Is the trouble knee-deep, Rafa?
The last time Rafael Nadal played an official match was in June when the then-World No.100 Lukas Rosol tamed him in the fifth set in a second round clash at Wimbledon. A partially torn patella tendon in his left knee was cited as the reason for his withdrawal from the subsequent tournaments in London (the Olympics where he unfortunately had to relinquish his prestigious flag bearing duty), Canada and Cincinnati. A return at Flushing Meadows was on the cards when he gave another press conference indicating that he was going for a rest-based recovery instead of tending to it surgically, and that he had to opt out of the Open and the Asian swing because of it. Later, he withdrew from the Masters event at Bercy, Paris, and when he refrained from joining the elite at the O2, London for the World Tour Finals, it made sense as it would not have been sane to use his rested and lately untested legs and hands against those of the top competitors of the sport who were in great touch, having played week in and week out. With an injury, even someone like Rafa would have been looked at as a liability in a crucial Davis Cup final, and so his withdrawal from the 100th Davis Cup final also didn’t raise eyebrows. No questions on the proceedings till that point.
Nadal then announced that he would be back in full swing for the 2013 season and would kickstart his comeback at the invitational Mubadala Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi, following that up with Doha as a prelude for the first Grand Slam of the year – the mercurial Australian Open at Melbourne! It looked like a very well laid-out plan. But not all well-laid plans get executed; the case of Rafa became an example instead of being an exception to that statement.
A stomach virus took over the villainy from the torn tendons just days before Rafa had to pack his kit for a trip to Abu Dhabi, denting his Doha and Melbourne plans. Now, it appears from information gathered from his team, that with not much practice, entering into a 5-set tournament would not be the best thing for Rafa. True! But there have been many statements of comebacks that subsequently turned into ‘not-to-bes’!
There are always the ‘buts’ in stories such as these when everything is not revealed, which offer scope for speculation. Some questions on the Rafa story of the past few months for which answers aren’t easily conceivable are:
1) How big is the knee issue? Has Rafa really seen the light-end of the tunnel? Preferring rest over surgery could address the issue but what if it ‘relapses’ (the way it has done for some pros who have gone this way before)?
2) Rafa started practicing in November. Can lack of practice due to a few days of stomach infection create such a dent that he would have to quit from a tournament that he has to defend 1200 points in? This takes us to the question – ‘is it really the virus or is the knee still in trouble?’
3) Does Rafa not want to make his comeback on the hardcourts which could strain his knees more than they can handle? Is that why he is now setting his eyes for a return at clay in Acapulco this February? Remember, he had already complained during his period of rest about the toll that the hard court-loaded calendar gives to athletes’ fitness levels. If that is indeed the case, why does he repeatedly announce participation in tournaments followed by the inevitable withdrawal pressers?
More than the other implications, the one pertaining to the fact that he could probably go out of the top 4 in the weeks to come owing to his withdrawal from the Australian Open is the most prominent. He may have to face the likes of Nole, Andy, Roger in the quarterfinal stages of tournaments now. Does he prefer having such quarterfinal match-ups on clay rather than having them on hardcourts? Could that be another reason why he is delaying the comeback?
The only hope for all tennis lovers right now is that this is the last press conference where he is sorry about not being able to join the circuit. The inevitable – the comeback – should soon happen and the monstrous forehands, the perplexing retrievals, the grunt-filled gets should all occupy our TV screens sooner than later, not to mention the ‘Vamos Rafa‘ chants! When that happens, these and more such questions may not mean a thing; but until then, there is scope for speculation and these are just my two cents on that.