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Changes apparent in Rafael Nadal in comeback from knee injury

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Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal (left) is playing doubles with Juan Monaco in Chile this week. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)

If tennis players could ever be greeted on court with a robust and feverish ticker-tape parade, Rafael Nadal would have been a worthy recipient at his first singles match in more than seven months at the VTR Open in Chile on Wednesday. Tennis Channel scrambled to secure TV rights, Twitter was flooded with coverage and every stroke, slide and twitch was deconstructed as a tell. All this for a second-round match at an ATP 250 tournament in South America with an opponent ranked outside the top 100.

So, yes, Nadal. You were missed. Let’s not make a scene.

A lot has happened since Nadal’s knees said no mas in June after a shocking second-round exit at Wimbledon at the callous hands of Lukas Rosol. Andy Murray is no longer the Slam-less pretender and … well … there was … OK, never mind. Not much has changed. Aside from Murray’s wins at the Olympics and U.S. Open, the tennis world didn’t do much to leave Nadal behind. Sure, David Ferrer has passed him in the rankings to become the new No. 4, but the usual suspects still rule the ATP Tour, and Ferrer’s dismal showing at the Australian Open semifinals, where he won a mere five games off Novak Djokovic, was further proof of that. Not that we needed it.

No, as Nadal mounts his comeback, he’ll find a tour familiar to him. Djokovic is still the man to beat on hard courts and gunning once again to complete the career Grand Slam at the French Open. His great rival, Roger Federer, is older, wiser and just as dangerous on the quick surfaces as he was when he won Wimbledon last year and briefly recaptured the No. 1 ranking. And Murray, despite the U.S. Open title, is still trying to chase down the original Big Three in rankings, titles and accolades. As for the Other Four — Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Juan Martin del Potro — they’re still dangerous and capable of an upset here or there. But the reality is they failed to take advantage of Nadal’s seven-month absence.

Nadal says athletes in Spain doping investigation should be named

While the tour hasn’t changed much since Nadal’s knees took a siesta, the same can’t be said about Nadal. There are the little, arguably trivial things. His Nike shorts are noticeably shorter — not Berdych short but it still takes some getting used to. Also shorter? His hair. And sticking to the theme, he clearly used his time off to read the ATP memo about time violations. He’s been much quicker between points in Chile than before.

More important, Nadal has shown signs that he’s not going to make things difficult for himself. His decision to begin his comeback on clay was a departure from his 2009 comeback that started on hard courts. In 2009, he sputtered through 11 straight hard-court tournaments, where he went 2-11 against the top 10 and won zero titles. He didn’t regain his mojo until nine months later during the spring clay-court season. And what mojo it was. He went on a tear to win the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open to reclaim the No. 1 ranking and complete the career Slam.

Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal is playing his first tournament since Wimbledon 2012. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)

Of course, that was only two-and-a-half months off. This time, Nadal has been out of the game more than seven months, and history has shown that long a layoff can be hard to shake off. Del Potro sat six months in 2010 with a wrist injury, and it took him more than a year to get back into the top 10. Even then, he has yet to equal his pre-injury career-high ranking of No. 4, and he’s still trying to find the consistency and power from his pre-injury days. Nadal is a different caliber of player, but a lot has to go right.

Nadal rusty in opening win in return

Nadal turns 27 in June, smack in the middle of the French Open as the stars would have it. He’s no longer the invincible kid who could barrel his way across any surface with abandon. I suspect he’s more aware of his physical limitations than ever, and with time less on his side than it was when he was 20, he’s wisely made adjustments. Don’t stack the deck against yourself. Take all the time you need to heal. Don’t rush back. Avoid the hard courts as long as possible. Use the softer red clay to ease back into competition. Give yourself the best opportunity to win. Remind people that you can still do what you do on this surface that you own.

It’s all clay, but this three-tournament swing through Chile, Brazil and Mexico still must feel a little weird. He hasn’t played a lower-level ATP 250 on clay since 2007. But aside from his need to squeeze in as many clay tournaments before the hard-court Masters, Nadal’s decision to play in South America for the first time since 2005 may be a boon for the game. Not unlike Federer’s South American exhibition tour two months ago, which was met with feverish excitement, the heightened anticipation and expectation brought on by the Chilean crowds have a nice celebratory quality to Nadal’s return.

Tennis needs Nadal. His brand of relentless, punishing, physics-defying tennis is unmatched. I couldn’t help but smile after he hit one of those patented running forehands down the line that curled in like a banana Wednesday. That’s a shot I haven’t seen in seven months. With each leaping fist pump, snarl and “Vamos,” Nadal breathes life into the game not because he’s more of anything — intense, skilled, exciting, you name it — compared to the other men. It is simply because he has his own brand of that something that the greats all have that make you lean forward with anticipation to see what they’ll do next.

