For me the biggest takeaway from the Australian Open wasn’t Roger Federer’s Sweet 16 and his mentally-challenged combatants Andy Murray, Nikolay Davydenko and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. For me it was the declining health of Rafael Nadal.
From what I could tell Nadal came into the 2010 tennis season and the Australian Open in perfect health. His bad knees which had ailed him in late spring/early summer last year were fully healed and recovered. His body, his mind, according to him, were fully fit, ready to go.
But things didn’t quite work out the way he and his fans had hoped. As we all saw early in the third set with Murray, Nadal pulled up with yet another knee issue forcing his first retirement from a Grand Slam match. What a shame. Rafa had played top-flight tennis all tournament including that match with Murray in which I thought he played exceptionally well even though – injury or not – the Scot was the better man that night.
A later MRI revealed a small tear at the back of the Rafa’s right knee.
Said his doctor Dr Angel Ruiz-Cotorro last Friday, “After two weeks, and depending on the results of the different tests and controls, he will steadily resume his sporting activity with a total recovery time to resume competition in fours weeks.”
Said Nadal, “I feel good and I am only thinking now of recovering well. My main goal right now is to get ready again and fit to play the forthcoming events once I am able to compete.”
Nadal is now out of Rotterdam which begins on Monday and the four-week rest period will probably preclude him from facing the Federer-less Swiss in Davis Cup.
Then in mid-March he has a major title defense in Indian Wells followed by Miami. That is assuming he even plays and his knees are ready for another 2.5 weeks of pounding on the hardcourts. (My advice would be for him to skip the hardcourts to prepare for a full clay onslaught with the singular mission of regaining his French Open crown.)
The problem I fear coming up for Nadal won’t be as much physical as it will be mental.
The guy had worked so long and so hard to overcome his knee problems (tendinitis, strains, tears, et al), and just when he thought he had it licked, the problem again flared up. New injury or not, it’s the knee again and that’s not good. Further, he didn’t injure it through any noticeable trauma or jerk movement, it just happened. No rhyme, no reason. Just pure bad luck and that’s going to be the tough part to overcome.
So once Rafa returns to his health what will his mindset be on the hardcourts or even on the clay? Will he still be expending full energy, lunging, digging and stretching for every ball as we’ve come to know him, or will he hold something back in fear of re-injury and further time on the sidelines? As we saw in Australia, knee problems with him can happen at any time, any moment and in any match. This was not late in the season either, it was the start.
Fact is, Rafa will be 24 in four months and his knees are not getting any better. And really knee issues don’t tend to get better as you age unless you flat-out stop putting heavy stress on them which is not going to happen because I don’t think Rafa’s retiring anytime soon. But unfortunately, with each subsequent flare up you have wonder how much longer the guy can ultimately last.
My personal feeling is Rafa will still be winning Grand Slam titles but with his style of play, the deep field of contenders before him and with a physically demanding schedule, I have a hard time seeing him finish a season ranked No. 1 again. Yes, we may very have seen the best from Rafa. Truth be told, though, I hope I have to eat my words on that one.
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