Comment: Short-changing fans has become Rafael Nadal’s norm and he can no longer downplay it

Rafael Nadal disappointed

Rafael Nadal again succumbed to injury at Indian Wells, and Michael Graham confronts the question that’s been easier to avoid for far too long now.

Ok, we need to talk about Rafael Nadal and it’s got to start with an unwelcome truth: Nadal’s body is not just creaking, it’s downright failing.

The world number two withdrew from his scheduled Indian Wells Masters semi-final against Roger Federer just two hours before it was due to start as yet another tournament ended in retirement.

It’s not a unique event and, sadly, nor was it even remotely surprising. In fact, you could even argue that it would have been more surprising had he actually completed a tournament.

Nadal’s 2018 was absolutely wrecked by injury.

He retired mid-Grand Slam on two occasions before cutting his season short by withdrawing from the ATP Finals in need of ankle surgery. Along the way, there were a spate of other withdrawals ahead of tournaments, almost too many to count. Never for a clay tournament, though, oddly.

Even this season, he retired from the Mubadala World Tennis Championship and withdrew from Brisbane ahead of time. He managed to play a full Australian Open but looked so far removed from his usual self in the final against Novak Djokovic it was hard to not feel some sympathy.

In 2018, he only actually managed to complete seven tournaments, and five of them were on clay.

Rafael Nadal press conference

His retirements from the Australian Open and US Open meant that aside from the entire clay season (funny that), the only other tournaments Nadal managed to play to a conclusion were the Canadian Masters and Wimbledon.

Now, the object here is not to criticise Nadal. He is, and has been, an absolutely sensational player. However, it is an inescapable fact that his injury record has become so bad that he is now actively short-changing tennis fans.

“I warmed up today and I felt that my knee was not good to compete at the level I needed to compete in semi-finals,” Nadal said in a news conference when he pulled out of the Federer match-up.

“You can imagine that I can’t be happy. Sometimes it’s tough and can be frustrating for me sometimes personally to go through all this stuff.

“I’m just gonna keep going, and I’m just gonna keep doing the things that works well for me and accepting that sometimes these issues can happen.

“So all the things that are in my hands I am doing well. The things that I can’t control, I can’t control.”

Of course, the problem here is that, axiomatically, what he is doing is not working for him. You can accept that this particular withdrawal carried more disappointment for fans as it robbed us of the increasingly rare spectacle of an on-court meeting between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Maybe that extra disappointment is seeing me overreact a touch, who knows.

But Nadal’s injury record in the last 15 months or so is there for everyone to see. During that time he has started just 12 tournaments and retired in a quarter of them. Clearly, something isn’t working for him.

And neither, frankly, is it working for me. Roger Federer has been criticised in recent years for not having the stomach to tackle the clay season. He looks set to change that pattern this season and credit to him for that. Ultimately, it is the fans who miss out when he stays away.

Is it, therefore, perhaps also time to wonder whether Nadal lacks the stomach to do anything but the clay season? These injury problems never seen to plague him when the red dirt, and easy wins, beckon.

“What I’m gonna do is come back home and try to do a smooth transition to clay, “Nadal assured reporters. “I don’t have doubts today that I will be ready for Monte Carlo.”

Maybe it’s unfair to question Nadal’s bottle and willingness to fight. He has certainly shown those qualities before. Perhaps his body simply is no long up to the rigors of the more physically testing hard-court challenges.

It’s hard to judge in all honesty but what is absolutely beyond all doubt is that Nadal has to change something. He needs to look at his routine, his training, his scheduling, and his full medical options, because right now all he is doing is short-changing both himself and his fans, and that’s just not good enough.

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