Can Rafael Nadal return to his best following his knee problems? Alex Williams debates the case for the Spaniard
Alex Williams wonders if Rafael Nadal can get back to his best after returning from his knee injury.
By Alex Williams
Last Updated: 28/03/13 10:01am
The BNP Paribas Open winner has opted out of the Masters 1000 tournament, choosing to rest up his troublesome knees rather than pound them on the North American hard courts for another fortnight.
Nadal has had several bouts of knee tendinitis which have kept him out for varying lengths of time but he has still maintained a remarkably consistent level of performance, winning at least one grand slam in each of the past eight years - a statistic Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray could only dream of.
For all the endless fears, lay-offs, speculation and analysis, Nadal has never been away from the court for more than a handful of months at a time. Are the concerns over his injuries a classic case of a storm in a teacup?
The first time that serious injury fears were raised over the Mallorca native came at the end of the 2007 when he battled a knee problem, sustained during his losing effort in the final of Wimbledon, over the second half of the year.
But it was a foot injury that garnered most of the headlines as reports circulated that the issue was "serious" and could threaten his career, speculation which was rubbished by the Nadal camp.
Any doubts over his fitness were quickly forgotten as he reached the semi-finals at the 2008 Australian Open and then went on his customary dominant run of form during the clay court season.
Then, for the first time, he won a major tournament outside the confines of Roland Garros, beating Roger Federer in a Wimbledon final which will be remembered as one of the greatest sporting contests of all time.
The second half of the season saw Nadal reach the semi-finals of the US Open, but it also brought his now-famous knee problems into the spotlight for the first time.
The Spaniard retired from his quarter-final clash with Nikolay Davydenko at the Paris Masters and was subsequently shut down for the year, citing tendinitis in his right knee which he blamed on the gruelling tennis calendar.
"Competing at so many events might have harmed, especially at the end of the season, my physical condition, taking away the freshness needed to play at the top level of the game on these last events," Nadal said at the time.
But the Spaniard, by now the No 1 player in the world, did not seem to bear any ill effects at the start of 2009 as he took his first Australian Open crown in January despite playing two five-set matches in three days on the final weekend.
His right knee problems resurfaced at the Rotterdam Open in 2009, however, when he needed treatment in a final defeat to Andy Murray. Nadal once again played down the injury, which he said was a strained ligament and not related to the tendinitis he had at the end of the previous year.
He soon returned, winning two Masters 1000 events en route to the French Open, where he suffered a stunning upset to Robin Soderling in the fourth round - still his only ever loss at Roland Garros.
It was at this time that the tendinitis returned, this time apparently in both knees. Nadal decided to pull out of Wimbledon and many speculated that his punishing playing style of play had caught up with him, but the Spaniard once again insisted he would be back.
Nadal returned in August but could not recapture the dominant form of old. He failed to win another tournament in 2009 and did not even manage to win a set at the World Tour Finals in London.
The sluggish run of form continued into 2010 as he retired from his quarter-final of the Australian Open against Andy Murray before bowing out at the semi-final stage in the next two Masters 1000 events.
It was at this point that many had written off Nadal for good, claiming he would never return to his previous form and that his on-court exertions were simply not sustainable. But he answered the critics in amazing style, winning three straight Masters titles on clay before taking the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open crowns.
He could not complete a non-calendar year Grand Slam as he crashed out of the 2011 Australian Open in the last eight while suffering with a leg injury.
The latest problem, which was not a knee issue, did not hold him up for long and he went on to win the French Open and reach the final of Wimbledon and the US Open, where he was beaten on each occasion by an inspired Novak Djokovic.
It now seemed that a competitor, rather than his own body, was Nadal's major nemesis as, following a pre-tournament scare, Nadal reached the final of the 2012 Australian Open before losing to Djokovic in possibly the most physically punishing match in the history of tennis.
He gained his revenge by beating the Serb to claim his seventh French Open title but was then blasted out of Wimbledon in the second round by unheralded Czech player Lukas Rosol.
After this loss it was revealed that the dreaded tendinitis had returned and despite hoping to get back on the court the Spaniard, who later revealed he also had a partial tear of the patellar tendon (his first truly traumatic knee injury), sat out the rest of the season and the early part of 2013, including the Australian Open.
The reasoning behind Nadal's decision to pull out is interesting, the 2009 Melbourne champion saying: "Because of the virus, I have been unable to get any match practice and simply would not be doing myself or my friends in Australia justice if I went down there so unprepared."
The statement implies that Nadal could have participated in the tournament, but such a lack of preparation would have made a run at the title almost impossible.
Instead he opted to lay low, coming back in a Chilean tournament soon afterwards and, after reaching the final there, he went on to win three straight events. Ahead of the clay court season, he looks as daunting an opponent as ever on that surface.
There is no doubt that Nadal has a legitimate problem with his knees but the evidence suggests he is able to manage the recurring tendinitis by spending prolonged periods away from the court and picking his tournaments wisely.
Indeed any time fears over his career have been raised, Nadal has firmly brushed them off. Given his ability to regain his form so quickly after his absences, maybe it is time to take him at his word.