INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—On Saturday night Rafael Nadal returned to American hard courts for the first time in nearly a year. A few minutes later, he returned to face much of the tennis press corps for the first time since Wimbledon last June. Rafa had, as you might expect, a lot to say. Here’s an interpretative breakdown of three highlights from his presser. (You can read the whole thing here.)
Q: How satisfied were you by the way you played and obviously the outcome?
A: I am satisfied to be in the next round. That’s the most important thing. I am satisfied to be playing here in Indian Wells...I am happy to be here. I am happy to be in the third round.
Q: Were you able to go out there and say, ‘I’m going to run as much as I can? I don’t care what my knees feel like, I’m just going to play?’
A: After seven months I’m not going to take crazy risks. But I am here. I really don’t think about my knee, but is true that for today after seven months out of competition is easier to start and play on clay more than grass. Is true that we have the clay season not very far.
I was a little surprised by how Nadal sounded when he gave these answers. In Chile last month he said that he wanted to play on hard courts because that’s what he had to do for his ranking. On Saturday, though, it sounded more like an obligation to him to be in Indian Wells. “I am here”—that seemed like the extent of his commitment, and that this was a quick stop before the clay season (I haven’t heard Rafa mention playing Key Biscayne since he’s been here).
Last month, I had thought he was ready to try to play a full schedule, or something close to it. After this answer in Indian Wells, I got the feeling that he doesn’t have expectations beyond simply entering a hard court event like this one. As he said later in this presser, “I really came here because it’s one of my favorite tournaments”—if it wasn’t, he implies, he would have skipped it. Maybe this is smart; Nadal has thrived by lowering expectations for himself in the past.
Q: You’re the main one who talks about hard courts and wanting to have more tournaments not on hard courts. Not a lot of other top players discuss that. Do you think that a lot of players discuss your opinion, or do you think it’s more personal experience?
A: At the end, it’s an individual game. At the end, everybody thinks for himself. And if somebody plays great on this surface, it’s difficult to go against this surface, no? Is normal that if the volume of the tournaments on hard are more than in the rest of the surfaces, is normal that the top players of the world, best players of the world, are specialists on hard courts. So they not gonna go against the hard court. It’s a medical thing. Somebody have to think for today. I repeat: I’m not talking about my career. My career is done. My opinion is for the next generations something have to change.
Nadal makes a couple of interesting points. He acknowledges that the individuality of tennis extends to the opinions of the players. Each one, essentially, has to think for himself and his own career. And he points out that when you have more tournaments on hard courts than any other surface, the top-ranked players are by definition going to be good on hard courts—he even gets in a possible reverse zinger about “hard-court specialists.”
The conventional wisdom is that clay and grass are easier on your body than asphalt. That’s been my experience, and another pro with knee problems in the 1980s, Kent Carlsson, eventually went to playing strictly on clay before retiring very early. But there are also plenty of former pros who played mostly on hard courts who are doing fine now; and it’s not as if tennis on clay, where points last longer and players run farther, doesn’t impose its own wear and tear. Is there a definitive study on the differences in impact from surface to surface? That would be helpful. Maybe Nadal’s concerns and complaints can be used for a good purpose: Adding grass-court events in the future.
You can’t ask that the entire sport change because your knees are especially vulnerable. To his credit, Nadal makes it clear that this isn’t what he’s doing here. He says nothing will be different during his career, and that he’ll have to manage the way it is now.
Q: Are you having to just change your attitude a little bit knowing that there is a bit more pressure on you to play the points?
A: That’s true, I played much faster, no? And I am doing because somebody very smart puts a new rule that is a disaster, in my opinion. Is completely disaster when we are playing in tournaments like Acapulco, Brazil, or Chile.
The [time] rules go against the great points of tennis...The best points of the season are long rallies and amazing points. With this 25 seconds, you play a long rally and you think you can play another long rally next point?
I went back to my great matches, in Grand Slams, playing long rallies in big tournaments, and when you play like a rally of 30 [shots]...you know how long we rested? You have to see the third set of the U.S. Open 2011 against Djokovic, and you tell me if the crowd was very happy about what happened in that set or not, and tell me if with this new rule that can happen again. Please.
Nadal mistinterpreted this question: It was about shortening points as he's playing them, not taking less time between them. Obviously Rafa has the enforcement issue on his mind.
He's also obviously leading the way against it—other players also have their doubts, but they aren’t as emphatic about it as Nadal. He makes the case that great tennis, as it’s played today, requires more than 25 seconds of rest, and cites the third set of the 2011 Open final. That was a great, exhausting set of tennis, but the 2012 Australian Open final was also a great, exhausting match, and in my opinion, at nearly six hours, it took too long. Rafa talks about going back to his famous matches and timing the rest periods, but the issue has changed since his main rival in those matches went from being Roger Federer to Novak Djokovic. Rafa seems to focus on the finals against Djokovic, who also took his time between points. From what I remember, Federer didn’t go over the limit, even in their epics.
Is the fact that Nadal and Djokovic play exhausting points enough to make a change in a sport-wide rule? The ATP has decided that the current limit will be enforced, and that players will have to adjust to it. It’s a vexing issue—yesterday Djokovic was angered by a warning that came because the ball kids didn’t get him a towel fast enough. I do think enforcing the limit is the way to go, with discretion; otherwise, change the rule entirely. It’s only if someone is consistently going over it that it becomes a problem.
I’m not sure what a shot clock would do to the game, exactly, but maybe it’s worth experimenting with at a special event or at Challengers. On the plus side, it would let players know how long they’re taking; on the minus side, it would be a distraction. Does it ring when it hits 25 seconds, or does a light go on? Does the umpire then have to give a warning? If he can use his discretion, what will fans or opponents do when they see that a player took too much time before a certain point and wasn’t called for it? When does the clock start? If that’s also at the umpire’s discretion, won’t it create as many arguments as it solves?
There are long points these days, and umpires should take them into consideration. But for the most part, 25 seconds seems like a reasonable limit to me. I disagree with Nadal on this issue. But as he says, it’s an individual game, and he wouldn’t be a tennis player if he wasn’t thinking for himself.