By Adam Gale
There’s something different about this coming Australian Open, an extra crackle of anticipation in the air. The tennis world awaits not only the start of the 2013 season, but also the return of one the sport’s most electric champions. Rafael Nadal is soon to play at the exhibition/warm-up event in Abu Dhabi after six months of inaction.
It has been a long and agonising six months, a time of great worry for his fans. Rafa always had problems with his knee, but this time it was clearly something much more serious. Tournament followed tournament followed tournament, and still he didn’t play.
Although the announcement of his return in 2013 has consequently been greeted with great excitement, there are still many voices of caution, and his future is anything but secure. Let’s look at some of the possible scenarios he might face:
The Slow Burnout
Recurrent injuries can have a crippling effect on a player’s career. Cast your minds back to Lleyton Hewitt’s glory days. Like Nadal, Hewitt built his game around exceptional court coverage, but the whippet-quick Aussie lost a step as injuries caught up with him. He’s been out of the top ten now for seven straight years.
Could this happen to Rafa? Unlikely. Knee injuries like his are painful and temporarily debilitating, but they aren’t the same as hip or shoulder problems. If he can play, his physical capabilities should remain the same.
The Flash and Splutter
Players need time to prepare and to practice. Sometimes, injuries never quite go away long enough for them to do so sufficiently. Tommy Haas’ career has been marred by just this problem, and only punctuated by glimpses of the excellence which he might otherwise have sustained.
Could this be Nadal’s fate? It’s possible, but then again he has always demonstrated an ability to bounce back from time off before. If his injuries are to be on and off, he’s still likely to achieve great things, just less often.
Things might not be so bad. Perhaps this break will have given Rafa’s body time to recover. Perhaps it will even extend his career. Look at Serena Williams. She also has had to face persistent knee and ankle troubles, and has missed great chunks of tennis seasons in the past. The American’s rebound after a year away from the sport in 2010-11 has been astonishing and inspirational.
Can Rafa do a Serena? Though he would undoubtedly love to have a similar story, it might not be so easy. Williams’ game is founded on superlative serving and first-strike tennis. Nadal, on the other hand, wins matches from the back-court, wrestling his opponents for each and every point. His playing style is fundamentally more likely to cause a recurrence of his injuries.
The Clay Oven
It is undeniable that the tightness of the schedule and the preponderance of hard courts on the pro tour have contributed to Nadal’s woes. Maybe Rafa’s future, then, lies in a return to his roots. If he were to miss some of the hard court events, and focus more on clay court tennis, he might indeed extend his career.
Is this the direction Nadal will go? He has already announced an intention to play at the Mexican Open in late February, which marks a departure from his traditional scheduling in favour of more matches on the red stuff. Practically speaking, however, it might be difficult to take this much further. There are many obligatory hard court events. Do we expect Rafa simply to miss them and accept the penalties? Or would he play them but only half-heartedly? It wouldn’t really be his style, would it?
The future is never clear, and the human body is not predictable. Whether Nadal’s injuries will prove terminal to his career or merely a blip on his chart is yet to be seen. If he is able to keep playing, though, and if he is able to return to his best, surely he will have to be smarter with his scheduling.
I suspect Rafa still has plenty to prove, plenty of hunger for the big titles. I’m also sure he will not want to repeat this extended and painful lay-off from the sport if he can possibly avoid it. If missing the odd tournament to give his body a rest is the price to pay to extend his career, surely a great champion like Rafa will be prepared to pay it.