by Pete Bodo
On Friday, we looked at the eight wild cards in the men's U.S. Open draw. Today, we'll check out the elite eight women who earned—or conspired to secure by some other means—a free pass into Flushing Meadows.
It may not be right up there with winning the Poweball lottery, but any player who gets a chance to perform on the big sports stage in New York without having qualified for direct entry has to count him or herself very lucky (or very good). Here they are:
Bethanie Mattek-Sands, WTA No. 232: Not long after Mattek-Sands reached her career-high ranking of No. 30 in 2011, she was forced off the tour with a rotator cuff injury in her right shoulder. That was a terrible stroke of misfortune for the 27-year-old, who has been a shining example of a hard-working athlete who wants nothing more than to create a career and name for herself.
Something like a "typical American" from the heartland (instead of, say, "typical international tennis star"), Mattek-Sands is a dogged, gritty competitor who's played 11 consecutive U.S. Opens, and she's always made herself available to represent the U.S. in Fed Cup competition. Mattek-Sands won the Australian Open mixed doubles title this year with Romania's Horia Tecau, but has had trouble finding the confidence and form that once vaulted her into the Top 30.
Melanie Oudin, No. 106: Everyone by now knows Oudin; she had a magical run at the U.S. Open at age 18 in 2009, with the word "BELIEVE" scrawled on her multi-colored shoes. She defeated four Russian players (including Elena Dementieva and Maria Sharapova) and riveted the domestic audience until her run was ended in the quarterfinals by then up-and-coming Caroline Wozniacki. Oudin has had a lot of trouble dealing with effects of her sudden fame and notoriety, and has struggled on and off with her confidence.
This spring, Oudin appeared to take a big step forward when she earned the USTA wild card into the French Open (part of the reciporical agreement the USTA has with the French and Australian tennis federations), and she's been improving steadily since then. Given her history at the U.S. Open, you have to figure she'll get a wild card into the event any time she asks, and for the rest of her life, but her ranking presently is just two places lower than the cut-off for direct entry, which shows that this truly a "wild card" rather than a "pity card."
Nicole Gibbs, No. 307: She's the NCAA singles champion, on behalf of that well-known tennis powerhouse, Stanford University. Given the young age at which most women turn professional these days, and the state of the women's game, collegians are rarely more than red meat thrown to rank-and-file WTA players. But Gibbs, a 19-year-old sophomore, has excellent collegiate credentials. She's one of just three players to win both the singles and doubles championship in the same year. (The others were Stanford's Linda Gates  and UCLA's Keri Phebus .)
In July on the pro tour, Gibbs won eight matches to take the Denver ITF event, beating tour veteran Julie Coin in the final. And Gibbs won a main-tour match at Stanford. But odds still are still good that she'll have the fate of a typical collegian. The USTA rewards her with a trip to the big city, shows her the bright lights of Broadway and the jumbotron in Arthur Ashe Stadium—and then throws her to the lions.
Mallory Burdette, No. 246: So here's the funny thing. Burdette was the runner-up to Gibbs in the NCAA championships (the match was a tense and close three-setter), but she was also the the doubles partner with whom Gibbs made even more history for Stanford. Double(s) history, in fact, for in addition to Gibbs being in both finals, this was also the first time that opponents in the singles final teamed up to play (and win) the doubles title. Are you following me here?
How much all this actually means re. the U.S. Open chances of either Gibbs or Burdette is a question best left unasked for reasons I already mentioned above. However, Burdette's star is undeniably on the rise. She had a win over Anne Keovathong at Stanford, and won two ITF events (Evansville and Vancouver) and made the quarters in the another (Lexington, Ky.) in her last three tournaments.
I can also see a weird scenario here where Gibbs and Burdette, who's 21, end up clashing (again) early in the main draw of the singles at the U.S. Open.
Victoria Duval, No. 566: The ranking may be low, but this 16-year-old is a player to watch. A protege of the USTA player development program (and coach Kathy Rinaldi), Duval recently polished off five Top 10 seeds to win the girls' 18 national championship, hence the automatic wild card into the Open. While she's still so off-the-radar that she doesn't even have her own Wikipedia entry, read her backstory and I guarantee that you'll be out pulling for this young player of Haitian descent no matter who she meets in the first round.
