Rafael Nadal Has Some Thinking To Do

Donald FincherAnalyst IJanuary 26, 2010

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 26:  Rafael Nadal of Spain wipes his face in his quarterfinal match against Andy Murray of Great Britain during day nine of the 2010 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 26, 2010 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by John Donegan-Pool/Getty Images)
Pool/Getty Images

Rafael Nadal has now lost all four of the "Slam" events because of his knees.  It started at the French when, before we even were all aware, his knees were already costing him a step.  Soderling was the first to exploit it but, if it weren't Soderling, it would have been someone else. 

Of course, the knees were cited as the reason he withdrew from Wimlbedon.  And even if it wasn't directly the problem at the US Open, the associated lack of readiness surely contributed to the thrashing that Del Potro put on him.  And now, we begin this year with Rafa's withdrawal from the fourth and final major.

All of this combined will cost him in the rankings.  He is already a certainty to fall to No. 3 as Djokovic will take over the No. 2 spot because of his late year surge.  But if Murray beats Cilic (a likelihood given that Cilic has played three straight five-set matches), he will cruise into the No. 3 spot.  Nadal hasn't been out of the top two in five years.  In a week, he'll be fourth.

It's time for Rafa to make some tough decisions.  He can continue down this road where the spring hard court season awaits him.  But that is full of problematic scenarios.  In those tournaments, Rafa will either lose early and lose ranking points along with it or he will go deep and continue to pound his knees playing match after match.  Or he could try to rest and rehab some more while he waits for clay court season to make his move.

But I'm not sure resting and rehabbing is going to work.  He may need surgery.  They've been pretty mum about this but Darren Cahill has described it pretty well as his career was ending by similar injuries.  And it's serious.

Nadal has only a few options if surgery is indeed required (or his best option).  

He can never have the surgery and hope that it gets better with different regimens.  This is what he has tried but doesn't appear to be working as he would like.  On this path, he will likely never be at full strength or speed again and will be relegated to an "always a bridesmaid, never the bride" type of player and would need to be content with reaching quarters and semis and being around the top 10. 

I'm just not certain a guy that enjoys his life outside of tennis so much as he does and has won 5 majors can be a journeyman again...even if it's an elite journeyman.

If he goes this route, he also risks waiting too long.  Let's say he plays through the season only to then win no majors, few ATP events (on clay most likely) and has to withdraw from more tournaments (whether it be from a match retirement like against Murray at Australia) or abstaining altogether (like Wimbledon). 

If he then, at the end of the season, decides to have surgery after the year, he'll need a year to get back into the groove.  And then we can't forget that, when he does start again, he'll do so as an unseeded player so he won't have the path of lesser resistance in tournaments that he now enjoys as a high seed.

 It will be a long climb that will likely take him until close to his 26h birthday to finally be back in stride.  Is Rafa likely to be winning tourneys like Roger in his late 20s?  Will the surgery even work?  Even if it does, will he always play tentative? 

These questions will be even tougher to answer if he waits. The damage will have gotten worse and the career to return to will be a year shorter.  He might just be better off retiring from tennis if he waits to make the decision and then sees that it's inevitable.  

Or he can do it now, take a year off, and hope that he can recover in time to have a decent career left knowing he will be getting back to prime around his 25th birthday instead of his 26th (which would be the case if he delays a year). 

This will leave him a couple of prime years left in his career.  The risk here is that the players already on his heels (DelPo, Murray, Djoker, Cilic, etc) firmly ensconce themselves in the top 5 and even with the surgery, Rafa finds it difficult to get back.

If Rafa was 22, this would be an easy decision.  He would be best served to do it right away.  If he was 26, he would be able to retire knowing that very few players have won majors past the age of 27 which would mean rehabbing at that age would be fruitless.  And he could have his swan song and say goodbye.  But because he is at this particular stage, it makes his options more problematic and laden with question marks.

It won't be an easy decision for him.  He has access to great doctors and lots of money to cover it.  He has determination that is possibly equaled by other players on the tour but not exceeded by any.  And he is in great shape otherwise so it truly is a localized problem. It just happens to be in the worst place for a tennis player...his wheels.

I certainly wish Rafa well.  If he never wins another major, he will still go down as one of the best with just what he's accomplished now.  And I think it's reasonable to say that even though Borg won more French Opens that Rafa is the best clay courter to have ever played the game.

Viva Rafa!  Here's wishing you the best.