Many fans and pundits were concerned that, while not exactly ‘finished’, Rafael Nadal’s six-month lay-off with an apparently chronic recurring knee injury would diminish his physical capabilities. Even Nadal, who has more belief than most, admitted to having his own nagging doubts.
It seemed like those knees could no longer withstand the impact of his all-action game in hardcourt Grand Slams, that Nadal would continue to dominate on the soft clay of Paris but had little chance of even progressing beyond the early rounds on grass or artificial surfaces.
This theory seemed to be vindicated by indifferent Wimbledon performances, with shock exits to lower-ranked players such as Lukas Rosol and Steve Darcis seeing him fail dismally at consecutive tournaments in West London.
I certainly thought Nadal would become a French Open specialist, the tennis equivalent of a professional cyclist with a particular interest in one of the Grand Tours but who only acts as a rouleur for the others.
But those physical capabilities – which undoubtedly make Nadal one of the greatest tennis players of all time – clearly still remain, for the most part.
In addition to his natural game suiting clay, the injuries and the passing of time mean Nadal’s recovery takes longer between the major tournaments.
His recent Wimbledon failures can be accounted for by the very quick turnaround time from the French Open – at only a fortnight, that gives any Roland Garros finalist just one week to rest and just one week (if that) to get acquainted with the grass of Hertogenbosch or Eastbourne before the big one starts.
To play at Queen’s or Halle, Rafa would barely have time to draw a bath after hoisting the Coupe des Mousquetaires. And he would need to do just that to get enough of a feel for the green stuff before SW18.
The likes of Roger Federer and Andy Murray are able to make the turnaround because they are grass-court naturals, while Murray rarely lasts that long in Paris anyway; Novak Djokovic, meanwhile, has the physical flexibility and endurance to get through such a challenge. He is also more naturally adept on the grass, while Nadal has arguably won his two previous Wimbledon titles in spite of his tendencies towards the red dirt.
The gaps between the other Grand Slams, by contrast, vary from six weeks between Wimbledon and the US Open to over four months between Australia and Paris. More than adequate time to rest, recover and prepare.
That French-Wimbledon turnaround is tough enough for anyone, but it is unmanageable for a man whose knees have taken such a battering through endless high-impact points.
It is a sad irony that Nadal’s very strength – the incessant, remorseless, physical and mental resilience at every point – is also something of a weakness in this case, that his excellence at brutal baseline battles should yield the physical toll that makes him unlikely to win Wimbledon again, certainly not after going all the way in Paris.
But that determination, that warrior spirit, has seen Rafa come back from a potentially career-ending injury to play some of his best tennis, at close to peak fitness, in an incredible era of men’s tennis.
It is quite remarkable and, while he may not be the greatest technical player of all time – the likes of Federer and even semi-final conquest Richard Gasquet boast superior racquet skills – he is quite probably the greatest physical and mental specimen the sport has seen.
In the era of Djokovic, whose powers of resilience and ability to withstand pain border on the psychotic, that is some compliment.
And at just 27, Nadal is arguably just entering his technical and tactical peak. The Majorcan has plenty of time to win five Grand Slam tournaments that would take him past the 17 that make Roger Federer the greatest of all time. It would take a fool to bet against him.
By Reda Maher / On Twitter @Reda_Eurosport
- Sports & Recreation
- Rafael Nadal
- Roger Federer