So we will have to wait a little while longer for Rafael Nadal’s return from injury. The stomach bug that kept him out of the Abu Dhabi Exhibition also was too much for his planned return in Doha at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open and the knock-on effect of interrupted practice and no competitive match play under his belt means he feels unable or unwilling to begin things at the Australian Open.
His withdrawal on Friday was a big blow to the Australian Open. Though the second half of 2012 contained plenty of high points on the men’s Tour, there is no question that the 11-times grand slam champion has been missed around the world’s tournament stops, such is his charisma and the energy and excitement he brings to every match. But if we take him at his word rather than speculating that his knee may not yet be 100 percent – and we have little choice but to do that – then pulling out is surely the sensible decision. Nadal, more so than the rest of the top four, has always been happier with a stack of matches under his belt.
In a couple of recent interviews, Nadal has addressed the fears and the doubts that will inevitably be there when he first pushes his left knee in competition, having not played a tournament since losing to Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon in late June. It’s the longest absence of his career and he is bound to be a little unsure at first, so dampening expectations has been high on his agenda. There will be plenty who believe this latest delay is just more evidence that his knee is not ready and that he may never reproduce former glories.
The good thing is that Nadal is used to being absent through injury, if not for quite so long as this time. In 2009, he was forced to miss the defence of his Wimbledon title because of problems with both knees and in 2007, he had knee trouble that first flared up in the Wimbledon final of that summer. In 2004, he missed the French Open and most of the clay-court season because of a left ankle injury.
But in 2005, it was the foot injury that saw him miss the ATP World Tour Finals and then the Australian Open of the following year that caused him most concern. Shortly after beating Ivan Ljubicic in the final of the Madrid Masters, on an indoor court that is the most difficult for him to play on, doctors found a congenital problem in his foot that left Nadal worried that he may never play again. The Mallorcan briefly considered taking up golf instead, believing he may never play again. Thankfully, with the help of special shoes and orthotics, he was able to return and became a champion, but the legacy of the injury has caused problems with his knees and his back.
Anyone who has seen Nadal play will know that of all tennis players, he is able and willing to play through pain better than anyone. His warrior-like playing style may be rough on his body but his never say die attitude and his relentless belief is what makes him so popular around the world. The knowledge that he has come back from serious injury before can only help calm him when he returns, be it in Acapulco on clay in February, or, if he feels ready, somewhere else beforehand, perhaps in Rotterdam, a tournament run by his close friend Richard Krajicek.
It would be a surprise if Nadal is back to his best immediately, not least because he is a player who likes to play a lot, and who has said many times that he needs to have that feeling of playing dozens of sets under his belt to feel competitive and calm under pressure. But looking at his previous comebacks, it may not take him too long to hit full stride once more.
In 2004, when he was really only just beginning to make his mark, he took five tournaments to win his first title. In 2006, after his serious foot problem, he won his second tournament back, beating Roger Federer in the Dubai final. In 2009, he got to the semis of the US Open in just his third event back and while he actually didn’t win another title until Monte Carlo the following April, he was competitive throughout that “barren” period, a run that also included another two-month break after suffering knee trouble and being forced to quit in his quarter-final against Andy Murray at the Australian Open.
The hope is that Nadal will now temper his schedule a little, wherever he can. Having played more than 600 matches on Tour, he is allowed to drop one of his Masters 1000 commitments, from eight to seven, so don’t be surprised if he does not play in either Canada or Cincinnati in the summer.
Hard courts are the most troublesome surface for him and while he hopes to use Indian Wells and Miami as building blocks to the clay-court season, an extended break after Wimbledon, including Canada, may be the most sensible. Nadal also seems likely to play as much on clay courts as possible and since he is so dominant on the surface, he is sure to pick up the vast majority of his ranking points there, enabling him to stay close to the top.
There are those who will say that the game moves on, even in the seven months he has been away, and that Nadal may be a fading force. But in the first half of 2012 he was enjoying his tennis again and winning. His will-power is not in question and if his knee allows him, there is no reason to think that he won’t be just as good as before. It might just take him a few events to get going. By Monte Carlo, expect to see the real Rafael Nadal standing tall once more.