Julia Cohen, No. 102: At 24, Cohen is a regular granny compared to Duval. She joins Oudin as the recipient of a wild card because she was on the cusp of direct entry and has been working hard to establish herself as a main-tour player; call it a "vote of confidence" wild card. I like that the the USTA chooses to reward the diligent among its constituents, instead of doing more horse trading than it already has to (see reciprocal agreements, above).
A native of Philadelphia, Cohen has had an up-and-down year, but recently built up her ranking to the point where she actually would have qualified for direct acceptance had the entry cut-off not passed. She got a big boost out of making the final at Baku during the last week of July. It was a WTA event, and she defeated a number of main-tour players before losing to No. 97 Bojana Jovanovski.
Casey Dellacqua, No. 109: This is Tennis Australia's nomination for the prized U.S. Open wild card. She's a 27-year-old from Perth and a 10-year tour veteran. Her highest career ranking was No. 39 (July, 2008). Dellacqua is a WTA journeywoman still striving to recapture her form of a few years ago. Her career highlight: Winning the French Open mixed doubles title in 2011, with American Scott Lipsky.
Kristina Mladenovic, No. 153: She's just 19 and not ranked all that highly, but she's already figured out what the big stars do and moved from her native France (although she is of Serbian descent) to Switzerland. Mladenovic won the French Open junior girls title in 2009, and was the top-ranked junior in the world for a period of time. She's 5-foot-11, packs plenty of power, and her current ranking is just 12 places lower than her career high (posted eight months ago). A win at the Open should push her past it.
Of course, "a win at the U.S. Open" is the dream of every wild card, especially a tour ingenue. And if Mladenovic needs to be convinced it can happen, all she need do is ask Oudin about the year 2009.
by Pete Bodo
For some strange reason, I've always looked forward to the announcements of the wild cards before a Grand Slam event. The nominations are sometimes controversial, but almost always intriguing. The reciprocity agreements between the USTA and the French and Australian Federations have taken some of the subjectivity out of the process (it's comparable to getting a grant to study abroad, only it's usually for more like two weeks than two semesters), but it's also fun to see (or guess) how those friendly federations decide upon the single player who will benefit from the horse-trading session. So let's take a look at who got those men's wild cards this year. We'll look at the women later.
Lleyton Hewitt, ATP No. 134 — This game Australian is 31 years old and he's been struggling mightily but soldiering on. I'm sure that many of the parents and coaches of promising Aussie juniors are a little steamed that Tennis Australia's reciprocal wild card was awarded to a former world No. 1 and multiple Grand Slam champ, but think of it as something like the gold watch given to any good and reliable employee who's retiring after working at the same company for ages. I wonder, though, if the USTA wouldn't have given Hewitt a wild card anyway, given his status.
James Blake, No. 106 — This one was a no-brainer. At 32, Blake is still capable of going on a run, and what better place than the U.S. Open, where he's played well. Some of you will also smile upon recalling the history of Hewitt and Blake. At the 2001 U.S. Open, Blake gave Hewitt (then No. 4) a terrific scare in a match marred by a controversy over some allegedly racially-tinged remarks made by Hewitt. Blake and Hewitt clashed twice at Flushing Meadow; both matches were five set corkers won by Hewitt. Wouldn't it be funny if these two aging warriors ended up playing each other one last time in New York, as co-sentimental favorite wild cards?
Steve Johnson, No. 237 — This is one of those truly creative guys the game still can cough up, like a Fabrice Santoro, Bernard Tomic, Benoit Paire, or Miloslav Mecir. His game, and style, look absolutely ill-suited to the way the game is played today. But Johnson, now 22, is a great competitor as well as a unique stylist (he nearly upset Alex Bogomolov Jr. in the midst of Bogomolov's career year in the first round of the Open last year). Johnson earned his wild card based on his USTA Pro Circuit results this year (he earned the most ATP ranking points among the American men), and his ranking is already impressive given that he's fresh of USC, the college where he went undefeated this year and won the NCAA singles title for the second year in a row. We'll see if the Johnson can join John Isner as a successful ATP pro despite having remained in college for the full four years required to earn a degree.
Jack Sock, No. 252 - In 2010, Sock became the first American youth to win the U.S. Open boys' singles title since Andy Roddick in 2000. Sock has a Roddick-like, power-based game and is similarly built (Sock is a raw-boned 6-foot-1). In fact, Sock just can't seem to get out of the shadow of Roddick. The youngster may already be the second-best player ever spawned in Nebraska, behind . . . Roddick. Last year at the Open, Sock became the first reigning USTA boys' 18 champ (see below) to win a round at Flushing Meadow, but he was stopped in the second round by. . . yep, Roddick.
