Rafael Nadal's Knees: What's the Real Story?

Donald FincherAnalyst IJune 8, 2009

PARIS - MAY 31:  Rafael Nadal of Spain looks on during the Men's Singles Fourth Round match against Robin Soderling of Sweden on day eight of the French Open at Roland Garros on May 31, 2009 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Rafael Nadal's Uncle Tony hinted today on a French radio station that Rafa might be pulling out of not just the Queens Tournament but Wimbledon too.

My parents used to tell me, when I was trying to decipher what someone was telling me vs. what I thought to be accurate, the truth usually was in between. The phrase was that there were three sides to every story: their side, my side, and the truth.

Well, to borrow, slightly contort, and reapply that analogy, I think there may be three possibilities as to what is going on with this news on Rafa's knees.

Those options would be that it's worse than what they are letting on, they really don't have an idea yet and are just being honest with tourney officials about it, or they are putting out the worst-case scenario and it's not really that bad.

Nadal fans are wringing their hands right now, wondering which of these it really is.

Because the only addendum to the official statement on his knees came from Uncle Tony and not from Rafa himself, it's hard to know how much to put into it and how much may be gamesmanship.  

When a top player gets an injury, there is ALWAYS the consideration of how much to tell and how much to keep under wraps.

When Roger Federer got glandular fever and then mono, he really had to divulge it because mono is pretty serious. But when he started having back problems, he kept that to himself for a while. He didn't want the other players to think he was even more vulnerable. It's part of managing one's tennis persona.

Therefore, anyone that assumes that those decisions about just how much to tell, when to tell it, and how to spin it aren't going on at Camp Rafa are deluding themselves. Rafa Inc. is big business, and decisions like this are made when these situations arise...just like in any professional sport.

The first scenario I mentioned is that it's worse than what they are letting on. It could be that Rafa hasn't talked to the media because he's absolutely torn up about it. Uncle Tony could be managing the media for him.

They've cancelled events before because of knees. However, those were minor events.  

To pull out of Wimbledon right after Roger gained the momentum and dropped the Pete Sampras pressure may as well mean they are ceding Wimbledon to Roger, because they know Rafa won't win anyway due to his injury.

If they do cede Wimbledon and Roger wins it right after winning the French, they are most likely ceding the No. 1 ranking too. Roger may put a choke hold back on it now that he's gotten this big burden off of him and can play freely again.

This is why I believe it is possible that, if they are hinting that Rafa may pull out of a tourney of the magnitude of Wimbledon, with all that is at stake there, things could be much worse than what we are currently being told.

I guess there is always the second scenario...that they really don't have a clue how bad this is. I'm sure they are being truthful about going to Barcelona to see a specialist. That's too easy to verify later if it was done or not.

Whether they are going already knowing what they are going for or whether they are looking to the doctor for a diagnosis or list of options is another thing. I guess we'll know more on this shortly.

The last option I mentioned is that they could be making this seem worse than it is. But why would one do that? Well, it could be to lower the pressure and the expectations on Rafa.

Every player, no matter how good, plays best with as little pressure or expectation as possible. So if the world is convinced that Rafa is hobbled out there, it means that he isn't questioned if he only wins by a little—and a loss is more easily explained away.  

The last thing that they want their rivals investing in is that Rafa is losing ground to them. If the other players sense vulnerability, the Nadal camp wants those players to believe that it is injury-related (and therefore likely short term) rather than a crisis of confidence or that the other players are catching up.

These hungry young players (Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro, now Robin Soderling) as well as some veterans that are clawing to get back to the top of the game (Andy Roddick, Nikolay Davydenko) have had to watch the finals on TV for the last five years.

With only four majors per year, that means that the 14 won by Fed and the six won by Rafa, which together account for 20, have put the last five years' worth of hardware out of their reach. These others want their turn.

So what is the real story? That depends on the time frame. In the short run, there could be gamesmanship or expectation management going on. That's hard to comment on with what little we know right now. So, the opinion I have come to is more about the long term.

My honest opinion is that if they pull out of Wimbledon (and all of the repercussions that go along with that), then it's worse than we think. We could see an extended leave from Rafa and that they have realized that he is killing his knees and will only play another two years at this rate. I believe surgery may be in the offing.  

The question will then become, can he make a full recovery and be able to play the way he has always played, or will he have to adjust his style and find a new way to play? And, if he has to find a new way to play, will he ever be as effective?

The road back could be a long one, and he may never be the same. It would be a shame to find out that he (or someone surrounding him) has mortgaged his future for the temporary glory of these last two seasons.

We learned a lot today from the way Roger Federer handles himself. Perhaps one of the most underappreciated things about Roger is how he made changes to his game but refused to push himself beyond what is healthy just to win.

To do otherwise is slightly akin to cheating.

When one goes outside the rules (in this case the rules of anatomy and nature) to give one's self an advantage that others don't have, one is giving himself an advantage that is both unfair to the players that refuse to do that to themselves, but ultimately, it cheats the player himself in terms of his tennis longevity and his own future post-tennis health.

Roger instead made other changes that were in line with his goals of a long career, which, by necessity, requires proper management of one's body.

Let's all hope for the sake of tennis and for Rafa the person that he (or if not him, then whoever is encouraging him) will learn that having legs that function instead of screws and plates and artificial limbs is more important than winning. We all only get one body.