The last few years have seen two great champions win 20 of the last 22 Grand Slam tennis championships—Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two of the greatest to ever step onto a tennis court, ferociously battling for supremacy in their sport. However, the last two years in particular have brought out just as ferocious a battle off the courts, over tennis injuries.
Every time a marquee player goes down with an injury, or if there is even the faintest whiff of a physical ailment mentioned before, during, or after a match, the hype machine cranks up, and the warriors of spin enter the arena.
On one side, you have Tennis Player A. Just as an example, let's say he dresses in all whites, has an exquisite game, has some otherworldly consistency and match-winning records, and has for years crushed all comers like a prime Mike Tyson.
He has long been king of the arena. No one wants to face him. Finally, a young upstart, Player B, dares to challenge him. He wins some victories, making small inroads at first. Player A finally starts to develop the first small chinks in his armor. Player B, starting to come into the fullness of his power, begins to exploit those chinks, and through this and the advantage of youth, becomes the new king of the arena.
His match record pales in comparison to the former King, but his rabid fans, in the excitement of the moment, proclaim him as The Greatest. Then, the new ling falls to injury, and the former ling ascends back to the throne...a few months pass and Player B returns to the arena and takes the throne back. Time passes and the former king falters due to injury.
The spin engine revs up and the Asterisk Police seize the record books, placing an asterisk next to the tournaments won by either player while the other player had an injury, real or perceived.
Was Player A observed limping on the court? Asterisk. Did Player B take a fall during the match and take a timeout to stretch or get a quick massage? Asterisk. Did Player A or B note after the match that they weren't moving so well, and had back/knee/head/foot/ankle or other problems, or even sneeze on the court? Asterisk!
Of course, Player A and Player B stand for R and R—Roger and Rafa. But lately, R and R might as well stand for what they always seem on the verge of needing: rest and relaxation.
Rafael Nadal might as well hyphenate his name to Rafael Nadal-Rodillas (which means "knees" in Spanish) and his counterpart change to Roger Federer-Back, because it seems you can't mention them without referring to their injuries. To the Rabid Nadalites, whenever Rafa loses, it's always "Yeah, but he's favoring his knees." When Federer loses, his Cult Worshippers chant, "He must've tweaked his back again."
This injury defense knows no statue of limitations, either. If it is found out, or even whispered about, that one player or the other had a head cold back in year such-and-such, every defeat they had should be stricken from the record. When a new injury hits the press and that player suffers a few defeats, the vultures start circling, strapping on their bibs and ready to strip that player to the bare bones.
Moving on to the actual players in question, I think the reason people don't dispute Nadal's "knees" is just because of the fierce competitor that he is. He plays every point like it's his last, and never gives up. If Federer is like Baryshnikov with grace and efficiency of effort, Nadal is like King Leonidas in the movie 300. He will keep grinding you down relentlessly until you submit.
Personally, I think Roger's consistency is one of his most amazing traits. He has never retired in a match that I'm aware of, and despite his reputation for being a finesse player, he is a true warrior on the court. He doesn't get enough credit for that.
I think both players have similar comments before and after matches. They both say things like "It will be a difficult match," or "I will have to play my best to have chances to win," etc. However, whether it's Nadal's wry smile or something else that gives one or the other away, you know they are both thinking, "I'm going to blow you off the court and send you crying home" or some such.
Nadal looked against Berdych at Wimbledon like at any moment he would leap the net and get Berdych in a Muay Thai clinch, and do a full-body takedown on him.
I also believe Nadal and Federer have a mutual respect for each other. They are similar in so many ways. I know it just kills Roger that Nadal has been beating him so regularly, and I'm sure that's part of the reason for hiring Annacone, and I think that's great. It shows he's not satisfied, and doesn't want "to go gently into that good night." Props to him.
If there's any way, Roger will find it and do it, despite some over-the-top Nadal followers lunging at Federer with their pitchforks, and pushing each other in line to be first to shovel some dirt on his grave. Yes, he's slipping some. He may not regain No. 1, but he will be competitive and top-10 for a long time if he desires.
I think most reasonable people believe Nadal's injuries are real, and also believe Roger Federer's injuries are real. It's really foolishness to say otherwise. Robin Soderling has had knee surgery, and that kept him down for a good while. Mardy Fish suffered from knee tondonitis and it has impacted his game. Andre Agassi hung up his racket due to back injuries while the rest of him was still in great shape.
The tough thing is that the conflicting reports from the players' camps muddy the waters and offer conflicting reports. Federer's trainer posted on his website in an interview, stating that right now Federer "is superfit." How can you be "superfit" and be struggling with debilitating back injuries at the same time?
Similarly, Nadal's camp was trying to minimize Nadal's injuries, saying it was small potatoes, up until the time he was talking about surgery and had to skip Wimbledon.
DelPo's camp was similar. Everyone thought he was out past the US Open, and then leaks came out of his camp hinting that he would play the US Open. Peter Bodo breathlessly wrote it up like it was a sure thing, and everyone got whipped into a frenzy, only to discover a couple days later that DelPo hadn't even picked up a racket yet, and it was all a farce.
Personally, I enjoy watching both players. I have learned a lot about tactics from both of them, and really envy their mental game and ability to close out opponents. Both have hit shots that are beyond the other players on the tour, and I don't want to lose either one of them before their time. Although it doesn't look good for Roger right now, and time isn't on his side, I look forward to every match he plays and love to watch him.
What I don't like is the "hype machine" that clouds the issues, and the Wizard of Oz-like smoke and mirrors that say, "Ignore that man behind the curtain, I'm the great and powerful OZ!" while everything is crumbling around them. It's hard to get at the truth, and the reality is somewhere in between what the hyperventilating and rabid uber-fans are saying, and the gravedigger pessimists are saying.
We may only know for sure when their careers are done and they've played all the matches. Until then, let's just enjoy the matches and let history be the judge. Personally, I hope they both stay well and uninjured. We can all name athletes in other sports who had one or more injuries derail their entire careers. We are witness greatness from both Nadal and Federer, a once-in-a-generation battle royale that has endured for years.
Hope it lasts a good while longer.