Denis Kudla, No. 163 - This is one of the "encouragement" wild cards given to developing players. In 2010, Kudla lost to Sock in the U.S. Open boys' final, and while there hasn't been as much buzz about him, he's ranked higher than Sock. In fact, he beat Sock in three tough sets when they played in San Jose, just a few weeks after Kudla qualified for the Australian Open (l. in round 1 to Tommy Haas). Kudla won the Lexington (Ky.) Challenger just a few weeks ago.
Dennis Novikov, No. 1099 — This 18-year-old unknown received his wild card for spelling his first name correctly in English, with two "n's" (I'm begging you not to write a haughty comment pointing out that Kudla was born in Ukraine, where the name is spelled with one "n." I am fully aware of how smart and worldly you are). Novikov is 18, and a native of Russia whose family immigrated to San Jose.
The thing I can't figure out is why he didn't get a wild card into the San Jose tournament, as both a promising junior and local talent. Instead he tried to qualify and lost to Kudla. Novikov is in the U.S. Open because he just won at boys 18s nationals at Kalamazoo (the winner of that event automatically gets a wild card into the Open). Novikov is an immigrant from Russia, and it's kind of nice to know that he plans to attend and play tennis for UCLA in the fall.
Rajeev Ram, No. 100 — Call it a "do the right thing" wild card. Ram must have narrowly missed the cutoff for direct entry into the Open (all things being equal, it's no. 104) based on his ranking at the time entries closed. He's ranked high enough now to have gotten straight in, and recently upset Brian Baker and Leonardo Mayer in Los Angeles en route to the semis. At 28, and 6-foot-4 with a great serve and big power game, this break could give the resident of Carmel, IN, just the nudge he needs to surpass his career best ranking of No. 78, which he hit about 9 months ago.
Guillaume Rufin, No. 127 — Should this native of Viriat, France, decided to drop tennis, he could always audition to become the member of a boy band. He's got the look down pat. For now, though, he's taking advantage of the French reciprocal wild card.
In his debut on the ATP Tour, Rufin shellacked Eduardo Schwank in the first round of the French Open, giving up just four games. Alas, that was in 2009, so it was not quite the start of something big. But Rufin has been making progress, and his current ranking is his best and he's still just 22. Rufin won three rounds of qualifying and beat Steve Darcis in the main draw at Wimbledon before he lost to Nicolas Almagro in four competitive sets. It's definitely time for him to make a run; could it happen at Rufin, given that he prefers hard courts to his native clay?
Still, I kind of wish the French had gone the Aussie route with their wild card. I'd love to see Yannick Noah bounding around a court again!
by Pete Bodo
The Cincinnati tournament just doesn't feel like the familiar, county fair-like event it has become with Andy Roddick out of the draw. Born in Nebraska, raised mostly in Florida, now living in funky Austin, Texas, Roddick has somehow managed to retain vestiges of his essentially Midwestern character despite the global nature of the game and the inevitable sophistication that is a by-product of success.
Roddick is innately intelligent, but in a practical, rather than a dreamy or geeky way. He's inquisitive and good at critical thinking, but it still doesn't take much to bring out the prankish boy or even the knucklehead in him (ask any umpire). If you want to match personalities with tournaments, I'd say Roddick and Cincinnati are an excellent fit. Yet he's already out of there, and it's pretty clear that at age 29 he's struggling on various fronts to not only salvage this year but to extend his career.
A finalist in the tournament now officially called the Western & Southern Open three times (he's 2-1, with wins over Mardy Fish and Juan Carlos Ferrero and a loss to Roger Federer), and a semifinalist on two other occasions, Roddick lost in the first round of Cincinnati the other day to Lucky Loser Jeremy Chardy of France. He was surprisingly philosophical afterward, saying, among other things, that he still feels good about his game. "These past weeks have been the best of my year," he explained. "As far as my confidence level goes, there's just no comparison to the beginning of the year."
