Okay, when was the last time Rafael Nadal made excuses in a press conference? I know: after his loss to Juan Martin del Potro in Miami five months ago. He played one of the worst matches I have seen him playing and seemed strangely disinvested on court.
He said there was a reason for his poor play: "A personal one." And what did we learn three months later? He had been playing with sore knees for a while and his parents were officially separating.
For once, it was okay for Rafa to be human. To not be the tireless wining machine and feel vulnerable. And irritable.
There were traces of the same behaviour yesterday after his escape from the continuous onslaught of Nicholas Almagro.
Nadal’s serve was off. His movement around the court was questionable. His tank was clearly running at no more than 75 percent. The reason became very clear when a trainer treated his abdomen muscles for a full five minutes in the third set. There were rumours of yet another injury.
And what did Rafa say when he was asked about it? “I don’t want to talk about it.” Not only did he “not talk,” he was also unusually sullen during his post-match interview. Not the Rafa we are used to seeing.
So what really is happening in the Nadal camp? Questions have been flowing nonstop ever since he pulled out of the tour with tendinitis at the end of last year.
First it was the knees. Rafa clearly put a stop to all that speculation about being “burnt out” by wining the Australian Open—his first hard court slam. Victory was sweet.
Then came assaults on his new clothing and gear. Was he becoming a sellout? Why was Nike trying selling us a stereotypical world No. 1? Worse, why was Nadal letting them?
No sooner than we had come to accept him in his new get-up, there was uproar about his scheduling. Why was Rafa playing at events like Rotterdam Barcelona and Madrid? Was it the points, the money, or simply the obligation to please the home crowd? The exact reason was never known.
Then came the biggest blow to his career—a plum injury in the middle of the tennis summer. Defence of the Wimbledon crown was not meant to be. Why was Nadal playing with hurting knees? Who was answerable for his condition? Why wasn’t he foresighted enough to understand the impacts of so much tennis on his already vulnerable knees?
The questions continued throughout Wimbledon.
Rafa made his return at Montréal after two months away from the sport. Sure, he lost his No. 1 ranking, but on the upside, he was fresher than ever to stake claim to the only Slam he is yet to win. Now that he was back with a flourish, many of his fans were hoping for a hassle-free US Open for Rafa.
But as soon as he made his tournament debut, many noticed a very significant change—Rafa suddenly looked much slimmer. Now this can be attributed to his t-shirt wearing, hair cropping, or the fact that he hasn’t trained as much in the past two months as he usually does, but he looks unquestionably smaller in his frame.
Greg Rusedski (@Sky Sports) seems to think he has "intentionally" lost some of his muscle mass to ease up the pressure on his knees. Plausible explanation? Maybe.
Yesterday’s injury seems to have opened yet another can of worms for Rafael Nadal. When I opened my Google browser this morning, there were over 1,000 new news articles devoted just to the “new injury which is plaguing the world No. 3.”
The extent of this injury is presently unknown, and Rafa has flatly refused to shed any more light on it. As tennis fans, it leaves us with no choice but to wait and watch.
Gael Monfils is up next. Not only is he more athletic than Almagro, he is also much faster. If Monfils serves well, Nadal could suffer. Plus we can all count on Monfils to fully expose any fault with Rafa’s movement.
According to Nadal, he will be out there giving 100 percent. Well, that’s nothing new, is it? He always gets an "A" for effort from even his worst critics.
However, there are other questions begging answers of Rafael Nadal, his "new injury" being just one of them. Surely the best way to answer them all would be to keep your head down and work hard. But exactly how hard is he going to push himself?
Is there a magical threshold which allows him all of his gladiatorial battle glory but beyond which he risks irreparable damage? We don't know yet.
As someone who knows how much Rafa likes to win, even at the cost of self-destruction, I hope his relentless chase of this elusive Slam doesn’t hurt him in the long run.
Rest up, Rafa. Tomorrow you fight again.