Daily Bagel: Former world No. 13 retires

  • Published On Feb 07, 2013
  • 18 comments
    LJRich
    LJRich

    Nadal still can't keep his pants out of his butt and his fingers from tugging, difficult to watch him play, even now.

    eddie577
    eddie577

    The sport of tennis is truly not the same without Rafael Nadal.

     

    Michael9
    Michael9

    Nadal "sputtered through 11 straight hard-court tournaments" from 2009 Canada to 2010 Miami -- losing 13 matches to Del Potro (2 times), Djokovic (3 times), Cilic, Davydenko (3 times), Soderling, Murray, Ljubicic, Roddick -- because more players had begun to figure out Nadal. This was a trend that began in Spring 2009 before his supposed injury at the French Open: Nadal was beaten by No. 6 Del Potro in 2009 Miami, No. 2 Federer at 2009 Madrid and by No. 25 Soderling in 2009 French Open – and almost lost to Djokovic at 2009 Madrid (they had a three setter in Monte Carlo). Nadal had showed no signs of injury at the 2009 French Open (he was still scampering around like a rabbit), yet, one week after losing to Soderling, Team Nadal claimed Nadal was injured. Nadal chose to skip 2009 Wimbledon only after the draw was made (it was his toughest ever Wimbledon draw).

     

    How did Nadal turn things around in 2010 to "regain his mojo" in the Spring clay court season and "went on a tear to win the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open to reclaim the No. 1 ranking"? Conveniently omitted from the narrative is the major equipment change that Nadal made in January 2010: he changed his strings (see link for Mats Wilanders explanation of the change) which temporarily gave him an advantage over several players who had caught up with him in 2009. Nadal heavily depends on his string and racquet technology for his heavy spin -- and therefore his success.

    http://wilanderonwheels.com/rafael-nadal-has-changed-his-game/

     

    But this technological advantage was short-lived. Nadal won only two hardcourt events that season: 2010 US Open (partly thanks to Federer softening up Djokovic in their five-set semifinal) and 2010 Tokyo (against a weak draw). Since 2010 Tokyo, Nadal failed to win another hardcourt title -- as he sputtered through another 16 hardcourt events (even ATP 250 events like Doha) even though he did not face Djokovic, Federer or Murray in 7 of these 16 hardcourt events.

     

    Fast forward to 2012. When Nadal lost the second round of Wimbledon, he knew he had no chance of regaining the No. 1 ranking during the remaining hardcourt events of 2012. Team Nadal pulled the plug on the second half of 2012 season probably to take a long break, reset, improve fitness, make changes to Nadal's game, and give Babolat time to develop a new racquet and strings to give Nadal an advantage for 2013.  According to Babolat's owner, 'the new racket and new strings give “more power and more control” to the Spaniard’s shots. “More top spin, he already has a lot of that but he wants more,” said Babolat." Nadal has been practising since November with his new racquet and strings. "The racket manufacturer admits it is “a nightmare for rivals,” usually overwhelmed by the height that Nadal’s strokes attain due to this top spin effect. By the end of the year, the racket could be even closer to science fiction, because the plan is to put on it a chip that will collect data about every stroke.'

    http://tinyurl.com/aa5ugoc

     

    Common sense begs the question: how injured was Nadal's knee if he could still play doubles at Halle (immediately before Wimbledon, see link) and play doubles in this Chile event; still scamper around the Wimbledon court against Lukaz Rosol and Thomaz Bellucci (Nadal fan Steve Tignor chose the Nadal-Rosol match as his best match of 2012, and said he saw no indication that Nadal was hampered by injury); and even play several golf tournaments during his injury break (Nadal plays golf right-handed, so his golf swings put stress on his supposedly injured left knee -- knee injuries are the second most common injury in golf)? Most professional athletes, including tennis players, play with pain and injury as part of thier job -- and several tennis players have had to endure more serious, career-threatening injuries that required surgery. Nadal has never had surgery for his ailments.

    http://tinyurl.com/8tx9h4z

    http://tinyurl.com/ahbma23

     

    Contrary to popular belief, Nadal has been one of the most durable players on tour:

    - 26-year old Nadal’s 705 matches played put him at sixth among active players who have played the most matches -- the other nine players are between 30 to 35 years old. Second-placed Lleyton Hewitt played only 84 matches more than Nadal –- even though Hewitt is five years older than Nadal (Hewitt has had to deal with more serious injuries). The vast majority of players have had to retire long before 700 matches –- many of them, unlike Nadal, have had significant career-ending injuries that even surgery was not able to treat.