Roddick's year began with frustration; he had to abandon his second-round match in the Australian Open because of a hamstring injury, the effects of which would linger. He had twinges in his shoulder. He had trouble getting traction in the winter indoor tournaments, winning just one match at San Jose and Memphis. He had a great run in Miami, with an upset of then No. 3 Federer in the third round, but puzzlingly came up flat as the Nebraska long grass prairie in a winnable match against Juan Monaco. Europe was, as usual, best forgotten — until the scene shifted to British grass, and Roddick won Eastbourne.
Given Roddick's record at Wimbledon (three times a runner-up to the same nemesis, Federer), you'd think a third round loss to David Ferrer, a clay-court expert, would be disappointing. But as brash and aggressive as Roddick sometimes is, he tends never to take anything for granted and truly respects his peers. As he said, "I had a pretty good run at Wimbledon, I had a good look and nearly turned the corner."
When he followed up with a hard court win in Atlanta, a tournament he last won as an 18 year old at a different venue and on clay, he said, "I've won 32 times (tournaments), and in every one of them I've never assumed I was going to win again. I just go about the process of playing, work hard, and hope I can put myself in a position enough times where I can create some success for myself."
These days, though, and injuries apart, Roddick is having more success arriving in that position than taking advantage of it at big events, and that's challenging. At the Olympic Games, Roddick found himself back on the Wimbledon grass that has been so kind to him, but in a much anticipated showdown with No. 2 Novak Djokovic he just couldn't muster the lethal serve- based game, adequately confident, combative attitude. It wasn't so much that he lost; after all, he was ranked No. 21. It was more that he got just three games, losing 6-2, 6-1.
After the Olympics, Roddick skipped Toronto and then lost to Chardy. Among other things, the setback will set him scrambling to get matches in order to recapture his confidence for the U.S. Open. Roddick isn't in a do or die situation; he's been No. 1, he's won a major title (U.S. Open, 2003), he's been a model of consistency — a year-end top 10 player for nine consecutive years ending in 2011. Roddick doesn't need to win another tennis match for the rest of his life to sleep content, knowing he got the most out of his career.
But what Roddick is dealing with now — and handling with great poise — is that gnawing question, "Can I still contend?" He's right not to ask himself that, point-blank, nor should we ask him. He's absolutely right to remain focused on working hard, staying healthy, and taking every tourament one match at a time. My own feeling is that as long as a player is enjoying the pro's life, he or she ought to keep playing, no matter what the results show.
Roddick is just two weeks from celebrating his 30th birthday, and it's been proved repeatedly (most recently by Wimbledon champion Federer) that it's an unreliable milestone, at least as far as suggesting inevitable decline. But the body doesn't lie, either, and Roddick knows that. It doesn't help him if Federer plays happily until 36, because everyone is different. As Roddick said, "This sport beats the hell out of some guys. I've never been a guy who's super graceful about the way he goes about things. It's a physical game for me. I don't think it's coincidental as I get older I get hurt more. I don't think I'm naive to that fact."
At Cincinnati, Roddick received treatment for his back; it was a case of spasms, just one of those periodic tweaks that occur (in his case, it was brought on by a lunge forehand) to everyone. But it's left him scrambling for matches before the big show moves to New York, a place he loves, a place where he's known great success, a place that could play a significant role, depending on how things go, in how he views this year, but also the year — or years — ahead.
Roddick left Cincinnati grappling with how to approach the days leading to the U.S. Open. "I don't have any answers yet, we're going to have to figure this thing out (presumably, he meant the back spasms). It's tough for me to say what side of the fence I'm sitting on. I don't know where I'm going to be in two or three days. In a perfect world, I'd love to play next week."
In a perfect world, every player at the age of around 30 in Roddick's position would have a clearer view of his future. But one of the challenging things about a career in tennis is that it doesn't end in a pre-determined or predictable way. Sampras went out in a blaze of glory; he won the U.S. Open in his last official ATP match — but the year leading up to that triumph was pure hell. Banged up Andre Agassi hobbled to the third round of the U.S. Open at age 36 in 2006, and lost to No. 112 Benjamin Becker and made his now famous retirement speech immediately after the match, on court. Gustavo Kuerten faded in and out, hampered by a bum hip until he finally and unceremoniously threw in the towel.
