Rafael Nadal’s Mixed Bag; WTA Re-evaluates Rule — The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Mixed Bag

Rafael Nadal made his return to tennis last week in Chile, and his comeback left mixed results as to where exactly he is with his game. He moved relatively well, tracking down drop shots and hustling to chase lobs, but he also got wrong-footed more than we’re used to seeing. Up until the singles and doubles finals, he was able to shake off the nerves and rust to routinely dismiss the opposition, but it was the kind of opposition that even a subpar Rafa always dismisses in the early rounds of any tournament. The fact that he reached the finals of both events after a 7-month layoff was something to be proud of, but his loss in the singles final likely did further damage to his clay court aura. Zeballos, who had a great record in clay court challengers coming in, deserves his due. He played the match of his life and handled the bigger moments better, but Zeballos was still the heavy underdog in that final. The Argentine had never won a singles title, had never been ranked inside the Top 40 or even won 40 career singles matches at the main tour level. This marked a stunning loss for Nadal that just goes to show there’s no substitute for match play. But, all in all, it was a good showing by the Spaniard. Plus, the great thing about tennis is there’s always next week. A good showing in Brazil should wipe away any bad memories from Chile and move him one step closer to being ready for the European clay court swing.

Inspirational Legend

On Tuesday, the sport of wheelchair tennis said good-bye to one of its greatest competitors and ambassadors as Esther Vergeer decided to call it a career. The Dutch woman lost the use of her legs at the tender age of 8 due to a surgery to repair blood vessels around her spine. Instead of getting down about her situation, however, she began to playing wheelchair sports, and eventually wheelchair tennis. Her prowess on the court has made her the greatest to play that sport, and the numbers speak for themselves. Ranked No. 1 from 1999 until the end of her career, she amassed 21 singles and 23 doubles major titles, 4 singles and 3 doubles gold medals at the Paralympics, 148 career singles titles and 136 in doubles. She won 470 consecutive matches over the course of the last decade, with her last loss coming in January, 2003. Her ability to generate these phenomenal statistics has helped put her sport on the map, and she’ll be greatly missed. Hearty congratulations on such an accomplished career are in order, as well as a big thank you to Vergeer for demonstrating that even the bleakest situations can be turned into something positive.

Rule Review

The 2013 Australian Open may be over, but the remnants of the infamous medical time out taken by Azarenka has forced the WTA to take a harder look at the medical timeout rule to ensure it cannot be used for gamesmanship. It’s refreshing that the WTA is reviewing the rule to right potential future wrongs, but this is something that should have been done some time ago. It shouldn’t have to wait for a situation like what we saw in Melbourne to occur before action is taken. Hopefully the ATP will learn from the WTA and not wait until things hit the fan before conducting a similar review of the rule on its books. After all, neither tour, nor the governing body of the majors, the ITF, is going to be able to completely eradicate the possibility of gamesmanship occurring under the rules for a medical timeout, but it’s about time they devise a plan to at least curb it.

Broken Record

Nadal made further headlines this week when he voiced his displeasure with the ATP and the number of hard court events on the calendar, as well as the stricter reinforcement of the 25-second rule. To be fair, Nadal is not the only one to take issue with the 25-second rule, and he did raise some valid points. But his notion that it will cut down on strategy is bogus, as is the idea that fans want to see a ton of long rallies (serve and volley anyone?). Nadal also needs to realize he’s one of the two biggest reasons for the stricter reinforcement of the rule, with the other being Djokovic, and the Serb has at least admitted to his slowness and has since sped up his overall pace of play. But the issue of the 25-second rule has taken a back seat to Nadal’s crusade against hard courts, and this is one area where Nadal needs to get off his high horse. Hard courts are tougher on the joints, but his rhetoric that essentially blames the ATP for his health issues is off base. Many players from previous generations played a significant number of hard court tournament and yet continue to enjoy competing on the various senior tours. There’s also been talk of the “greying of the field,” with many – despite playing numerous hard court tournaments in prior seasons – producing their best tennis in their mid-to-late 20s. His failure to fully recognize his own part in damaging his knees and insistence that he can’t (or won’t?) change his playing style does him no favors either. Bottom line, like him or hate him, he’s good for the game. His rivalries with the other top players are some of the most compelling in the sport. But if he’s honestly worried about his life post-tennis, he needs to accept that he’s going to have to play a limited schedule, or hang it up completely. This business of misplacing blame has to stop. It only comes off as whining, and he’s going to have a difficult time finding fans, and likely even some fellow players, who are going to sympathize with his plight when the guy can walk away now, financially set for life, and still go down as one of the greatest in history.

Gaining Momentum

In addition to recent comments by Murray, Djokovic and Nadal, Federer also continues to voice ideas to help ensure the sport of tennis is clean. In his most current comments, Federer pushed for biological passports. A biological passport serves as an electronic record for each athlete that collates the biological markers of doping and the results of the athlete’s doping tests. PEDs users could then potentially be caught via detecting variances in their established levels vs. actually identifying an illegal substance. In addition, Federer has advocated the use of blood passports, stating that while some drugs can’t be discovered now, it doesn’t mean that they won’t be in the future. Fear of such a discovery could deter potential cheaters. But like other ideas, the crux of the problem is funding. Federer has suggested the Grand Slams help foot the bill, as keeping the sport clean is in their best interest. Whether the majors will be happy with that line of thinking remains to be seen, but with all of the controversy surrounding PEDs and calls for more action to keep tennis clean, a solution needs to be worked out sooner rather than later.

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