    - Nadal has been one of the most productive of the seven teenage slam winners in the open era (Borg, Wilander, Becker, Edberg, Chang, Sampras, Nadal). Most teenage slam winners fizzled out after age 25 -- only four players won a slam after age 25 (Becker, Edberg, Sampras, Nadal). Pete Sampras is the only teenage slam winner who won more than one slam after age 25 (he won four slams from ages 26 to 31).

     

    Tennis writers need to be more realistic in their expectations of Nadal: the reason Nadal has been floundering since 2010 is not due to his knees excuses. It's simply because Nadal is now past his prime (like Federer has been since 2008). Team Nadal's publicity campaign about Nadal's supposedly 'injured knees' obscures this fact of athletic life. After 705 matches, Nadal’s life cycle as a tennis player is naturally on the downside.

     

    Over the past seven months, Team Nadal and their publicist Benito kept parroting their cover story about Nadal's knees -- which were dutifully repeated by tennis writers. Team Nadal's publicity campaign about Nadal's knees were well timed: announcements and press interviews about Nadal's supposed knee injuries and his on-again, off-again, on-again return to the tour were, not coincidentally, carefully timed to happen during high-profile tennis events such as the US Open, Australian Open, World Tour Finals and several Masters events.  Nadal relentlessly milked the publicity about his dubious injuries like no other player in tennis history has done -- while he engaged in activities contradictory to his injury. For example, at the first week of the US Open Team Nadal released information on Nadal's status... then during the USO's second week, Nadal played the Balears golf championship.

     

    "Nadal’s seven-month absence" was on hardcourts, a surface where even David Ferrer had beaten him twice at majors. After Nadal's loss to Rosol, those top eight players were probably looking forward to playing Nadal on hardcourts. Except Nadal did what he tends to do when he feels vulnerable -- he stays away from the tour to avoid losses. And that's partly why he has a pristine record against top ten players.

    MarcNichol
    MarcNichol

    nice to read courtney...the coverage of nadal has been so "heavy", fraught with darkness, it's nice to read something like this...don't forget about his new racquet either, i think this has been forgotten

     

    berdych has small shorts?...i keep hearing about his massive legs but confess i've never really seen them above the knee

    Lynnie
    Lynnie

    I love to watch Nadal.  He makes tennis so much more exciting.  I hope his knees hold up so he

    will be around for a long time.

     

    badgernation74
    badgernation74

    "So yes, Nadal. You were missed. Let’s not make a scene." No, lets. I'm going to squeeze every second of enjoyment watching him, because who knows how much longer the show will go on. My heart says a while yet; my head isn't so sure. Vamos Rafa.

    Michael9
    Michael9

     @eddie577  You could say that about most great players (i.e., those who won at least five Slam titles) who are absent for seven months -- in this or any other era. 

     

    I disagree with the view that Nadal's "brand of relentless... tennis is unmatched". That tends to be the view of those easily swayed by the fluff of Nadal's theatrics  (Vamos, snarls, leaping fist pumps). The facts suggest otherwise. About a year ago I analyzed Nadal, Federer, Djokovic's wins and losses since the start of 2008.  Since their match winning percentages were relatively close, I looked at their losses -- specifically the score of their final (lost) set. I considered the more relentless and determined competitor to be the player whose lost final set had relatively more close scores (3-6, 4-6, 5-7, 6-7, etc.) and less one-sided scores (2-6, 1-6, 0-6). In all their losses since the start of 2008, Federer (past prime) had the most of such scores, indicating he was actually the most relentless and determined  competitor to the bitter end, despite being the least theatrical of the three players. Djokovic (in prime) was next. But Nadal (in his prime) was a relatively distant third, which might indicate that he tended to give up when he felt it wasn't his day. Indeed, Nadal had three 0-6 scores, unlike Federer (one) and Djokovic (one). No so relentless this Nadal, despite the misleading perceptions about his his 'relentless' brand/image.

    Quercus
    Quercus

     @Michael9  @eddie577 I appreciate you citing actual measurable data to support a claim, but the frequency of "lopsided scores against" in the deciding set could also be interpreted in alternate ways, and are not an obvious indicator of someone "giving up." For example, a "closer" final score could also be evidence of an epic choke job, where the player was up and succumbed to nerves or fatigue or loss of focus (or an opponent raising his game and simply playing better), which would certainly NOT be evidence of a "more relentless" player, and would skew the ratio (and meaning) of one-sided to close losses in the final set . I think your analysis is too simplistic to establish much of anything, but I appreciate the data and thoughts.