Each player lives in an imperfect world, just like the rest of us. And how he navigates it affects both his career and longevity. Roddick is not yet at an age where calling it quits seems inevitable any time soon, and we can only hope that he'll be able to compete with all or most of his powers intact until such time as his scores and rankings, rather than the state of his back, shoulder, hamstring or hips, tells him that it's just not that much fun anymore.
by Bobby Chintapalli
MASON, OHIO — Today’s practice schedule shows Radek Stepanek is hitting with Viktor Troicki, but it doesn’t show why. If the practice schedule tells half the story, the draw tells much of the rest, with the order of play weighing in too. Fans may deduce the reasons, especially those with curiosity about such matters and access to this information.
Back to Stepanek and Troicki, who are scheduled to practice on Court 3 at 9:30 this morning. That’s the who, what, where and when. Now the why: Both want to hit with someone at their level (i.e., a fellow pro). Both are scheduled to play at 11:00 — Stepanek plays Mardy Fish and Troicki faces Juan Martin del Potro — so they want that someone around the same time. And the key — they’re on different halves of the draw. So they’d get reacquainted with each other’s games but couldn’t use that knowledge unless both reached the final.
While other factors come into play, explains ATP PR & Marketing manager Austin Nunn, this is the norm. And the norm can get interesting: “A player may think, ‘I want to hit with this guy, but we may play in the quarters so I’ll practice with him early then I’ll kind of move along.’ It’s kind of a dance to figure all this out.”
And all must dance. On the WTA tour, male hitting partners often fill the role fellow players do on the ATP tour. WTA players hit with each other too but not nearly as much. The top WTA players in particular work with male hitting partners, who can more easily generate their level of power (and do so without going all out and thereby risking injuries). ATP pros, on the other hand, must play fellow pros to face comparable power.
Not surprisingly few ATP players have full-time hitting partners. The exception among the Top 10 is Novak Djokovic, who has a traveling hitting partner in Dusan Vemic and doesn’t practice with other players often.
Rafael Nadal likes to practice with friend and fellow Spanish tennis player Marc Lopez and hits with him a lot when they’re at the same tournaments (Lopez is a doubles specialist). And the Americans are unique in that they mostly practice with each other. Whether it’s Andy Roddick hitting with Sam Querrey and John Isner or Ryan Harrison hitting with all the others, and likely because they’re close, they hit together much of the time.
Then there’s Tommy Haas, who’s in a unique situation with his coach, Christian Groh, who’s also a hitting partner. Among Top 30 players, Haas hits with his coach the most. He hits with other players too, but he hits mostly with Groh. That's Groh with Haas in the picture above. More on Groh below, where he answers a few questions.
For full-on hits most other players rely on assorted fellow pros. And on their coaches, who help identify hitting partners and set up practice sessions. With the top guys, coaches generally talk to coaches. When setting up a hit, coaches must consider various things. Is the next opponent a lefty? Then they’ll look for a lefty hitting partner. Does Player X need to work on something Player Y does well? If so they may set up a practice session with Player Y. Can they find the lefty and Player Y on the opposite half of the draw? That’s ideal.
Sometimes players are scheduled to practice together before the draw comes out, only to later discover they’re playing each other in the first round. “It’s funny because there are so many occasions where you have guys who before the draw comes out are hitting with each other. Then the draw comes out and they go, ‘I’m playing him? I just hit with him.’ Or they’ve scheduled a practice for tomorrow.’”
In those cases, Nunn guesses, half cancel the session and half don’t. If they don’t, says Nunn, “It’s just not a very talkative practice.”
Players can always be more talkative at the next tournament — especially if they’re far away from each other in the draw. Being friendly helps. Because there’s always another week, there’s always another tournament and there’s no denying players need each other.
Nunn says, humorously, “It’s not like a player can say, ‘I don’t want to hit with you, because I don’t like you.’ Otherwise later he’ll be sitting there going, ‘I have no one to hit with — could you please hit with me?’ only to hear, ‘No, you were mean to me!’ That’s why you see coaches go over to each other and say ‘nice match’ whether their player won or lost. They have to maintain that relationship, because they’re going to help his player as much as his player is going to help theirs. Everyone’s in the same boat.”
Christian Groh, 30, is coaching Tommy Haas, 34. After starting the year ranked No. 205, Haas is now ranked No. 23. In June he won Halle, where he beat Roger Federer in the final, and has since reached the Hamburg and Washington, DC finals. It took the top-seeded Djokovic to beat him in three sets in Toronto last week and del Potro to defeat him in Cincinnati this week. He is, as Nunn puts it, “in the Renaissance part of his career.” The player is also, as the announcer said after his loss to del Potro yesterday, a “Cincinnati favorite.” The smiling woman beside me qualified — “female favorite,” she said. Perhaps. In any case yesterday at the Western & Southern Open, I talked to Groh about how he and Haas started working together, their unique coaching situation and a bit more. Here’s some of that interview.
