It's that time of the year again—the period of silence on the ATP tour, as far as concerns the Big Four, at least: Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray.
Federer has gone off for a bit of a break, citing fatigue; Djokovic perhaps announced the start of the race for the No. 1 ranking when he confirmed his participation in the China Open and Andy Murray will likewise set off his bid for the top ranking at the Japan Open this week. The blanket of silence will likely be slowly lifted in the next few days.
Of the last man in this quartet, Rafael Nadal, only words will suffice for now. The man with 11 Grand Slam titles and a career seven French Opens has been sidelined for several months now, after losing his last match to Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon.
There were fears that a recurrence of his perennial knee problems might have been the true cause for such electrifying news. It wasn't as if Rosol didn't play the tennis of this life, but the suspicions were only made clear later, when Nadal announced his withdrawal from the Olympics, and then then US Open. For Nadal fans the fears were then realised in dread fashion.
In his latest interview since the happenings at New York, Nadal has now revealed a potential postponement of his comeback to after the Australian Open in 2013. Of course what Nadal actually means is that he's taking it day by day, and that his knee tendons are just not tennis-worthy at the moment and need daily examination; but its not as if he will be able to wake up one morning and hit the practice courts in earnest, either.
Not anytime soon, at least.
Nadal's knee health has been the centre of the discussion on the fate of his career since it hit him hard for the first time in 2009, and it was clear from that that it took him several months to get back into real shape. His defeat then to Robin Soderling at the French saw him return only at Montreal, and even then it took him a year, until Monte Carlo in 2010, to get back to winning ways.
If there is the suggestion that Nadal is going to be back fresh and ready after a long rest, the likelihood is that he might face a few gruelling months on tour just playing himself into form.
Evidently, Nadal's comments on his potential return only in 2013 essentially eliminates the rest of the year—it being the indoor hard court portion of the season that he has never thrived on at best—and leaves him realistically another year from there to return to Major-winning form. The great GOAT debate that once circulated around Nadal like a pre-ordained halo, judged basically on his surpassing of Federer's major haul of (for now) 17 majors, for the moment seems only attainable when he is likely to be an ageing 28.
This might seem like a lot of speculation, but things need to be put in perspective. For one thing, this is clearly the longest break Nadal has had from the tour, probably since he first started playing on it seriously, and the most serious injury break at that. How he reacts from it will therefore be an unparalleled event and highly unpredictable.
As Peter Bodo has succinctly put it, things may well turn out very, or barely, different. It is slightly overshooting it for now but worth hinting at the downturn in fortune that has attended other recent great players overcome by injuries. Lleyton Hewitt, Robin Soderling, Tommy Haas: their achievements are all much less, and the reasons for their inability to return to their pre-injury bests vastly different, but the point is that injury breaks often prove undesirable breaks from a period of potentially highly productive tennis.
Highly productive, if it is to be measured in tennis terms, will find fewer better embodiments than the person of Rafael Nadal. The saga of his return to his own very unique brand of tennis productivity is still to be played out in the coming months.