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Why a respite isn't in Rafa's blood

4/18/2011

Rafael Nadal is the kind of guy who makes restaurateurs regret offering that "All You Can Eat, $9.99" special. He's the kid who won't get out of the swimming pool even though his lips are blue and his teeth are chattering. He's the rock star who comes out for yet another encore as long as anyone in the house is still clapping and whistling.

Nadal just won his seventh consecutive title at Monte Carlo, and he is already on his way to Barcelona to play in the ATP 500 tournament there. He has won Barcelona only a piddling five consecutive times. He missed the tournament entirely last year, but that keeps his 25-match Barcelona winning streak intact. That skein represents a better winning percentage than even his 38-1 mark at Monte Carlo. You want him to pass up that bit of unfinished business?

Actually, yes, some pundits and fans might say. They know Nadal's history of injury, which actually goes way back to his earliest years on the tour. He was forced to miss Monte Carlo as well as the French Open in 2004, when he was just 17 years old. Bad pins played a significant role in his failure to defend his French Open title in 2009, and they were entirely responsible for his inability to defend his Wimbledon title that year (he was in the midst of treatment and rehab for tendonitis in both knees).

And it's not like he needs to make up for lost ground this month, even though the title he earned Sunday at Monte Carlo was his first since October. Nor does this guy need seasoning or match fitness. He was in the final of both the Masters 1000 events that were played in recent weeks. Nadal concedes that he's tired. He (somewhat surprisingly) admitted that he was semi-spent during the Miami final (lost to Novak Djokovic) and even after he dispatched David Ferrer at Monte Carlo.

Nadal's attitude brings new meaning to the concept of playing your way into shape -- "shape" being a euphemism for the stamina and confidence he'll want going into Roland Garros. Nadal's strength and determination may not have been up to snuff in those two big recent losses to Djokovic. Rafa was disappointed in the way he faded after a good start at Indian Wells, and sobered by the fatigue he felt late in the Miami final.

Nadal and Djokovic played exactly the same amount of tennis in recent weeks. Yet Djokovic pulled out of Monte Carlo (the official reason: sore knee) and Nadal didn't. He appeared to take the past week as a chance to get his game together.

Winning two Masters titles gives you a different outlook than losing them; it's understandable that Djokovic took last week off. But it's telling that Nadal not only soldiered on, but also seems intent on keeping his commitment to the Barcelona event.

That's probably less because Nadal is a saint than because he has a plan, albeit a risky one. He's gorging on matches and reasserting his status as the unquestioned No. 1, even at the risk of burning out or fatigue-related injury. Nadal seems bent on putting as much psychic distance between himself and those last two hard-court Masters as he can before the second Grand Slam event of the year. He's not exactly a glutton for punishment -- more like a glutton for punishing.