How did you start working together?
I was coaching Michael Berrer for a couple of tournaments last year in the U.S. That’s how I met Tommy at the LA Open in 2011. I think he was watching a couple of practices with us, but at this time he still had a coach. We met again at the U.S. Open and chitchatted a little bit. Then I hadn’t seen him for a while, and all of a sudden I got a call from him.
He was looking for a hitting partner initially?
He didn’t get too detailed. He said he was looking for someone and said, “Can you come up to LA for a hit?” I live in San Diego, so I went up to LA. So we hit for a day and right away he said, “That’s fine. Let’s do it. Can you come with me to Delray Beach?” I said, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
He hits with other players as well as hitting a lot with you?
I’m hitting with him a lot. I guess that’s because I’m still a little young actually to be a coach. When it all started in February I think he was mainly looking for someone to hit with, somebody that’s at a decent level. I hit with him a lot, but in tournaments it depends and he plays more sets with other players. Sometimes when he has a day it can happen that he doesn’t play with other players and I play with him. In Paris we did it this way all the time.
How do coaches decide what players to practice with?
We always talk about it a little bit. If he’s playing a certain type of guy, you look for somebody to practice with that kind of plays a similar style. Sometimes it’s not that easy with all the scheduling. You just make sure at least if he’s playing a right-hander that he practices with a right-hander.
Talk about your background in tennis.
I played as a pro for like a year about 10 years ago. Then I stopped and decided to go to college. I went to San Diego State University and got my bachelor's and MBA right after. But I always stayed close to tennis. There were some good USTA juniors and others that I was hitting with.
His results have been great. You must be feeling pretty good.
I don’t know how much it’s me. Obviously the guy knows how to play, that’s for sure.
What is a coach’s role when working with a player who has so much experience?
You remind him of stuff. Every player falls back to the same habits, so you remind him of certain things. I’m really big into fitness and nutrition, so I like to have a close eye on that. Tommy also has his physio, who works with him, does certain exercises for him to strengthen his hip, where he had surgery, and keep the body aligned and everything.
What are your goals for him?
At the beginning of the year we said Top 50. He got there so quickly. Then we said Top 30. After U.S. Open he already got that one. I mean, Top 10 at the end of the year — why not? It’s a big goal, but you gotta have a big goal with him. And he can do it — he’s playing well.
by Pete Bodo
This ought to have been a great year for Rafael Nadal, but now that he's pulled out of the U.S. Open in order to rest and rehabilitate his knees (he has chronic tendinitis in both of them) 2012 has become, like 2009, a year of travail, hardship, and sobering portents.
The outstanding — and to Rafa fans, alarming — difference between then and now, though, is that Nadal missed just one Grand Slam event in 2009. This year he's going to be absent from two of the five major events, having also pulled out of the recent Olympic Games.
This is a devastating blow for the 11-time Grand Slam champion who, until about midway through 2011, seemed almost certain to equal or surpass his older rival Roger Federer's Grand Slam record of 17 major singles titles (At 31, Federer is almost five full years older than Nadal). This latest bout of injury radically alters the nature of the conversation, with one question looming prominently: "How many tournaments does Nadal have left in those increasingly un-cooperative knee?"
One thing that is already clear is that Nadal has had to pay a different, and incrementally higher, price for his frailties in this, a year that he had hoped, with reason, would be one of resurgence and restoration.
Novak Djokovic went on a remarkable tear in 2011, rudely unseating Nadal from the throne he occupied as the No. 1 player while compiling a 6-0 record against him, including a four-set victory in the U.S. Open final. The Serbian star turned the game on its ear, but it was impossible to tell if his dominance was a tidal surge destined to recede, or an unexpected, permanent shake-up.
Although Nadal also was beaten by Djokovic in the first Grand Slam final of 2012 (the Australian Open final was the longest Grand Slam final in tennis history at 5:53, and one of the most bitterly and closely contested), he left Melbourne with new hope, fresh ideas, and greater confidence that Djokovic would not be able to manhandle him the way he had in 2011.
