One Title, Many Pain

Monday, December 31, 2012 /by

I’m not big on conspiracy theories, but count me among those who suspect that things may not be what they appear in the formerly happy kingdom of the much-acclaimed King of Clay, Rafael Nadal. Like all palaces, this one seems to generate a fair amount of intrigue, even if nobody is about to leap out from behind a velvet curtain to plunge a dagger into the heart of Toni Nadal or Albert Costa.

The story, as we’ve been told, is that a stomach virus has knocked Rafa out through at least the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam tournament of the year, which begins in mid-January. Nadal was to have launched his preparations for the Aussie about 10 days ago in Abu Dhabi, but the bug laid him low. Apparently, very, very, very low, even though Nadal’s own minions initially said that his doctors advised him only to take “a week-long period of rest.”

That week was to have begun last Friday, and in a few days Nadal is supposed undergo further examination and an X-ray. “Starting next week,” said the head of his medical team, Dr. Angel Ruiz-Cotorro, “He won’t be in sufficient physical conditions to continue with his rehabilitation process.”

That was code, it turned out, for, “Australia? Forget about it.” Never has a stomach bug eaten up so much hope.

Tennis fans are keenly disappointed, and not for the first time in this increasingly baffling saga. Month after month, it seems, Nadal has sent out mixed signals about the date of his return. And his comments about his left knee have raised as many questions as they’ve answered. About 10 days ago, Nadal told the London Times that the knee is “still not perfect” and that, while the (MRI) images are encouraging, he still feels that “something” is not quite right, adding that he needs to be focused on how “the knee is getting better or worse every day.”

You can understand why Nadal and his crew are obsessive about the state of that damaged tendon and taking the most conservative, non-surgical approach to rehab. But the idea of a knee getting “better or worse every day” makes me think it’s not a very stable or trustworthy knee. Perhaps something was lost in translation.

I don’t believe Nadal has raised and dashed hopes just for the sheer fun of watching his fans suffer through it all with him, or that he would willfully deceive. But I don’t think we’re getting either a full story or a particularly straight one—and haven’t been since Nadal withdrew from the game after he was upset by Lukas Rosol in the second round of Wimbledon.

(By the way, I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with being secretive, if that applies here. I know of no ATP rule and certainly no law that obliges a tennis player and his team to be utterly frank and forthcoming about a player’s physical state or long-term intentions. But the story of Rafa and his left knee has come to incorporate more plot twists than a Robert Ludlum novel, and it’s becoming just about as credible.)

Most people accepted Rafa’s logic of pulling the plug on the year when it became clear that there was no way he could return to the fray in time for the U.S. Open, even if they held out hope that he might return in time for the ATP World Tour Finals. Nadal, like most champs, believes it’s all about the Grand Slam events, and the most important thing about the year-end championships for Nadal is the resume-damaging fact that he has yet to win one. This certainly was not the right year to set that as a goal.

For that same reason, the decision to skip Abu Dhabi, a remunerative exhibition tournament, also didn’t seem like such a big deal—at least not until it was followed almost immediately by the announcement that Nadal also pulled out of Doha and the Australian Open. And here you thought Montezuma’s Revenge was tough to handle!

Now, everyone is reeling—again.

So here’s my guess: Rafa is an obsessive young man; we know that from countless little tells, starting with way he meticulously arranges his water bottles during changeovers. I have to believe that this injury has him thoroughly spooked, and with good reason. He’s already admitted that he’s not really sure his left knee is match-worthy—never mind major-tournament worthy.

Nadal’s coach and uncle, Toni, was entirely right when he said that returning to action at a best-of-five tournament on hard courts isn’t the best recipe for a comeback. But it is a recipe, and if a player of Nadal’s status who hasn’t played a competitive match in six months were willing and eager—and confident in his abilities and fitness—it wouldn’t be the worst one, either.

What Toni didn’t say is that while Rafa has been involved in some epic battles in Australia (remember that semifinal with Fernando Verdasco, when Nadal won his title in Melbourne in 2009?), he’s had rotten luck there as well—and not just because he’s only earned one title there.

Last year, Nadal came within a hair’s breadth of winning the longest Grand Slam final ever. But perhaps even more pertinently, in 2010 he retired from his quarterfinal match in Oz with Andy Murray, and the following year Down Under was beaten in straight sets by a player he ordinarily owns, David Ferrer. In both of those losses, his knees and/or legs betrayed him.

As Nadal might say, “The true is that the Australian Open has never been very good to me. One title, many pain.”

It seems like Nadal’s emotions presently are best summed up in that old Clash song, Should I Stay or Should I Go? And he’s decided to go. Perhaps the stomach bug came to his rescue, giving him an out that he just couldn’t resist.

The latest word, according to Nadal’s pal Nicolas Almagro, is: “We are waiting for him and we need to wait until South America. It’s one month and maybe he will be ready.”

Nadal himself confirmed that, having already said that while he might return sooner, his target comeback is Acapulco, a mere ATP 500 event. But while that tournament doesn’t even begin until the penultimate day in February, it’s on clay. And now we may be homing in on an unspoken truth.

This latest round of withdrawals isn’t really a “delay,” it’s a two-month extension of a six-month break, which makes me think that Rafa is nowhere near ready to play, and certainly not eager to do so, perhaps not until he can take those first tentative steps back on the footing he so loves, red clay. Is there really any chance that he was unaware of this until he contracted a stomach bug?

Perhaps Rafa is buying time to get his knees in even better condition, or wasting time because he’s subconsciously reluctant to put those knees to the test—for the simple reason that they might fail. Or maybe he’s just finding different ways to avoid playing until the tour presents the conditions he finds most comfortable.

The latter certainly seems the most likely explanation, although I’m not sure why Nadal wouldn’t just come out and say it. The guy who’s asked so much of his knees (and the rest of his body) has asked a lot of a stomach bug.


For Steve Tignor's reaction to Rafa's withdrawal from the Aussie Open, click here.

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