Tennis Channel Live: Discussing Rafa's recovery

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The WTA Finals begin on Wednesday, and the ATP Finals start on Sunday. As we close in the tours' season-ending championships, we'll look at four prestigious players who won't be taking part.

The good news for fans of tennis’ beleaguered, graying icons is that Rafael Nadal expects to be ready and firing on all cylinders again as early as mid-December, telling reporters at a recent press conference in Paris, “I’m [feeling] positive. I don’t know when I will come back, but I can give my goal.”

The target is an early Christmas present for Nadal fans: the 35-year-old hopes to take part in the mid-December exhibition held in Abu Dhabi.

Oft-injured, Nadal left the tour in early August due to persistent pain in his left foot and hasn’t competed since. The Spaniard underwent aggressive treatment in Barcelona for the unspecified condition in September, a regimen that kept him off the courts for about a month. But by late October he was practicing again, for up to 90 minutes per day.

“There are positive days and negative days,” he said, “But more positive days.”

A healthy Nadal may be the most significant obstacle standing in the way of top-ranked Novak Djokovic winning the Grand Slam singles title derby among the ATP’s Big Three, who each have 20.

Nadal has enjoyed an overwhelming, career-long advantage at the French Open, which he has won 13 times. When it comes to the major-title chase, Roland Garros is Nadal’s ace in the hole. It is also the major around which Nadal builds his year. That superiority on the red clay is one reason Nadal has taken a very conservative tack in dealing with injuries, prioritizing longevity.

“If he stays healthy, he (Nadal) could end up winning one to three more French Opens,” according to ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe. “That's a reasonable argument to make. It’s harder to make an argument that he can win multiple other majors at this point.”

Nadal played only 29 matches in 2021 due to injury.

Nadal played only 29 matches in 2021 due to injury.

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But staying healthy has always been a big “if” for Nadal. He has missed 11 majors since playing his first as a pro, evenly spread through his career. By contrast, Roger Federer didn’t miss a single Slam until 2016, and Djokovic has been absent from just one major in his 17-year career.

Nadal played only 29 matches in 2021 due to injury. Revered for his work ethic and stamina, Nadal hasn’t always been able to prepare for events to his satisfaction. When Djokovic crushed him in the 2019 Australian Open final (Nadal won just eight games, after ripping through his half of the draw with ease), Nadal put the loss down partly to reduced practice time due to the long layoff following the 2018 US Open—and a tender wrist.

Early this year, ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert told me, “Rafa is the favorite going into Roland Garros every year, and he will be until somebody beats him there.”

Not long thereafter, Djokovic penetrated deep into Nadal’s kingdom, eliminating the Spaniard in the semifinals in Paris. It was just the third time Nadal was beaten on Court Philippe Chartier in 16 appearances. The win also lifted Djokovic’s recent record against Nadal in majors to 4-2.

“I never conceded the French title to Nadal, like some others did.” Tennis Channel commentator Jimmy Arias recently told me. “I’ve often felt like Rafa is on the verge of being beatable, but then he’d get to Roland Garros and win. He proved me wrong every time a lot of times. But now he’s showing some wear in that armor.

Djokovic pried open those gaps at the last Roland Garros. If he can snatch the crown off Nadal's head, he’ll likely become the all-time men's Grand Slam singles title holder—with scant chance of anyone catching up with him.