We Need to Talk About Rafa

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It’s no big surprise that the major topic of discussion last week was Rafael Nadal’s announcement that he was withdrawing from this month’s U.S. Open due to an ongoing knee injury that also forced him out of the Olympics. But what was an even bigger surprise, at least for me, was the amount of unsolicited advice given to the former No. 1 about what he should and shouldn’t do in order to come back 100% healthy.

According to Nadal’s doctor, Angel Ruiz-Cotorro of the Spanish Tennis Federation, Nadal is suffering from Hoffa’s syndrome or an inflammation of the fat pad behind the knee. Nadal is undergoing multiple treatments in an possible attempt to compete for Spain in their upcoming Davis Cup tie against the United States later in September.

While it’s unclear when or where Nadal will actually return to the sport, a wide variety of pundits, fitness experts and casual tennis fans made it very clear on what they think Nadal should do to prevent another injury and hopefully be able to continue playing well into his thirties. The suggestions ran the gamut from saying that Nadal shouldn’t play on hard courts anymore because of their unforgiving surface to that he should limit his clay court schedule because the dirt forces too big a toll on his overall body. Other unsolicited recommendations included that Nadal should never play doubles again, shouldn’t play Davis Cup again, limit his time spent in North America (or just avoid the continent altogether), avoid exhibitions, and only play the Majors and maybe a handful of events the rest of the year.

With so many “experts” weighing in with advice, what’s a poor boy from Majorca to do?

Nadal said in a recent AP interview that he would take as much time as he needed to recover and that rankings would not be a priority for him anymore. And while that sounds as sensible a plan as any for the 11-time Major champion to adhere to, why were so many so quick to weigh in on what Nadal should do to return to the game?

Part of it is our human nature to give unasked for advice when someone is not well, but in Nadal’s case a lot of had to do with the collective disappointment many continue to feel about his absence. This month’s U.S. Open, despite having Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in as the favorites, still feels incomplete without Nadal’s presence, as if whoever wins the title will have an asterisk next to their name since Nadal wasn’t part of the draw. Add in that the Federer versus Nadal matchup is still considered the marquee rivalry in the sport despite Djokovic’s recent rise and it’s clear many tennis fans, even those who root for Federer, aren’t ready for Nadal to leave the sport yet. And since we’ve seen several near miraculous comebacks in the last few years, most notably Serena Williams, it’s likely many think Nadal can write a similar fairytale ending to this latest obstacle in his career.

While Federer has defied many predictions that he would ever return to No. 1 or even win another Major, Nadal’s recent injury woes is forcing everyone to perhaps finally admit that at age 26, “the king of clay” may well be in the final stages of his career. And that’s freaking everybody out — hence all the armchair medical advice coming in from all sides of the planet.

Ultimately, the decision will be Nadal’s on when he will return but more importantly how he decides to manage his body that clearly is not going to hold up the way Federer’s has over the years. If Nadal chooses to limit his playing time and his choice of his playing surface, that will inevitably disappoint some of his fans (and plenty of tournament organizers) but isn’t it better to have a part-time Rafa than not have him at all?

Many in Nadal’s camp and even some well known tennis commentators have said that they expect Nadal will come back stronger than ever. It’s clearly positive thinking and it’s what we all hope for, but it’s probably better that we, like Nadal may have to do, limit our expectations on what a Nadal return will look like. Until that day occurs, probably the best advice we can give him is one simple word.


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