By Yeshayahu Ginsburg
Rafael Nadal made his long-awaited return to tennis after a 7-month absence last week in Vina del Mar, Chile. The South American clay court swing (fondly referred to as the Golden Swing) seemed like the perfect place for Rafa to get his tennis legs back. They are usually smaller tournaments highlighted by clay-court specialists and, because of the location and timing of these events, often have relatively weak fields. Not to say that winning any ATP tournament is ever easy or that the players are weak, but the average player in these tournaments is less likely to be someone who could trouble Rafa than, say, a big hitter on a hard court.
This is probably why it was so shocking when Nadal lost in the final to Horacio Zeballos. After all, all we had seen all week were comments about how great Rafa was doing in his return and how he seemed to be cruising to a much-needed title. Rafa had only dropped 14 games in his first three matches. Now, it could be the ease with which Rafa won those matches that blinded us to the issues he was having, but there were certainly things there. It really only took the loss to Zeballos for us to realize that Rafa is still nowhere near 100%.
Now, maybe it’s unfair for us to expect him to be. After all, the man had not played competitive tennis since Wimbledon, over 7 months ago. Maybe, because we have seen so much seemingly-superhuman feats from Rafa in the past, we expected him to return and to instantly compete at the level of an all-time great just like he has shown us throughout his career. But the truth is that he is just a normal human being and will need time and match play to get back to his former level.
Anyone who watched Rafa’s first three matches could see that he was not quite all there yet, though the one-sided score lines may have helped us ignore these facts. Rafa was clearly not moving at his full speed. There were balls that he just didn’t get to that he would have before the injury and there were shots that he could not play with his normal lethalness because he wasn’t quite getting there on time. His movement was definitely also a little more ginger than usual, as if he was protecting his knees. Finally, his intensity was not quite there. Watching him almost gave the feeling that he could have gone after more in a lot of points but just chose not to. All of these were most clear in the final where he lost, but once you see these things there they were obvious if you went back and watched the early matches as well.
Honestly, though, I don’t think that any of these are bad things. For his entire career, Rafa has played with one attitude. He has said that he will go all-out on every single point, in every single match, and just deal with the consequences to his body when they come. And that attitude won him 11 Slams and made him an all-time great. But it finally caught up with him. The consequences of years of abuse to his knees and body have finally arrived. And now that they have, Rafa is doing the smart thing. He isn’t playing all-out in matches that aren’t as meaningful anymore. He is rightly using them to get in experience and match play. He is rightly building himself back up to a level where he can compete with and beat the best in the world. But he is doing it in a way that will not harm his body unnecessarily. The first part of Nadal’s career was defined by winning as much as possible, physical consequences be damned. But if last week is any indication, the second half of his career will be defined by prolonging it as much as possible, even if that means collecting a few extra losses along the way.
By Tom Nash, Special for Tennis Grandstand
On the clay courts of Vina del Mar in Chile, Rafael will reacquaint himself with the world. His absence from tennis has been enforced due to injury for 222 days, and the comeback has been long, delayed and agonising.
There is trepidation, of course there is. Even the most disinterested people would rightly assume that coming back from such a long injury lay-off isn’t going to be easy. The most disinterested people would leave it there, shrug and go back to pretending to be cool about everything, wearing skinny jeans, buying expensive coffees and pretending not to like popular things – yes even the hipsters can understand the basic difficulties of re-engaging in professional sports after so long. The hipsters would probably stop reading after the first two sentences – there’s already too much information held within that first paragraph, and that carries the inherent risk of learning something, which is, of course, sailing dangerously close to those interesting rocks. In fact, the very fact that the hipsters have stopped reading allows the mocking in this second paragraph – but that’s not why you’re here, so we’ll return to the bread and butter – or the pan y mantequilla if you will.
