By Yeshayahu Ginsburg
Rafael Nadal made his long-awaited return to tennis after a 7-month absence last week in Vina del Mar, Chile. The South American clay court swing (fondly referred to as the Golden Swing) seemed like the perfect place for Rafa to get his tennis legs back. They are usually smaller tournaments highlighted by clay-court specialists and, because of the location and timing of these events, often have relatively weak fields. Not to say that winning any ATP tournament is ever easy or that the players are weak, but the average player in these tournaments is less likely to be someone who could trouble Rafa than, say, a big hitter on a hard court.
This is probably why it was so shocking when Nadal lost in the final to Horacio Zeballos. After all, all we had seen all week were comments about how great Rafa was doing in his return and how he seemed to be cruising to a much-needed title. Rafa had only dropped 14 games in his first three matches. Now, it could be the ease with which Rafa won those matches that blinded us to the issues he was having, but there were certainly things there. It really only took the loss to Zeballos for us to realize that Rafa is still nowhere near 100%.
Now, maybe it’s unfair for us to expect him to be. After all, the man had not played competitive tennis since Wimbledon, over 7 months ago. Maybe, because we have seen so much seemingly-superhuman feats from Rafa in the past, we expected him to return and to instantly compete at the level of an all-time great just like he has shown us throughout his career. But the truth is that he is just a normal human being and will need time and match play to get back to his former level.
Anyone who watched Rafa’s first three matches could see that he was not quite all there yet, though the one-sided score lines may have helped us ignore these facts. Rafa was clearly not moving at his full speed. There were balls that he just didn’t get to that he would have before the injury and there were shots that he could not play with his normal lethalness because he wasn’t quite getting there on time. His movement was definitely also a little more ginger than usual, as if he was protecting his knees. Finally, his intensity was not quite there. Watching him almost gave the feeling that he could have gone after more in a lot of points but just chose not to. All of these were most clear in the final where he lost, but once you see these things there they were obvious if you went back and watched the early matches as well.
Honestly, though, I don’t think that any of these are bad things. For his entire career, Rafa has played with one attitude. He has said that he will go all-out on every single point, in every single match, and just deal with the consequences to his body when they come. And that attitude won him 11 Slams and made him an all-time great. But it finally caught up with him. The consequences of years of abuse to his knees and body have finally arrived. And now that they have, Rafa is doing the smart thing. He isn’t playing all-out in matches that aren’t as meaningful anymore. He is rightly using them to get in experience and match play. He is rightly building himself back up to a level where he can compete with and beat the best in the world. But he is doing it in a way that will not harm his body unnecessarily. The first part of Nadal’s career was defined by winning as much as possible, physical consequences be damned. But if last week is any indication, the second half of his career will be defined by prolonging it as much as possible, even if that means collecting a few extra losses along the way.