But that optimism was accompanied and undermined — if never compromised — by Nadal's ongoing struggle with tendinitis in his knees, an injury that first became public shortly after Nadal lost for the first time at the French Open, while he was bidding to collect his fifth consecutive title. He was beaten on that occasion in the fourth round by Robin Soderling. Given Soderling's level at the time, the defeat of Nadal was unexpected but not inexplicable. Thus, speculation about Nadal's knees (already a past time among certain insiders) seemed like so much excuse-making. But the severity of Rafa's condition became manifest to all a few weeks later, when Nadal announced that he would be unable to defend the Wimbledon crown he'd wrenched out of Roger Federer's grip in 2008.
An injury that prevents a Grand Slam champion from defending his title is of an entirely different order of magnitude than the aches and pains that are part of the cost of doing business in big-time athletics, and particularly in sports where there is as much impact and jarring of bones and muscles as in tennis. Starting in that summer of 2009, tendinitis became a new, consistent, sometimes irritating thread in the Nadal narrative (I say "irritating" because speculations on the role played by injury in a loss in any match that is completed tends to take credit away from the winner, and adds an unquantifiable element to the story of the match).
In what now seems like an omen, Nadal had to quit the Miami Masters 1000 at the semifinal stage (giving Andy Murray a win by walkover) because of the aggravated condition of his left knee. He said at the time, “I started to have problems on the knee before Indian Wells. But that problem [was] not limiting me to play at 100 percent. So I played in Indian Wells with the normal conditions, playing in good shape physically. Here, [it] is different.”
The good news for Nadal is that the tour then moved to the softer, gentler red-clay surface in Europe, where Nadal began to reverse the hex Djokovic had him under. By the time the French Open rolled around, a scant three months ago, Nadal had banked back-to-back wins over his Serbian rival in high- value Master events. And when Nadal subdued Djokovic in a ragged, rain-cursed French Open final, he had real reason to feel terrific going into Wimbledon. The tweaks he'd made to counter Djokovic's superiority seemed to be working, and his game has always matched up well with Federer's.
Nadal was upset in the second round at Wimbledon by Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic. As bitter a pill as that was to swallow, it suggested that Nadal might benefit from an unanticipated, extra rest of nearly two weeks before he began his quest to defend his Olympic gold medal. But Nadal watchers knew that Nadal frequently consulted with doctors and had gone for multiple MRI's while still in London, and that could hardly be a good sign. In the big picture, the loss to Rosol (who, like Soderling, played a superb match against Nadal) was the least of Nadal's worries.
You know the rest. Nadal pulled out of the Olympics (he also had to give up the high honor of serving as Spain's flag bearer), citing lack of proper rest for his knees. Later, he pulled out of the North American summer Masters events, because he said he was not sufficiently recovered. Now, who knows? It's hard to imagine Nadal traveling to Asia to play on hard courts, and the indoor season in Europe that follows is just too far out to contemplates — as well as a segment during which Nadal under performs.
The most disturbing thing to me about all this is that you can't just blame Nadal's tendinitis on excessive play on hard courts. He had good recovery time after pulling out of Miami, and essentially broke down after a typically brilliant clay-court tour in Europe. The history he's accumulated also indicates that this is not a problem that will go away, not unless Nadal takes a truly extended break (say, six months to a year) or drastically limits his play with long breaks between selected events.
What if Nadal decided that the only way to extend his career would be to avoid hard courts altogether? Should he decide to play only on clay and grass, how would the ATP handle his role as a part-timer?
We saw that the ATP had no mercy when it came to Bjorn Borg's wish to play more selectively; would a hard-line stance by the ATP (rules are rules; if you don't meet your mandated commitments, you will pay a price) drive Nadal out of the game altogether? One thing is for certain, Nadal could keep a very respectable ranking playing only exclusively on clay in Europe. It would certainly be in intriguing and unprecedented decision, as well as a wholly justifiable one.
But if he went that route, Nadal would not contend for the top ranking, nor appear at two majors (Australian and U.S. Opens). Given that for a player like Nadal, the career is all about Grand Slam wins and all else is trimmings, those handicaps are irrelevant. Playing two majors a year is better than having to quit with busted up knees and playing none. Ever again.
It's not just legitimate but almost obligatory to ask these question now, in order to prepare for the future. Unfortunately, the shape of that future is impossible to determine at the best of times, and never more so than in the matter of Rafael Nadal and his famous and now famously unreliable knees.