EXCLUSIVE: King of pain Nadal on his struggle to beat career-threatening injury
21:30 GMT, 24 September 2012
This month the most pressing question in tennis has changed. No longer is it: can Andy Murray win a Grand Slam It is: when will Rafael Nadal be back, and will he be the same Rafa as before
It would be pleasing to report that, three months into his enforced absence from the sport, the 26-year-old Spaniard can answer in the same emphatic fashion that Murray did at Flushing Meadows two weeks ago.
You would hope Nadal, this most affable and exceptional athlete, could put a firm timeline on his progress and state when he will return to what is now a much changed landscape at the top of men’s tennis.
Anguish: Rafael Nadal has not been seen on a tennis court since his surprise second-round loss at Wimbledon
Yet, as we sit in one of Madrid’s plushest boutique hotels, it becomes apparent that he cannot, and that he is unlikely to play again this year.
In his first major interview since Wimbledon, he talks of his anguish at missing the Olympics, his joy at Murray’s triumph in New York and his frustration at having to play so much on the hard courts which have so damaged his knees.
It is impossible to escape the topic of his patella, which has prevented him from setting foot on a tennis court since losing in the second round at Wimbledon to Czech unknown Lukas Rosol at the end of June.
Nadal is on a painful regime of rehab and strengthening exercises and swimming at least a kilometre every morning. The one consolation is that he has been allowed to play some amateur golf tournaments in Majorca, and that his handicap is down below four.
Forever in pain: Nadal is tended to by a physio
But he is still not back on court and is almost certain to miss the Barclays ATP World Finals at the O2 Arena in November and, most probably, Spain’s appointment in the Davis Cup final.
‘All that is in my mind is to keep working hard to come back,’ he says. ‘I cannot think about the future because it’s not like if you break your arm and you know you will have a few weeks like this, then a few weeks like that and then you are back. This is a day-by-day thing, I have checks every week to see how I’m improving. I can’t predict what will happen.’
No athlete enjoys talking about injuries, especially one as long-running as this, a tear in the tendon and a general wearing of the tissue pad under the bone, yet he patiently indulges the inevitable inquiries.
‘I hope you see me in Australia,’ says Nadal, who is in the Spanish capital to promote his involvement with PokerStars. ‘That is the biggest goal for me, to come back just before then in Qatar, but I cannot say for sure it is going to happen.
‘The only thing is to recover well. I want to be 100 per cent when I come back. I don’t want to keep playing every day with doubts, not knowing if my knee is going to answer all the questions.’
When it comes to the unthinkable — an early end to his career — there is defiance, and he points out that ‘nobody has had to retire with what I have’. But he can only look back on a summer of despair since his remarkable seventh triumph at the French Open in early June.
‘Was it a mistake to play at
Wimbledon Maybe, but when you are playing well it is hard to stop. At
Roland Garros I had to play with anti-inflammatories to get through.
After that I felt really bad. My practice before Wimbledon was terrible.
I played the first round with injections, otherwise it would have been
impossible. That doesn’t help the knee.
played a lot in pain before as other people have done. The problem is
when you run and you are thinking about where you are planting your leg.
It is impossible to compete like that.
At home on clay: Nadal won the French Open title earlier this year
‘For me the Olympics was very tough. I was very, very sad for three weeks around then. I had the chance to carry the Spanish flag. It only comes every four years. Missing the US Open was hard but you think you will have more chances.
‘The Olympics is once every four years and you don’t know how many more you will get. I will work very hard to be in Rio but it is in four years. I am 26-and-a-half, I love competition, playing tennis, and this was actually a season I enjoyed playing more than others. I have the motivation to come back and that’s what I’m going to try.’
The mood lightens when the subject turns to Murray, whose success in New York Nadal elegantly describes as ‘the normal evolution of a great player and a great talent’.
Good friends: Nadal was delighted to see Andy Murray win his first grand slam at the US Open this month
INSIGHT: PHYSIO MARK LEATHER
What began as an inflammation of the tendon in Nadal’s right knee (patella tendinitis) has become a degeneration of the tendon.
It becomes torn and frayed and will not be as strong. The idea behind surgery is to clean the area and generate fresh healing and a better-structured tendon. Tennis involves eccentric muscle work with a lot of acceleration followed by rapid deceleration.
It is that stamping of the foot as you fix and flex the leg to play a shot with all your body weight that keeps antagonising the tendon. The harder the surface, the worse it is, as more force is transmitted up from your ankle through your tendon.
At this stage of rehab he’ll be testing the muscles around his knee, getting the tendon working again, even miming the movement of a shot on a soft surface. There are treadmills that control the amount of body weight you are putting through your legs. But you can’t just concentrate on the tendon as you’re over-compensating and something else can go wrong.
Psychology is also key to rehab. Injured athletes must accept the overall timescale but also have recovery targets for every day.
‘You know I’ve said many times in press conferences that Andy would win a Grand Slam and now he has won. He deserves it more than anyone. I am very happy for him. The normal thing is that it will help him. When you are winning tournaments like this your confidence is higher, it is easier to repeat what you’ve done before. It’s good for tennis that he has come to the level that was expected.’
Aside from doing everything to be back as strong as ever, he does not rule out changing his schedule to take in more clay events, such as those in South America in February.
‘I can’t pretend not to play on hard courts when two of the Slams are on hard courts, but there is a mistake with our game. You don’t watch footballers playing on a hard surface, or basketball players, those sports with rapid movements.
‘It’s not going to change for me and my generation. Hard courts are very negative for the body. I know the sport is a business and creating these courts is easier than clay or grass, but I am 100 per cent sure it is wrong. I may have to play more on clay than before but there aren’t that many options.’
Andre Agassi once claimed Nadal’s vigorous playing style meant he was ‘writing cheques that his body can’t cash’. He has proved the likes of Agassi wrong before; many will hope he does so again.
Nadal was launching PokerStars’ Rafa’s Dream Day, where fans can win the chance to meet, play tennis and compete against him in an intimate poker game in Majorca. Details at www.pokerstars.com