     

    I will say, your lengthy posts (as below) which tend to diminish Nadal's accomplishments smack a little of "he doth protest too much"....if it's not clear to you, it certainly is easy to perceive as agenda-driven.

     

    I have no horse in the race, and there are things about Nadal that I respect and things that annoy me, but I think it is pretty clear that he is one of the finest players in history and given the sheer number of long, high-stakes, incredibly high level matches he has played (and both won and lost) in his career (Wim 07, Wim 08, AO 12, etc), it is reasonable to consider him one of the most relentless, resilient players ever. Although I will say that Djokovic has been really impressive in terms of mental and physical toughness of late, as well.

    Michael9
    Michael9

     @eddie577 Don't let the facts and arguments I mentioned get in the way of your obsession with Rafa. If you had any sound rebuttals I'm sure you would have stated it, but you didn't. 

    Michael9
    Michael9

    @Quercus@eddie577Your arguments are clearly hypocritical -- in addition to being too weak, irrelevant, arbitrary, desperate and simplistic to establish much of anything, lol.

     

    You jump to pontificate on "basic scientific analysis" -- yet you fail to use consistent standards in applying what you preach. Your posts are hypocritical because -- while you are eager to challenge my posts -- you failed to apply your same arguments to challenge the author's absolute view that Nadal's "brand of relentless... tennis is unmatched".  What makes your posts even more hypocritical is that you pretend to be impartial ("I have no horse in the race"), yet your double standards indicate you are anything but impartial.

     

    I clearly stated in my original post that 'I disagree with the (author's) view that Nadal's "brand of relentless... tennis is unmatched" '. The author's claim is absolute ("unmatched"). My arguments have cast more than reasonable doubt on her claim that Nadal's relentless tennis is "unmatched". Bottom line: I have proven my point that the author’s absolute claim that Nadal’s “relentless... tennis is unmatched” is not supported by the facts, logic and common sense.

     

    Other than your dubious attempts to challenge my arguments, you have failed to provide compelling facts and arguments to support the author's absolute claim that Nadal's "brand of relentless... tennis is unmatched". Your latest attempts are just as weak and questionable as your earlier examples.

     

    Clearly your understanding of proof is questionable when you bring in irrelevant stuff such as "formal proof only comes from a deductive process, like a mathematical proof of a theorem." If you understood proof as much as you pretend to, you would have known that the criteria for sufficiency/persuasiveness of proof/truth of a proposition depends on the area or discipline. Exactly what evidence/proof is adequate to prove something is strongly depends on area or discipline -- usually there is no absolute threshold of sufficiency at which evidence becomes proof. This is the world of tennis, NOT the world of mathematics or even law. The world of tennis does not require formal proof.

     

    You're right: we'can't have a meaningful conversation. But that's because your arguments are irrelevant, hypocritical and questionable.

    Quercus
    Quercus

     @Michael9  @Quercus  @eddie577 I will let your words speak for themselves...I am not going to debate semantics with someone who clearly has a bit too much personally invested in the accomplishments of elite athletes.

     

    I will say, however, that if you think you have "proven" anything, you also need to review basic scientific analysis. Science, in fact, is an inductive process, where one makes observations, measurements, etc and builds up empirical evidence that is either consistent with a hypothesis/supposition or not. You can not, therefore, prove anything, and certainly not with some collection of dubious statistics that very much are open to interpretation. Formal proof only comes from a deductive process, like a mathematical proof of a theorem, where one uses formal logic to link premises an conclusions. What you are attempting is an inductive analysis, and I don't think the examples/evidence you provide strongly supports your conclusion. That's all.

     

    For example, there is no good reason to believe some of the other confounding variables (opponents raising quality of play late while focal player still maintains high quality of play and doesn't simply "fold") will simply "even out" over a large sample. I also question whether the amount of matches you analyze qualifies as a sufficiently large sample. You should perform power analysis on your dataset to see what levels of differences, specifically, you are able to detect given the parameters of your analysis. I don't think your statistical power is very high considering the number of qualifying matches for each of the top players over the past 4 years.

     

    Please don't take this as a "personal attack"...it is not intended that way at all...I am merely questioning some rather arbitrary assumptions in your analysis. If you are not open to alternative interpretations, then I am afraid we can't have a meaningful conversation.

     

    Have a good one.

    Michael9
    Michael9

    @Quercus@eddie577

    I appreciate your attempt to fog up my analysis with your dubious opinions and argument. But let’s think about this more logically with facts and common sense, shall we?

