Grand Slams.
That’s very much a best case scenario, of course. But while there are potential long-term positives to take from him not playing Australia, it’s still not a great sign for his future. The stomach virus will end, but that “something” in his knee will always be there. Even as he was ramping up his practices for Australia before getting sick, he hedged about his chances of doing well there, or even making it in the first place. Scheduling Acapulco immediately afterward also felt like a hedge, an insurance policy. If he wasn’t ready for hard courts in Australia, he would have the option of easing into the season on clay. 
It’s helpful that he can do that, and as I said, it may be the best thing for his 2013. But it also makes it seem more likely that Nadal will have a clay-heavy schedule in the future. I wrote earlier this week that I didn’t think Rafa would, as some have been speculating, chuck the rest of the season and focus exclusively on clay and grass; he wants to win all the majors too much to do that. I still don't believe it will come to that, but I’ve also started to be reminded of Kent Carlsson, a Swedish ATP player from the 1980s. Carlsson had knee problems that eventually forced him to play almost exclusively on clay, and which ended his career in 1990, at age 22.
That doesn’t mean Nadal is heading down the same road—my last paragraph is just a worst-case scenario to counter the best-case I laid out earlier. We obviously don’t know how anything will turn out for Rafa, so I'll offer four ways of looking at his future as of today, two good, two bad: 
On the one hand, counting the Olympics, this is Nadal's third straight absence from a major event. Even with all of his injuries over the years, he has never come close to doing that before. 
On the other hand, all he has is a stomach virus at the moment, and in the past he hasn't had trouble coming back from lay-offs and eventually finding his best form.
On the one hand, if and when Nadal plays the French Open in May, it will be only the second time he's been ready for a big event since he played the same tournament—the only major on clay—twelve months ago. Even there, his draw will probably be made tougher by his drop in the rankings after Australia. (He'll be out of the Top 4 for the first time since 2005). 
On the other hand—and I'll finish on a positive note, because I do think there are more good things to come for Nadal—seven-time champions don't need easy draws. By skipping the Australian Open, Rafa likely helped his chances of winning his eighth in Paris. 
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