Are Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal Broken Down Beyond Repair?

Greg CouchNational ColumnistMay 20, 2016

Spain's Rafael Nadal of the Indian Aces (R) and Switzerland's Roger Federer of the Japan Warriors greet each other during practice at the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) event in New Delhi on December 12, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SAJJAD HUSSAIN / AFP / SAJJAD HUSSAIN        (Photo credit should read SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

A meniscus tear in the knee and now a sore back. These are minor injuries that Roger Federer is suffering from, minor issues that have knocked him out of the French Open. He announced Thursday that he's skipping it next week, the first time he has missed a major this century.

Individually, Federer's little injuries wouldn't amount to much. But combined and on a player who's 34? The Swiss star has been a miracle of health and fluidity for nearly two decades. But it turns out that even floating over a tennis court the way he does is eventually too much of a beating on a body.

The question about Federer is whether he's going to win another major, whether he can recover fully from his minor problems.

Just nine months ago, Akash Kapur of the New Yorker wrote an article entitled, "Why Roger Federer Hasn't Broken Down." But here's the problem with that: He has. His body is broken now.

ROME, ITALY - MAY 12:  Roger Federer of Switzerland reacts during his match against Dominic Thiem of Austria on Day Five of The Internazionali BNL d'Italia on May 12, 2016 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)
Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal will forever be linked to Federer, as they had the greatest individual rivalry in sports for so long. The Spaniard is said to be finding his confidence again.

Here's the problem with that: His body is broken now, too. He lost his confidence because he couldn't run down balls anymore because his knees are shot.

These two guys who redefined levels of greatness in tennis are now redefining what it means to be old and broken down in sports. It isn't about to happen; it has already happened.

"A lot of these medical issues are private," said Dr. Mark Kovacs, a former United States Tennis Association employee who consults with them now. "So it's hard to target exactly what [Federer and Nadal] have. But they have surgery for tendon problems and ligament problems. It's very common. And healing times are reduced significantly from what they used to be. Achilles? People come back from that; that's one of the most challenging ones.

"Part of the reason players play longer now is that most injuries are fixable."

Kovacs and Dr. Paul Lubbers, the Senior Director of Coaching Education and Performance for the USTA who also deals with sport science for the organization, talked with Bleacher Report this week about how players take advantage of science to find ways to play longer than they used to.

To be honest, I've thought at least three times over the past few years that Nadal was about done. In fact, one of those times was in January after the Australian Open. And now, suddenly, the 29-year-old is running fast again, which has allowed him to get to his shots, which has built his confidence.

Done? He looks like he's back. Again. I'll take him to win the French Open. Unless he gets hurt. Again.

ROME, ITALY - MAY 11:  Rafael Nadal of Spain plays a backhand his match against Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany on Day Four of The Internazionali BNL d'Italia on May 11, 2016 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)
Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

"Federer has had injuries and then come back [and now he's out again]," Lubbers said. "But you have to think about what does it mean to come back. Playing a weeklong tournament and being able to be successful for a week?

"When you play a Grand Slam, it's seven best-of-five-set matches over two weeks. That, to me, is going to be the test of if Nadal is back. On any given day can he play the level of No. 1 or No. 2 in the world? Absolutely. But can he do it over a period of time? That's the definition of whether he's back. Nadal's match count is down significantly, and the number of tournaments and events he plays. When you say he's back...I don't know."

Nadal and Federer are becoming the ultimate test in what an athlete can do after he's broken down. What does it mean, exactly, to be broken down when body parts are as replaceable as auto parts?

Way back in 2013, Nadal's knees were so bad that they would have finished off athletes from the past. Then, he got back to No. 1. And remember: Tennis is an individual sport that doesn't let you hide behind a teammate or sit out and rest when you're tired. Too hurt to play? Fine, you lose.

Spain's Rafael Nadal waves after losing his match against Serbia's Novak Djokovic during the ATP Tennis Open tournament at the Foro Italico, on May 13, 2016 in Rome. / AFP / TIZIANA FABI        (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)

Nadal was smart enough to take advantage of modern knowledge about rehab. But he also had blood removed from his knees, regenerated with what is called platelet-rich plasma therapy—known as blood spinning—and then reinjected into his knees.

But Lubbers makes a great point: Nadal is playing well now, in the short term. That does not mean, necessarily, that he's healthy and ready to go for the grind of a major with its extended matches and schedule.

The truth is, a broken-down tennis superstar today can try to time out his healthy moments. Nadal is the king of clay, and maybe it's no coincidence that he's at his best right at this moment. The French Open is his only realistic chance to win more majors.

And Federer? In announcing Thursday that he wouldn't play in the French, he said the risk was too great. That risk wasn't that he might become seriously hurt. It's that the matches are more grueling on clay, and the Swiss can't beat Nadal there, anyway, or Novak Djokovic.

He is better off just skipping that grind altogether and waiting for Wimbledon, with its fast grass surface and quick points. Federer does not have much of a shot at winning another major, but if he does, Wimbledon is the place.

These guys are timing out their moments, knowing they don't have many of them left.

For years, tennis was known as a playground for teenagers. That has changed now, and it's far more likely to see major title winners in their 30s than their teens. Why are older players able to keep going?

"A few factors," Kovacs said. "Probably the biggest one is the increasing financial resources of the top players has allowed them to have a physical therapist with them, nutrition expert, massage therapist. There's a lot more individual care on a daily basis that people in the past didn't have."

He said, too, that top players don't need to play every week for a paycheck anymore and can schedule smarter, play less and protect their bodies.

ROME, ITALY - MAY 12:  Roger Federer of Switzerland looks dejected after his match against Dominic Thiem of Austria on Day Five of The Internazionali BNL d'Italia on May 12, 2016 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)
Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

Lubbers said that Ivan Lendl changed things in the 1980s and took a more serious look at training schedules and practice habits.

"Before that," Lubbers said, "players would go out with a couple of rackets and a towel and play for hours and hours."

No, training involves less time on the court than it used to and more time with weights and other techniques. Lubbers also pointed out that surgeries have advanced so much that with a lot of them, players can walk right out of the hospital when they're over.

"The greats are typically very professional now about how they take care of their major asset," Kovacs said, "which is their body."

So Nadal keeps missing long stretches of the season and then somehow manages to come back. He plays a more violent style, which puts a much tougher beating on his body than Federer's style puts on him. Most tennis fans have thought for years that the Spanish star couldn't last long playing like that.

He's now about to turn 30 during the French. Federer's timing isn't right for the French. He has said he tore the meniscus in January after losing in the semifinals of the Australian Open. He said he got hurt off the court, at the park where he had taken his kids. He had surgery.

But would that meniscus have torn when he was 25? He hurt his back at the Madrid Open, but it's a good bet that was the result of favoring his knee.

Since the Australian, Federer has played just five matches. Between injuries, he skipped Miami with a stomach virus.

The body has given in, but the worn-out parts are all replaceable. Eventually, Old Father Time gets all of us.

Federer and Nadal know it, too. But they are replacing their carburetors and driving their jalopies toward up the biggest mountains anyway.

Greg Couch covers tennis for Bleacher Report. Follow him at @gregcouch.


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