The Australian Open is always an interesting setting for the formulation and renewal of tennis storylines.
What effects will lag on from the previous season; which disasters will be erased from memory at the start of the new year; which players will come back reinvigorated, refreshed, renewed?
Which players will burst forth, which players will be upset?
But there was a disturbing familiarity to one of the biggest tales of the fortnight: Rafael Nadal’s fading invincibility, his wounded warrior status clear for all to see in his retirement against Andy Murray in the quarterfinals. The notion that we’ve seen the best of his dramatic rivalry with Roger Federer, a rivalry that the Spaniard was dominating, drawing to a sad close.
Although Nadal started 2009 as he left 2008, with an epic five-set win over the Swiss in the Australian Open final (his sixth Slam—the first on a hardcourt—following wins at Wimbledon, the French Open, and the Olympics in 2008), 2009 slowly descended into injury heartbreak.
Nadal came to Melbourne this year without a tournament victory in eight months.
Within that period came a shocking defeat at the hands of Robin Soderling in the French Open, a withdrawal from the defence of his crown at Wimbledon, and poor shows at numerous other events including the World Tour Finals in London in November (where he lost all three of his round robin matches). He has a 1-9 record in recent matches against Top 10 players.
Knee injuries and abdominal injuries were the main causes for concern in the 2009 season.
Now it’s the right knee again, inducing so much pain that he felt it necessary to retire in the third set of his quarterfinal, with Murray leading 6-3, 7-6 (2), 3-0.
This time, Nadal chose not to play through the pain, explaining that was what caused him to take such a long break from the tour in the middle of last year.
But what this latest display of the Spaniard’s vulnerability illustrates is an existing pattern. Nadal has been punishing his body for years, proving himself as one of the most relentless competitors—and practice partners—in the sport’s history, consistently attaining a level of stamina and endurance that few thought possible on the tennis court.
Clearly the same determination and strength will be applied to his recovery. It now appears that he will now take at least one month off to recover from this latest strain.
What remains to be seen, however, is how these persistent niggles will affect his Grand Slam chances and, most importantly, his tennis career.
[Published on Bleacher Report; 28th January 2010]