Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Are The Hard Courts Worth it For Rafa?

What a difference a year makes.

In the first few months of 2009, Rafael Nadal was on top of the world. He was looking down from his perch at the top of the pecking order of tennis, and things looked agreeable. He saw a cast of characters that couldn’t handle his firepower (and if they could they couldn‘t handle it for long) and a tennis-god named Federer who was completely out of sorts whenever he faced him.

This - Nadal’s rise to No. 1 - was not the stuff of mere mortals. It was not even the stuff of lower-grade Greek Gods. When the Spaniard had finally driven Roger Federer to the depths of despair in that most memorable of Australian Open finals (aka the Tearjerker), he was too elated to even begin to fathom the heavy price he would eventually have to pay for his first - and to this date, only - hard court title.

For the valiant Nadal, it has been a career that is so chock-full of courageous efforts that many experts speculated that he’d eventually become the greatest of all-time.

Eventually is turning out to be an iffy proposition.

Ever since his 6th Grand Slam at the tender age of 22 (Federer’s 6th didn‘t come until he was 24), Nadal has been searching for the physical currency that would allow him to purchase more Grand Slam tokens. Lately his account has had insufficient funds.

Nadal held on to the No. 1-ranking for 46 weeks but he has since sunken into a title drought that has cast doubts about his future. It has now been 9 months since his last triumph in Rome (May 3rd, 2009). Injuries have been the culprit, but it’s been so long that it’s hard not to wonder if the real Rafa, or something inside the real Rafa has been lost forever.

In 2009, knee tendinitis kept him from defending his Wimbledon title, and that injury led to the extra stress on his core that eventually hindered him at the 2009 U.S. Open (abdominal strain). The collective effects kept him from returning to form as he finished the season with 3 consecutive losses in the Barclays Global World Tour Championships.

Injuries, injuries, and more injuries. For the last 9 months it’s been the recurring theme and the thorn in Rafa's side. About to turn 24 in March, Nadal’s MRI bill is constantly increasing while his trophy count remains stagnant.

Rafa’s camp must realize that they have a severe emergency on their hands. How could they not? With so much of Rafa’s game predicated on his awe inspiring level of fitness, any long-term plan for Nadal should take into account the fact that he has been on the tour for 8 grueling years (he won his first ATP event at 15). As young as he is on paper, Rafa's age is misleading. In terms of tennis years he's an old vet and the quicker he and his team realize this and act accordingly, the better off he'll be.

Expectations need to be slashed. Priorities need to be examined. Questions need to be asked.

Questions like, is it really worth it for Nadal to keep suffering on the hard courts, when he is clearly a player built for the clay?

As the drought continues, as Rafa continues to play like a shadow of his dominant 2008 self, as his once invincible but now vulnerable game continues to get overpowered by the likes of Davydenko, Cilic, and del Potro (still not Federer, though), shouldn’t more drastic measures be taken?

Clearly whatever Rafa and his camp are doing is not quite enough to get the man truly fit. There is no shame in that. Nadal is clearly a god, albeit a bruised one, and he should be given the benefit of the doubt about that. But what he should not be given the benefit of the doubt about is his invincibility.

With his level of physicality, and the heavy schedule he has maintained since he joined the tour, Rafa has put more hard miles on his engine than any other player in tennis. Intuitively it makes complete sense for Rafa to radically alter his playing schedule and practice regiment from this point onward. While his desire to return for Indian Wells is admirable, I can’t help but think that it would be the worst thing for Nadal right now.

My advice? Well, I’m glad you asked. I think Nadal should wait until early to mid April to begin full practice and match play. Then he can make a genuine run at the French and Wimbledon. Not only would skipping Indian Wells give him more time to heal, it would also allow for his body to avoid the punishing toll that the hard courts take on all players bodies.

Furthermore, if I was Rafa, I would then proceed to skip the summer hardcourt season - I’d spend the next 5 months recuperating, rehabbing, and then finally working to develop strength in the previously injured areas.

We must remember, Nadal was, is, and always will be better-suited to win Grand-Slams on clay first, then grass second. His all-out quest to become truly versatile - i.e, winning on the hard courts of Australia and Flushing Meadows - goes against his nature. The man was built to play on clay, and he should revisit whatever mindset he had when he began his run at the top with a remarkable 81-match win streak on clay and 4 consecutive French Open titles. Rafa needs to jog his memory and let his body and mind come home to the clay.

At the crossroads that the Spaniard has arrived at, he must navigate the treacherous terrain of the next few years in a very delicate matter. If he stays on the current path, the losses will make his confidence suffer and the loss of confidence will bring only more losses. If he comes back next month, he’ll likely be doing it for the fans instead of himself. But this is the time for Rafa to be selfish. There is too much at stake for him not to be.

In the short term Rafa would feel like he was losing his connection to the game he loves. He’d be out of touch with the pulse, a heart with no blood. The fans would suffer too, because he is a giant in the sport, and a true phenom on the court.

But drastic times call for drastic measures - Rafa will never be Rafa again unless he lets his body rest. In the long term it may be his only chance at regaining the scintillating form that endeared him to us in the first place.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, what a difference a year makes. You're always a pleasure to read!


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