How Rafael Nadal's Injuries May Cause a Late-Career Scheduling Shift

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistAugust 1, 2014

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 26:  Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts as he appears to be injured in his men's final match against Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland during day 14 of the 2014 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 26, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Rafael Nadal has a wrist injury that could very well derail his chances at winning the 2014 U.S. Open. This is hardly surprising, considering that injuries have been Nadal’s traveling companion through his decade of spectacular tennis.

Almost no part of his body has not been assaulted: right elbow, left-ankle stress fracture, tarsal scaphoid bone in left foot, requiring constant shoe adjustments and training precautions, shoulder, tendonitis in both knees, perpetually, back pains and right wrist.

The good news for Nadal is that he knows how to rehabilitate and come back from injuries. Perhaps no athlete in sports history has made so many successful championship comebacks. He has the mentality and the will to overcome physical limitations, as he has shown many times.

But the frequency and intensity of these injuries are increasing with each of his passing 28 years. He’s reached a point in his career where it may be impossible to play a complete tennis season. What this means is that he may have to readjust his playing schedule by adding more rest and peaking only for his very best opportunities.

His recent past might be the blueprint to his remaining few years as a Grand Slam contender, and, if so, there is a strong possibility of the following: Unless Nadal is miraculously healed and in great tennis shape, he might not even bother returning to tennis until it’s summertime in Melbourne.

Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press
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Valleys and Peaks

Nadal thrives on clay courts and is excellent on slow, outdoor hard courts such as Indian Wells and Melbourne’s Australian Open—notwithstanding the cruel vicissitudes of injuries. It would make sense that he trains to be healthy for the stretch from January to early June when springtime and clay courts take their turn as the centerpiece on the ATP tour.

The most dangerous Nadal is his healthy, fit version with rested legs, energetic vigor and the mental challenge to prove he can still win championships.

This can only happen if Nadal skips fast-court tournaments that have not routinely been part of his conquered empire. If he cannot play the U.S. Open, why even bother to go to the Far East for tournaments in Beijing, Tokyo and Shanghai?

Why should he wear his body out to play indoor tournaments in Paris or the WTF final in London, if it wears him down or compromises his efforts at Melbourne or the European clay-court season?

In 2012, Nadal, struggling with a sore knee, scratched his semifinal match at the Miami Masters rather than play Andy Murray and then moved on to play Novak Djokovic in the final. The result? Nadal had the time to rebound and win an eighth straight title at Monte Carlo, before winning titles at Barcelona, Rome and the French Open.

But the fast-court season saw him lose in the second round at Wimbledon and then miss the rest of the year. Eventually, he came back for the Latin American clay-court swing in February 2013.

He was fresh and ready with his newly adjusted backhand ripping shots and setting up titles at Brazil, Mexico, Indian Wells, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome and Paris. Clearly, his fresher legs and training maximized his opportunities to win titles that he was best suited to win.

Perhaps his success and energy in sweeping the 2013 U.S. series of tournaments, including the U.S. Open, was at least assisted by the seven months he was able to rejuvenate and rebuild his body the previous year.

Claude Paris/Associated Press


Controversial Solution

Suppose you are Nadal. You’ve won 14 Grand Slam titles and won everywhere that matters in tennis. You’ve held the No. 1 ranking for 141 weeks, and many observers call you the greatest player who has perhaps ever played. Would it make any sense at all to push your aging body through the ATP’s grinding, mandatory tournament schedule?

Or would you rest from your nagging injuries and recharge for the Grand Slam titles and clay-court tournaments that you have most dominated? If you had a better chance to win four more majors by staggering your appearances, don’t you do this in a heartbeat?

Maybe Nadal’s best move is to forget about playing the tour for others and pace himself with his tennis schedule. If “injuries” is the only way he can opt out of the ATP’s mandatory tournaments, for increased chances to win more major titles, then shouldn’t he “manage” this accordingly?

The goal for late-career Nadal is to win championships, not to show up, play at 90 percent and be a runner-up.

He’s not there to wave at the crowd or bask in his past glory as TV commentators deliver various tones of his swan song. No, he must find rest, off-court training, health and motivation to snarl with his championship bite on the tennis court.

If Nadal cannot be at his best, why go through the motions of losing on fast courts, especially at the expense of extending his domination on European clay?

We might see this kind of decision-making more often than not as he approaches his 30s. Nadal is anything but conventional or predictable, and he is often plotting his very next comeback.

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