Talking Sport: Rafa in the Twilight Zone

Why is tennis treating its top players as utterly disposable ?

by Lamont Russell.

On Tom Tebbutt’s tennis blog in the Toronto Globe and Mail, there’s a heartwarming story about Rafael Nadal, arising from events at this year’s Australian Open. Apparently, after one of his late night games, Nadal turned up in the players’ restaurant to get something to eat. Sorry mate, the kitchen’s closed. Well, Nadal reportedly said, can I get some chips. The waiter scanned his player’s pass, but it showed he had no money left on it. Sorry mate, no chips.

Point being, onlookers noted, at no point did Nadal pull rank and say ’Do you know who I am?’ If it had been Serena Williams, you can reasonably expect that the story would have unfolded somewhat differently. These small details explain why the news of Nadal’s recurring knee injury has been received with genuine regret by fans of tennis – both for him personally and for the game he has graced over the last six years. Nadal (and Roger Federer as well) stand as contradictions of the position that to be a successfully competitive sports figure these days, you also need to be a complete asshole. When Federer broke down in tears on the dais after losing the Aussie Open in 2009, Nadal’s concern and comforting words during what should have been his own victory moment, was remarkable.

Nadal’s injury has been an accident about to happen for several years – a product of his physique and chase-every-ball style of play. The striking contrast between Nadal’s bullish, counter-punching style and Federer’s effortlessly poised, perfect placed game has made their rivalry one of the greatest in sport during the modern era. It has taken its toll, though. While everyone saw the potential for trouble, they also seemed to treat Nadal’s body as being somehow immune to it. Here’s Jim Courier, for instance, talking about Nadal in 2007, when the Spaniard’s problems with tendinitis first surfaced:

The way he plays makes him susceptible to injury because he carries a lot of weight. The hard courts are unforgiving. I wouldn’t worry too much about it, but I wouldn’t expect him to go through his career injury-free, especially in direct comparison to Federer, who is more like a ballet dancer because he’s very light and effortless and graceful on the court…

“To my untrained, non-medical eye, my experience has taught me that the heavier guys, a guy like [Boris] Becker for example, had knee problems.”

And Tim Henman, talking about Nadal, also in 2007:

I just think it’s the nature of the beast. When you’re built like that, you play like that, when you’re playing on hard courts, I think it’s almost inevitable. Nadal is a different story. His game is physically so demanding.

So, what’s wrong with him? The usual diagnosis is that during 2009 at least, most of Nadal’s problems were due to tendinitis of the knee. At the US Open last August however, the main trouble was with his abdominal muscles – a problem usually traceable to the body rotation involved in applying topspin to serves and other ground strokes, and more likely to happen round that time of year, during the transition from clay to hard court surfaces.

Neither of these reasons explains why he had to withdraw against Andy Murray in the Australian Open this year. MRI and ultrasound tests have since revealed a small tear at the back part of Nadal’s right knee, which can be treated with physiotherapy and anti-inflammatory treatment. At least that’s what his doctor, Angel Ruiz-Cotorro has claimed, adding that Nadal could therefore be back on the circuit again by March. There is however, a pessimistic counter-argument that the wider problem isn’t tendinitis at all – but instead is patello-femoral pain syndrome (PFPS) for which there isn’t really much available in the way of a cure. (Rest doesn’t seem to do much to alleviate PFPS). At 23, Nadal may be on the downward slope of his career.

Nadal is merely the most visible of the injury problems that are now dogging pro tennis. The argument from players and commentators alike is that too many tournaments are being played – with many of these tournaments and the training for them being played on hard courts, not the more forgiving surfaces like clay or grass. This is not only taking its toll on the bodies of the top players, but – even more worryingly – on the still developing bodies of the kids coming up through the ranks. In recent years, there have been consistent calls for a response from tennis authorities – but so far, nothing.

Certainly, the roll call of injury at the Aussie Open was pretty frightening. Besides Nadal (knee) we had Andy Roddick (shoulder injury) Marcos Baghdatis (arm and shoulder injuries), Juan Martin del Potro (wrist injury), and Mikhail Youzhny (wrist injury) all at this one tournament. In addition, David Ferrer’s fall from the top ten during 2009 has been almost entirely due to his knee problems. If it can be said (and I think it can) that the result of every single Grand Slam is now being significantly affected by the injury toll –what does this say about the sport? That it is willing to sacrifice the health and talents of its star players – not to mention of its emerging talents, whose bodies are even more vulnerable – for the money that the endless churn of tournaments now generates, from January through to December?

Plainly, some of this is in the hands of the players. They can play fewer tournaments, as the Williams sisters have done, and concentrate largely on the Slams. One can blame Nadal’s family and trainers – thanks, Uncle Tony – for putting their man at risk, when knowing that his style of play is almost bound to generate the kind of injuries he now faces. But the tennis authorities must also shoulder their share of the blame.

There are, after all, drug testing regimes – laughable ones in tennis, as we saw in the handling of the Richard Gasquet cocaine case, where Gasquet got away with his positive test for cocaine by successfully blaming it on a girl that he’d kissed at a nightclub. Still, the drug tests do exist, presumably to protect the purity of the outcomes on court, and the welfare of the players. Shouldn’t there be a similar recognition that the injuries now plaguing tennis are harming the game’s outcomes just as much, and the health of the players? More attention was paid last year to Andre Agassi’s decade old dabbling with crystal meth than to the brutal tournament schedule that is currently helping to injure so many of the players.

After all that he has given and received from the game, it is a little early to be tossing Rafael Nadal on the scrapheap, at the age of 23. It is possible he may be able to continue near the top level of the game. Yet two things stand out – for most of last year, he simply wasn’t the same player, losing ten out of eleven games against the top ten players that he faced in the latter part of 2009. Secondly, his knowledge of the current frailty of his body can only be eating away at one of Nadal’s traditional strengths – his mental toughness. Between 2005 and 2008, Nadal would have been the one player that the rest of the top ten would have least liked to play in a five setter. The great Wimbledon final that he won against Federer in 2008 came down ultimately to who was mentally stronger, once the two players had gone past their physical boundaries.

Now however, if he feels a twinge in his knee, Nadal has to think again about the wisdom of playing through the pain, and the chances of wreaking lasting damage. That’s really why he conceded the game against Andy Murray at the Aussie Open in January. In the past, he would gone on, in hope of testing Murray’s mental resolve in a five setter. At the other end of the court, his opponents now have a novel, previously unimaginable advantage – if you push Nadal these days, he just might break.

Even Murray, the supposed heir apparent to Federer, is not immune to the risks that I have been outlining. As I wrote mid 2009, in a previous column –

Touch wood, but Murray hasn’t so far this year been troubled by the right knee injury that dogged him early in 2008….Murray was born with a bipartite patella on his right knee. Meaning: his right kneecap is not joined by bone in a single unified mass, but is in two parts joined by muscle fibre. He is therefore susceptible to pain and injury, especially on clay – where the sliding into shots and the need to get down lower to play shots takes its toll. Luckily for Murray, the right knee is the suspect one, so there isn’t quite as much pressure on it when serving, where the left leg takes most of the strain.

Will we be saying the same things about Murray in three years time, as we are now saying about Nadal? Let’s hope the tennis authorities start to realize that their greatest asset is their players, and stop treating them as being disposable.

ENDS

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Lamont Russell is a writer based in Wellington.