Rafael Nadal has an important decision to make. Does he want to chase down the world No. 1 ranking or does he want to play competitive tennis for years to come?
If his answer is yes to the first question, it almost has to be no for the second, or vice versa. After all, if he's missing tournaments to preserve his knee, he can't contend for the top ranking. And if he's looking to conquer men's tennis in the twilight of his career, then he must fight through the pain he feels in his left knee.
But whatever Rafa decides, he must commit one way or another.
At age 26, Nadal has accomplished everything there is to in the sport of tennis, but before he can attempt a return to the top, he must make up his mind when it comes to his hard-court dilemma. Does he commit to his comeback and make playing hard-court tournaments a priority, or does he put his future first, and skip the demanding surface to instead focus his efforts on the more forgiving clay and grass of Roland Garros and Wimbledon?
For now, it looks as if Rafa, winner of his last two tournaments in Brazil and Mexico, is ready to give hard courts a try. According to the Associated Press via The Wall Street Journal on Monday, Nadal will play at Indian Wells this March, his first hard-court appearance in nearly a year (not taking into account Monday night's exhibition at Madison Square Garden).
If Rafa has a strong showing at Indian Wells and then follows it up with some flashy tennis in Miami later this month, then the Big Three will need to step their game up as well. Otherwise, if Nadal decides after Indian Wells that the demand of the hard courts is too much for his aching knee, then consider his comeback finished.
Sure, he'll still be a favorite at the French Open this May, but even an eighth career title at Roland Garros won't be enough to elevate Rafa above Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer or Andy Murray. In order to become the world's best once again, he's got to contend, win and more importantly compete against the best, often times on hard courts.
If this route is too demanding and painful for Nadal, then he'd be smart to give up hard courts altogether and simply showcase his talents on the clay-court circuit, making Grand Slam appearances in Paris and London each year for the French Open and Wimbledon.
There's certainly no shame in opting for the softer clay or grass. As mentioned before, Nadal has done it all in the sport, he's an 11-time Grand Slam champion, an Olympic gold medalist (won in Beijing on hard courts) and has won at least once at all four majors. He has nothing left to prove, and if having a healthy, pain-free life after tennis is his top priority, he must make it his mission to avoid each and every hard-tournament on the season schedule.
Forget about points, forget about records. If Nadal wants to make a living playing professional tennis, and wants to do it comfortably without fear of further damaging his knees, skipping hard courts altogether is the only answer.
Yes, Nadal has spoiled tennis fans over the past eight years with his brilliant game and unrivaled intensity and passion, but now he's tormenting the sport's followers as well as his own supporters with his uncertainty.
A legitimate argument can be made for either direction Nadal decides to go, and no one would blame him for taking either route. But until he commits to a single goal, tennis fans have every right to be agitated by Rafa's indecisiveness.
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