The most visible absence at this year’s Australian Open was Rafael Nadal. It was hardly mentioned, and wrongly so, as the 26-year-old Spaniard is one of the greatest of his generation. He is gearing up to make his debut in Chile this Febuary, which will be his first match since crashing out of the second round of Wimbledon last year. Nadal was sidelined with a serious case of tendinitis in his left knee which has taken more than six months of rehabilitation for him to return to the court. Despite this, his return was supposed to occur the Australian Open. Citing a stomach bug which delayed his final rehab, Nadal decided to withdraw from the most recent Grand Slam, which guaranteed that he would fall out of the top four for the first time since 2005. Rumours swirled that his withdrawal was more his injury than his illness, prompting an interesting line of questioning. Has Rafael Nadal’s playing style finally caught up with his body?
An 18 year-old Nadal burst onto the scene in 2004 with a victory over Andy Roddick in the Davis Cup final. He then made his mark at the 2005 French Open, becoming the first teenager since Pete Sampras to win a Grand Slam title. His style of play was transformative for the sport. He brought unparalleled physicality onto the court. There had been fitness freaks in tennis like Ivan Lendl and Bjorn Borg, but Nadal brought something extra in his game, a degree of muscular machismo that his stylistic forbearers didn’t possess. His upper body strength allows him to impart massive topspin from both wings, even while out of position or flatfooted. The website tennisplayer.net did an analysis on Nadal’s topspin and determined that Nadal’s forehand spun on average 3,200 revolutions per minute (RPM) and can reach as high as 4,900 RPMs, considerably higher than his contemporaries.
Moreover, he plays with an intensity almost unmatched in the modern day, seemingly determined to deprive his opponents of even a single point. This intensity allows Nadal to cover the entire court with brilliant defence. Anyone who has ever seen him play comes away with at least one memory of Nadal retrieving a ball that was, in the viewer’s eyes, an unreturnable winner. Without a doubt, Nadal’s physical and mental tools are among the best of any player to ever play professional tennis.
But has his hard-charging style and unwillingness to concede points finally come back to haunt him? Now 26, he has competed in 705 professional singles matches, not counting exhibitions and Davis Cup matches. He has missed two big chunks of time in the last few years, in 2009 when he missed several months after the French Open, and again in 2012 with his six-month absence. Both times, the main causes were knee problems. Even before his knee problems flared up and the true extent of his injuries revealed, many tennis observers questioned whether his joints would hold, especially considering his insistence on sliding clay court style on hard courts, a serious injury risk.
The question then is whether Nadal will come back the player he was. Will his knee hold? Will he still possess his unreal, mind-bending defence? Or will he be forced to conserve his body and give up on the less important fights and rallies?
First it would be good to examine other players with similar historical trajectories as Nadal. The first that immediately comes to mind is Bjorn Borg. They both won the French Open when they were teenagers and both have 11 Grand Slam titles. Like Nadal, Borg played a dominating, defensive game wherein he ground his opponents into the ground. Moreover, Borg played with an unusual style for his era. He used a two handed backhand and a heavy (for the time) topspin forehand, both rare in the era of serve and volley. His calm and collected on-court temperament earned him the nickname Ice-Borg. He also excelled on clay and grass, winning six French Opens and five times at Wimbledon.
While many players are known for their tics, like Novak Djokovic’s constant ball bounce pre-serve, Roger Federer’s constant head flicks or Maria Sharapova who takes a bounce step and then fixes her hair before every serve, Nadal and Borg rank among the game’s most idiosyncratic. Borg allegedly would not play unless he was at exactly 160 pounds. He would also stay at the same hotel at the French Open and refuse to practice at the Roland Garros facility. Nadal meanwhile always arranges his drink bottles with the labels facing in the same direction, he sprints to his baseline after the coin toss and he always, always seems to be picking at his butt between points.
But the place where the two diverge is that Borg retired in 1983 at the age of 26. The biggest reason for his retirement that he cited was that he had become tired of playing on tour. In other words, he burned out. The importance of his retirement was as great as his rise was, and as bright as his light burned, it was extinguished quickly, the victim of an inability to live up to his own high expectations.
Nadal is also 26, and mentally shows few signs of burnout. However his physical troubles might cut short his career in a similar fashion to Borg’s. No one expects Nadal to retire any time soon, but his injuries might slow his career to the point where he isn’t the player he was, and force him to reconsider his career. He has also stated that he wants to be able to play football with his children in the future, which indicates that he is concerned with the condition of his body not only for the duration of his professional Tennis career.
Moreover, assuming that he does come back healthy, he has to contend with players like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, both who have games that match up well against him and have regularly beaten him in recent years. Historically, tall players with physical games and strong two-handed backhands have given Nadal trouble. His forehand, for all its strength requires a bit of a backswing and is stronger returning higher balls. A flat, skidding groundstroke is the hardest ball for Nadal’s style and the top ten is filled with players such as Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, Thomas Berdych, Juan Martin Del Potro, Murray and Djokovic. To make matters worse, in his back to back-to-back Grand Slam wind over Nadal, Djokovic essentially wrote a blueprint on how to beat Nadal. He bludgeoned Nadal’s forehand, forcing errors or short returns which he could stop up to and hit for winners. If other players can replicate this, Nadal will be in serious trouble.
It’s hard to see Nadal not winning at least a couple more Grand Slams. Still, it might be worthwhile to expect that a player with as herculean a stature as Rafael Nadal might be as subject, if not more-so, to the rigors of the body.