The absence of Spanish tennis superstar Rafael Nadal from the 2012 Olympics and U.S. Open has sparked several theories about his future on the ATP. Tennis fans wonder if he will regain the health and form to win another Grand Slam tournament.
The glory years of Nadal’s career were mastered by his particular style of ruthless tennis. He understood how to defeat rival Roger Federer. He dominated the French Open with performances that would doubtless tempt the Musée du Louvre to open up an entire wing for the Spaniard’s masterpieces.
Though the outlook on Nadal begins and ends with his injuries, the complexities of the shifting ATP and its competitive zeal will be a more difficult battlefield to seize another triumphant banner.
Will Nadal return as one of the elite players in tennis in 2013?
For most of the world, the swashbuckling Spaniard’s true debut was his 2005 French Open semifinal victory over Roger Federer. Showcasing his attire and fearlessness as if he were starring in Pirates of the Caribbean, Nadal’s scrambling energy catapulted him to his first Grand Slam title.
Likewise, Nadal’s career was foreshadowed by injuries. In 2004, he missed the clay-court season with a stress fracture to his left ankle.
In 2005, his greatest career crisis occurred. According to his autobiography Rafa, written with John Carlin, Nadal was discovered to have a rare congenital defect in the tarsal scaphoid bone in his left foot. He missed several months of play, and was only cleared to resume his career by adjusting to special shoes that would minimize the stress to this weakness.
Nadal fought on, dominating the French Open and eventually winning each of the Grand Slam titles. All the while he battled knee tendonitis. In 2009, he lost in the French Open to Robin Soderling, and he did not play at Wimbledon. He lost his No. 1 ranking for several months.
Nadal's autobiography also detailed the knee injections he was taking in 2010. This process re-injects his own blood into his knees in order to more quickly repair the cells and tendons. There are limitations to the frequencies of these injections and to the pain killers that he must also endure.
Currently Nadal faces another career crisis with injury. In July, doctors diagnosed his setback as left knee tendonitis, but in September, the Associated Press reported that he has a partially torn patella tendon and will miss at least all of September and October.
Other reporters, like Will Swanton of The Australian, theorize that his current injuries can be traced to the 2005 decision to continue his career despite the debilitating tarsal scaphoid bone.
Nadal may have already outlasted Father Time and Mother Nature, but any chance at a 12th Major title will need to beguile his haunting injuries once again. The injuries are part of Nadal’s legacy regardless of how he is viewed. His grinding style of play has achieved greatness, but has extracted the cost of injuries and will loom as an omnipresent dark cloud over the remainder of his career.
Nadal knows more than anyone that it does no good to wonder what might have been. 11 Grand Slam titles have already assured him a top five place on the pantheon of tennis greats, and there are some who view him as the greatest player in tennis history.
His comeback must follow nothing less than a clean bill of health, rigorous training, and the physical demands he so desperately needs to be the best player in the world once again. It's another roll of the dice that Nadal will take.
Brave New Tennis World
In 2010, Nadal ruled tennis. He had the upper hand on Federer, and he was at least a cut ahead of other talented rivals, like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Nobody had the mental toughness, endurance, and fighting spirit to match the feisty Spaniard. They might have found it less hazardous to fill in as a guest matador at Madrid’s Las Ventas than to battle Nadal.
Then Djokovic emerged as a superstar rival, defeating Nadal in three consecutive Majors from Wimbledon 2011 to the Australian Open classic of 2012.
Nadal lost his No. 1 ranking and faced tough odds in reclaiming it again. Djokovic seemed to have solved the Spaniard with his own resolve and toughness.
But Nadal found his game on his beloved clay, and his bravado returned by sweeping the red clay tournaments at Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Paris. For most fans and tennis observers, Nadal appeared to be healthy and ready to add more Grand Slam titles.
Just as sudden, the Fates shook his career. He was stunned in his infamous Wimbledon loss to Lukas Rosol, he withdraw from the 2012 Olympic Games, and he would not play a single point at the U.S. Open.
