By Aoun Jafarey
About nine years ago I was sitting at the Jumeirah Creekside hotel in Dubai discussing with my younger brother (who at the time was still working to give himself a shot at playing ITF Junior events) what Rafa’s latest injury comeback was going to look like. We went back and forth between all the times he’s already had to endure a break from the tour due to an injury and I ended up putting my thoughts down in the form of the article below “What now for Rafa?” for a blog that doesn’t exist anymore (Cross Court Tennis). It was a piece that I thought of while we were practicing at the Dubai tournament courts (my brother used to practice at the facility quite often and even had the privilege of practicing next to Berdych and Del Potro) and at that point in time neither of us thought we’d end up talking about Rafa attempting to make yet another comeback now 10 years later and yet, here we are. So, before we move on to what I wrote back then, I’m going to describe my approach to thinking about Rafa’s comebacks in the most Rafaesque way possible.
What happened in 2004 happened, what happened in 2006 happened, what happened in 2009 happened, what happened in 2012 happened, what happened in 2013 happened, what happened in 2014 happened, what happened in 2016 happened, what happened in 2018 happened, what happened in 2019 happened, what happened in 2021 happened, and what happened last month happened, here we are, we are in April 2022.
What now for Rafa?
It’s been 3 months since he last appeared on court, and fell to the world number 100 and first time qualifier, Lukas Rosol, at the most prestigious court there is in the tennis world. The headlines made it very clear; the world number 2 had been ousted at a tournament where he had made 5 finals and 2 championships in his last 5 appearances, having lost only to a player either ranked number 1 or 2 in the form of the greatest player across 2 generations and another that is continuing his quest to be the greatest of the generation that is forthcoming. Needless to say, the tennis world had been shocked. After winning what was dubbed by some as the red clay slam (since Madrid was played on blue clay), only a few weeks before this loss, no one in their right mind was going to bet on Lukas Rosol creating the upset of the year, or perhaps even the upset of this new millennium.
The Olympics, Toronto, Cincinnati and the U.S open are all tournaments that Nadal has missed since this match. These events have brought light to a new winner in the form of Andy Murray. Taking the Olympics and the U.S Open, Murray achieved back to back success in two five set finals, a feat that is nothing short of extraordinary given that before this he had only won 1 set in his four major final appearances. Murray even managed to get the Olympic gold on grass against a man who is as comfortable on that surface as a shark is in deep water, Roger Federer. He followed that up at the Open with an amazing win against the best hard court player of the last 3 years, Novak Djokovic. But enough about Murray and back to the wounded man, Nadal.
It’s difficult enough that you are born in this generation and make your first grand appearance in the tennis world with the likes of Federer dominating year after year, and that when you finally achieve a status you are worthy of and look to cement your position, you run into a brick wall named Novak Djokovic. Add into this mix a whole lot of injuries that have been as consistent in your career as your performance on clay and it sums up the story of Nadal. Just when you think things look bad enough, the man that has been trailing the trio finally finds the mindset that has betrayed him for years in a row. For the first time since 2003, we have had a year with 4 different major title holders, and now this is what Nadal has to come back to. Though to be honest, comebacks are not new to the Spaniard and this wasn’t the first time he missed a major. It’s all happened in the past and so far so good, he’s always made his way back up there fighting like the Nadal we have all got so used to seeing over the years. Running down corner to corner, sliding, grunting, punching and then finally making that pass running like the apocalypse would take place if he missed the ball. Leaving his opponent stunned with everyone else standing on their feet.
This time though, it’s perhaps not the same. For one, Rafa is older and the extent of his injury has been worse than ever before. So statistically, Rafa’s likelihood of repeating his feats in the past are lower. The more important point though is that this time, his return has 3 men at the top of their game waiting for him as opposed to just one in the past. Federer, Djokovic and Murray.
Murray is at a level he has never explored before and while Rafa has a distinct head to head advantage over him, Rafa hasn’t played Murray 2.0. For those who want to argue that the skill set remains the same and Rafa has the game to beat Murray, I don’t disagree, but if you’ve played the sport, then you will know it is just as much mental as it is physical. Murray 2.0 proved in New York City last month that he has the willingness in his head to last the 5 hour matches and come out as the winner.
People claim that Djokovic is out of form and that he has been figured out by the other top 3 now. First of all, he’s only number 2 now because he was so damn good in 2011 but missed out on points post the U.S Open. He achieved too many points to defend year over year in an era competitive as the one we are witnessing right now. Novak didn’t need to win the U.S and Toronto last year to become number 1 in the world, largely because Rafa was going through what he is right now with too much to defend to stay on top. Djokovic’s losses in the big tournaments have come in the form of 3 clay finals to Rafa, a grass and hardcourt loss to Federer and the same equation to Murray. The only stand out loss for the year really was at the hands of Isner earlier in the year at the Indian Wells. Loss of form? Not really. It was bound to happen sooner than later. Look at how Federer played in 2010 and Nadal did in 2011. The rankings system kind of forces players to come into this pitfall after an amazing year.
Now as for Federer, I would love to dive into this one, but let’s just put it this way. As long as this guy has a racket in his hand and decides to enter a tournament, he’s a top contender and no loss to him should ever be counted as an upset. Shot for shot, he is the best player out there. Trust me, I’m not a big fan of his but having played tennis since the age of four, I feel pretty confident in saying this is as good as a player gets.
So what do you do if you’re Rafael Nadal and you come back with the greatest challenge that you have ever faced awaiting you? How does anyone even come up with a plan to break through this? You can’t really make the schedule much easier as he’s already playing close to the bare minimum that is required by the ATP. Change of playing style? Not out of the question but a little bonkers if you think about it. He’s won 11 slams doing the same thing, despite all the injuries in the middle. He will almost certainly have to return to a bigger serve like in 2010 to pick up more cheap points and not work as hard as he does to hold serve. Be physically fitter? Now most people will probably laugh at this one, but fitness isn’t decided by using an inch tape and figuring out who has the biggest arms. You can be ripped as most players are, but match fitness is something that can be improved. If tennis had a tournament where you had to play a best of 9 sets, I don’t think there’s anyone who would last as long as Ferru (David Ferrer). If you need a refresher on this one, watch his match against Janko Tipsarevic from earlier this month. Ferrer literally just kept on pushing until Janko eventually physically broke down.
After trying to think all this though, the only thing one can really come up with is to leave this question to be answered by Nadal. There’s a reason why he’s loved so much around the world and it’s because somehow just when you think he doesn’t have a shot at coming out on top, he somehow does. Think back to Australia ‘09, Wimbledon ‘08, the Rome final against Coria ‘05 (which is when he won me over). Come to think of it now, the stage is almost being set for the perfect time for Rafa to return. This is what this man does best like no other on tour. On that note, I will give up trying to figure out how Nadal will get out of this situation because just as in the past, there’s something going on inside his head that none of us have a clue about and can ever predict. The best thing any of us can do is to be patient and take a seat until 2013 for the return of the man we all await.