The Most Controversial Knees Ever

Tuesday, February 05, 2013 /by

The fashionable thing to say these past few weeks and months, as we await the return of Rafael Nadal to singles competition this week at the Chile Open, is that Rafa has been sorely missed, that there’s a big hole or blank spot once occupied by his smiling face, a grin sustained by his ongoing ability to beat up on his colleagues in tennis’ Big Four.

Okay, I don’t want to be Mr. Buzzkill here. And I’m delighted that Nadal is making his return, albeit on what might be still wobbly knees. But I also refuse to parrot the sentimental party line. The past few months have mostly reminded me of how quickly tennis moves, and how quickly most tennis fans forget.

Diehard Rafa fans will undoubtedly find this hard to swallow, simply because they’re so vested in all things Nadal that it’s hard for them to be objective. But the reality is that the game—especially in this remarkable era that Nadal helped bring to fruition—is much bigger than any single player, and it won’t stop for anyone.

It would have been better for all of us if Nadal had not succumbed to injury. But was the game any worse off because he did? How often, while watching Roger Federer battle Juan Martin del Potro at the Olympic Games, or Novak Djokovic match wits with Andy Murray at the U.S. Open, or even Jerzy Janowicz butt heads with Nicolas Almagro in Australia, did you pause and exclaim, “Gee, this would be so great if only Rafa were around?”

Come on, be honest. The only people I can imagine thinking that would be those who are a lot more interested in or fixated on Nadal than on tennis.

Fans love whom they will, it’s one reason the game is so lively these days. But it’s good for everyone, including Nadal, to keep all this in proper perspective. Athletes go down all the time, and the games they play move on. Perspective is an excellent hedge against disappointment, and it helps you enjoy what you do have instead of grousing about what you might be missing. And whatever Rafa was doing in his free time these past few weeks, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t lying on the sofa, thinking, “This game needs me. It would be so much better with me back in the mix.”

Well, he’s on the cusp of his return now, and the question of the moment is, Has anyone ever had a more complex, complicated and perhaps uncooperative set of knees than Rafael Nadal? Knee injuries, even those that require reconstructive surgery, are usually diagnosed, addressed, and resolved. I don’t know that any knee that’s been traumatized ever returns to 100 percent in every aspect, but I do know that sports abounds in athletes who enjoyed excellent and in some cases near miraculous recoveries—see Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. And many of those recoveries have been from conditions ostensibly much more serious than the inflamed and slightly torn tendon(s) that have troubled Nadal.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like Nadal has experienced any such aggressive bounce-back. As a result of his injury, Nadal has become either the greatest drama queen in the ATP, or an endangered champion who just took seven months off to address an injury that may—or may not—have been alleviated. That’s mildly astonishing. At the airport upon arrival in Chile, Rafa told reporters:

“My knee is much better, and this is the most important thing now because there's no risk of a big injury. But it’s still bothering me, which will keep me from playing all the time, which I would like to do.”

What exactly is Nadal saying here, and how can it be thought of as anything good?

Or, is Nadal just preparing us to accept that he may be playing a drastically reduced schedule in the coming years? Given how often he’s complained over the past two years about the demands of the 11-month tour, as well as the treadmill-like nature of the ranking system, Nadal may be using his tender knees as an outlet for his frustration, and simmering disenchantment. Since none of his complaints seem to have gained much traction, perhaps he’s quietly doing what he feels he must in order to lead his life the way he wants.

The thing that gets me most in this protracted drama is the extent to which the Nadal camp has been wedded to non-surgical options. I understand why he wouldn’t want to go under the knife; nobody ever wants to do that if it can be avoided. But the unending warnings not to expect too much, the near-daily State-of-the-Inflammation address, the speculation about Nadal’s degree of participation—all of them eventually lead me to wonder if this reliance on therapy isn’t a mistake. Toni Nadal’s latest pronouncement was, “The knee is much better, but they’ve told us he will feel some discomfort and lack of mobility until the end of the month. But it’s definitely getting better.”

One the optimism scale of 1 to 10, I give that one a five.

Not to parse words (thrown like chunks of red meat to reporters) too closely, but is “getting better” a good place from which to launch a return to the clay-court trenches? Can Rafa and Toni feel that their chosen course was a wise one if the prognosis is that he’ll feel “some discomfort and lack of mobility” once he returns to competition?

It all makes me wonder what on earth is going to happen when Nadal has to run like he means it, lunge and change directions, and slide and push off with the kind of urgency you simply can’t mimic in practice.   

These are relevant if nervous questions, and oddly lingering ones that have been touched upon time and again over Rafa’s entire absence, never with clear answers. One thing we can say about this strange and sad tale is that it has gone on for a long time, without a great deal of resolution.

It makes you wonder, what exactly would it take for Rafa and Toni to say something like, “The treatment was successful, we’re ready and eager to go!”

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