As Nadal sat on the sidelines of the summer ATP tournaments, the tennis scene shifted to Federer's triumphant Wimbledon title. The Swiss Maestro seized the No. 1 ranking, which he continues to hold.
Enter Andy Murray and his new brand of Braveheart tennis. The Scottish warrior struck gold at the Olympics by dismantling Federer and Djokovic. He followed this up with his heroic U.S. Open victory over Djokovic, looking like the 21st century incarnation of Richard the Lionhearted.
In addition to his wonderfully eclectic game, Murray has learned to glare at adversity and beat it back with his own feisty resolve. Whatever else transpires, he will not be intimidated by the other Big Three as he looks to carve out his own burgeoning mini-dynasty.
Nadal once set the bar for mental toughness, but it has become the standard and expectation for Federer, Djokovic and Murray. They all understand the price just as well as Nadal, and they will not short-change their chances by shrinking from a fight.
When Nadal returns, he will be trying to hit reset in a faster, tougher ATP. It’s a brave new world that he once helped create, but its new rulers have learned well how to be top combatants. Does Nadal have one more gear left in his drive and mental resolve? He will need it.
The Best Laid Plans
There is little to no incentive for Nadal to return for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London the first week of November. He has had relatively little success with indoor courts. The fast speed and low bounce of the tennis ball does not favor his game, and the other seven top competitors will be sharper. Even a title could be a Pyrrhic victory for Nadal, and the self-destructive cost has already been extraordinarily high for his career.
It’s more likely, but not a guarantee, that Nadal could make his return to the Australian Open in January. Melbourne’s outdoor courts produce a higher bounce that plays better for Nadal’s topspin. But Nadal will need competitive tune-ups. To win the Australian Open will require likely battles against his three chief rivals, all of whom are adept on hard courts. It would be a daunting trial with long odds for Nadal in the intermediate future.
Instead, Nadal may be better served to continue his recovery and training by degrees. He may decide to test his game at Indian Wells or Miami to prepare for the European clay-court season.
In 2012, Nadal’s performances at these venues indicated this pattern. He returned from a month-long absence and struggled to find his best form at Indian Wells. Then he withdrew from the Miami semifinals as a precaution for his knees. Clearly, Nadal valued defending his clay-court titles in Europe, and chose to invest his strength on his best surface.
Whatever Nadal’s future plans may be, he will most prioritize his health and comeback on the red clay, and will not jeopardize these opportunities with high-risk tennis beforehand. He may only have so many bullets left in his chamber, and he will choose to fire them on his own terms.
If Nadal is playing full-time as early as January, it’s a clear sign he is feeling confident in his health and comeback. There is no reason to doubt the integrity of his decisions to play or skip events. He has battled his entire career to maximize his talents and health.
The Sun Also Rises
Nadal’s fierce demeanor on court belies the quiet, reserved manner of his simplicity. He is Mallorcan, which means he is a worker without the trappings of big-headed fame. He must perform at his best, for anything less would corrupt his gift. He will not throw this away like half-worn tennis balls.
Instead, the champion is recovering, biding his time patiently with this recovery as if it were an extended changeover. Yet he will be eager to put aside his towel, trot out to the court, and dig his feet into the baseline. There is nothing to replace the itch of competition or to displace the mastery of his life-forged talent.
If fortune shines, Nadal will have a new lease on playing his beautiful reckless tennis. He will have license to slide into the red clay, loop his whirling topspin, and defend the final stages of his tennis legacy.
Just once more he wants to defend Roland Garros and claim another French Open title. He wishes to claim one more great victory at the battlement. He pleads once more with the tennis gods for yet another extension on his career.
It has never been easy to play like Rafael Nadal, and it’s no given he will win another Grand Slam title, but his devoted followers and tennis fans around the world hope he will return with his optimum game. They want to see him compete with the Rafa fire of yesterday.
If he regains his great form, he will win more Grand Slam titles.
Enjoy whatever he can give us. There will never be another Rafa Nadal.