From here on, only tennis fans are allowed. You may notice that in this third paragraph I’ve introduced a first person narrative – that is so I, the author, can connect more with you, the reader. Hi! The strange relationship our brains seem to have with time and memories means that at certain moments it seems like only yesterday that Rafa was pounding the baseline, ripping voracious forehands like bolts of lightning from Thor’s hammer, at other times it seems like a lifetime ago. What has made the wait even more excruciating for his fans is the relatively short extra delay since the new year. We all thought (In the first two paragraphs that would’ve read “It was thought” but we’re getting along handsomely now, I think these little ‘thought brackets’ help too, but can sometimes have the adverse effect of breaking up the narrative of the original story so I’ll start again).
We all thought that Nadal was going to come back for the Aussie Open. But, Oh! There was the delay – a stomach virus complicated Rafa’s return and instead of returning to a hard-court Grand Slam event, he’s reintroducing his body to the rigours of professional tennis in a more low-key fashion. Well, as low-key as Rafa’s Return can be. Here I am, thousands of miles away in London, using Google Translate to find out if I can get a pun out of “Vina del Mar.” Sadly, it appears to mean nothing more than Vina of Sea, which was disappointing to say the least.
We’re now ambling at a leisurely rate into the fourth paragraph here. The hipsters have gone, the FedFans made it half way through the third but the mere mention of Rafa’s forehand was stressful enough to force them to power down their brand-name tablet computer things and go back to polishing ornaments and occasionally glancing down from the balcony of their ivory towers to curl their lips at the proletariat. The fourth paragraph the setting of a Rafaholics Anonymous group, the hard-living biker-gang rockers to Federer’s preening mods. So here we can delve into the thoughts and feelings of Rafaholics without fear of sneering comments or incredulous laughter. Paciencia I stress again. Nadal’s comeback in many ways started just after the fifth set concluded in his shock defeat to Lukas Rosol, the 100th-ranked player who held his nerve and amazed the world on June 28th 2012. As Nadal graciously signed autographs despite the turmoil in his mind and body, the extent of his difficulties was not yet known but already determined – so the comeback will be complete the moment he steps out on court in a competitive match. In other ways, considering the lofty heights achieved by Nadal, he won’t have completed his comeback until he’s added a twelfth slam title to his hoard of bitten gold.
Is that unfair? (Fifth paragraph now, it’ll be some sort of reflective summary of previous paragraphs before I attempt to leave a single profound statement by way of a concluding and final sixth paragraph – I’ll probably even switch back to a more corporate, expository style) Again, it depends on perspective. The nature of Nadal’s play lead to the nature of injury he sustained. He didn’t fall badly or have some bizarre and freakish accident that these sports stars seem to have – the problem was wear and tear. For Nadal to reach anything like his former level, he’ll have to put those same knees through the very same level of pressure that he knows could end his career. Let’s not dress it up. Rafa’s comeback is welcome, but it’s also going to be dreadful to watch in places. Every sharp turn will be scrutinised in minute detail from 16 different angles of high-definition super slo-mo cameras, each viewed by people with obscure doctorates trying to work out if his face is showing pain or simple exertion. It’s good that he’s not rushed back, and it’s good that he’s easing himself back – doubles in fact to start with. But my goodness there are going to be some heart-stopping moments watching Rafa play again. We’ll urge him on, as we did – but there will be nerves, we won’t know exactly what he’s capable of straight away, nor even does he. It may be that his knee has recovered sufficiently to make it no more of a concern than before (ie still a major concern) we just don’t know. But every dash he makes will make him think of his lay-off, that will take time and success to exorcise – and we have to face up to the fact that Rafa may never play pain-free and may never achieve the intense athleticism required to reach the last eight of tournaments. Surely, for a comeback to really be a comeback, Nadal has to be doing at least that. Calendar management is a surety, but rankings points don’t grow on trees. It’s difficult to even set the parameters of just what makes a successful comeback.
Nadal may have come back, but how far he goes forward is another matter entirely.