Rafael Nadal fans are undoubtedly nervous about the return of the muscle-bound Majorcan at next week's Masters event in Montreal. My advice? Don't expect too much.
There's still a chance Nadal won't play next week, according to his Web site. In an interview with Spanish television, translated and posted on rafaelnadal.com, Nadal says: "I would like to come back in Montreal in a week and a half. I have to force the knees and just see how far I can go." Nadal has downplayed expectations for his return since he decided to skip Wimbledon, and he continues to do so in this interview, saying that although he feels good, "the real test would be to see how I go when I really push my knees, and I think that is likely to happen in the upcoming days."
The good news about Nadal's injury is that it doesn't require surgery; tendinitis is common and treatable. The bad news is, it's likely to be a chronic problem -- and perhaps a bigger problem for Nadal than it would be for most other players. This isn't because of the way Nadal plays; it's because of who Nadal is. No one on tour trains with as much intensity, and no one needs -- or to be more accurate, believes he needs -- more hours on the court to be his best. When Nadal can't play and train with abandon, he suffers not just physically, but mentally. Here he is again, speaking about the effects of his injury: "You lose the drive to go back to train and compete, because you are not with the same energy. Little by little, it destroys you."
For years, people have said that Nadal couldn't last because he plays such a grueling game and punishes his body more than other players. I have my doubts about that, simply because those opinions are based on appearances. Yes, Nadal's style of play looks more demanding than Roger Federer's, but just because Federer seems to glide doesn't mean his knees and ankles aren't taking a pounding. We've also seen plenty of graceful players -- Miloslav Mecir comes to mind -- suffer career-shortening injuries. The 10-month season is brutal on the joints and tendons of every player, even the pretty ones.
My concern is, can Nadal still be Nadal while playing less tennis? The encouraging news from his interview is that Nadal admits he made some scheduling mistakes this year. He said he shouldn't have played in Madrid after feeling a lot of pain in Rome. If he hadn't, he might have been healthy for Roland Garros. To my mind, he shouldn't have played in Rotterdam after the Australian Open, or in Barcelona, either. Going forward, we can expect to see Nadal less often, and that's a good thing if it allows us to see a healthy Nadal more often.
What we'll begin to learn the rest of this season, though, is whether we'll see a fabulous Nadal as often, or ever again. I hope so, because for my money, no one -- not even Roger Federer -- has played better tennis than Nadal did from April to August of last year, when he won the French Open, Wimbledon and the Olympic gold medal. The man was otherworldly. Can Nadal be that same player with a slimmer schedule, more carefully designed practices and more breaks? Up to this point, Nadal has needed to play -- and do it a lot -- to be his best. Playing hard, and suffering, have become his identity: "It is a virtue that I've always had: I like to suffer, I have learned to enjoy suffering, and I believe that is what helps me."
He's now in the process of changing that identity. The trick is doing it without killing -- slowly, as he suggested -- the great player inside.