     

    In the 4.5 years from 2008 to 2012 Wimbledon, both Nadal and Federer had a similar number of losses: Federer (past prime) had 59 losses while the ‘relentless’ Nadal (in prime) had 56 losses (had Nadal played the second half of the 2012 season, it’s possible he would have lost about 7 more hardcourt matches based on his 2011 record).

     

    Your red herrings (“epic choke job” etc.) do not offer a reasonable alternative interpretation of my data. Over such a long sample, in this context, where both players have a similar number of losses over a long period, some of your issues (e.g., opponents raising their game and simply playing better) tend to even out. Furthermore, your dubious ‘epic choke job’ explanation could just as easily apply to a lopsided score as it could to a closer score (choking can occur at any time during a match). And even if you claim that Nadal had less ‘epic choke jobs’, then you must accept that Nadal’s losses are due to his relative lack of relentlessness since he was less able to fight to a closer score in the deciding set in more of his losses.

     

    Bottom line: (a) Nadal in his prime cannot be all that ‘relentless’ if he has a similar number of losses as Federer has past his prime and (b) the fact that Nadal in his prime has more lopsided scores and less closer scores in the deciding set – compared to Federer past his prime – does not support the subjective opinion that Nadal is more ‘relentless’.

     

    Given that Federer and Nadal have a similar number of losses as well as that Federer has more closer scores and less lopsided scores than Nadal – it does indicate that Federer was more relentless in competing in the final set than Nadal was. The fact that a player was more relentless in fighting to a closer score in the deciding set – regardless of any choking that may have derailed a win – does not change the fact that this player was more relentless than the player who tends to lose early more often.

     

    Bottom line: I have proven my point that the author’s claim that Nadal’s “relentless... tennis is unmatched” is not supported by the facts, logic and common sense. [Of course it “it is reasonable to consider him one of the most relentless, resilient players ever” but it is not reasonable to consider Nadal’s relentlessness to be “unmatched” – especially if you consider all 130+ years of tennis history and even the current era].

     

    I will say your following comment smacks of a personal attack desperately aimed to shore up your weak arguments: “your lengthy posts (as below) which tend to diminish Nadal's accomplishments smack a little of "he doth protest too much"....if it's not clear to you, it certainly is easy to perceive as agenda-driven.”

    labynoemd
    labynoemd

     @Michael9  @shelley  @eddie577 Why the animosity toward Michael9? "Don't kill the messenger". I don't take this as an assault on Rafa's greatness, but an analysis of data to explain HOW a clay court specialist (which even the most ardent Rafa fan must admit he is) was able to manage his career to achieve his greatness and win some Slams on non-clay surfaces (2 Wimbys and 1 each of the two hardcourt Slams). If the facts show that he has managed his career to maximize his results (and the facts certainly suggest that his knee injuries may be his ticket to getting time away from ATP competition), what is wrong with pointing that out? It is reasonable to conclude that Rafa may be coming out of his prime as happens to EVERYONE who has played the number of matches he has played. It is reasonable to conclude that his record against the rest of the top four would be different had he competed against them more on non-clay surfaces (hell, even Daydenko gives Rafa fits on a hardcourt). Michael9 may be obsessed with Rafa, but he may also be correct. Rafa is one of the all time greats of tennis; showing HOW he achieved greatness doesn't take away from that fact. 

    Michael9
    Michael9

     @shelley  @Michael9  @eddie577 Lol, you're just another poster who goes for the personal attack rather than attempt to use sound facts and arguments to try to rebut my points.

     

    Team Nadal has done a good job over years of reducing Nadal’s exposure to losses. Whenever Nadal seems vulnerable, out comes the injury excuses and Nadal tends to leave the tour to avoid losses. Had Nadal played the last seven months of hardcourt events – and suffered his typical number of losses -- it’s unlikely he would be tied with Borg. On the other hand, Nadal never avoids clay tournaments where 44% of his total wins came from – Rafa relies for his wins on clay even more than Borg did.

     

    “Best winning percentage – across ALL surfaces”? Puhleeze. Clay makes up only 25% to 30% of the tournaments played by all top ten players, including Nadal (before this year), yet 44% of his wins came on clay. Borg won 35% of his matches indoors (215 of 608), while Nadal managed only 9% (52 from 583). He may have the best overall record for now, but it is imbalanced.

    shelley
    shelley

     @Michael9  @eddie577 No, because it's obvious people like you have an agenda to discredit anything and everything Rafa does.  It's not because most of your nonsense can't be rebutted, it's because it's a waste of time.

     

    Simple fact - Rafa now has the best winning percentage of any player in the open era.  He was tied with Bjorn Borg but (for now) has that distinction all to himself.  Best winning percentage - across ALL surfaces.  Rafa is a legend.  No need to argue about petty points.