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Rafael Nadal’s withdrawal from the year’s first Slam has spawned conspiracy theories ranging from drug bans to poor fitness. What is the real reason that is keeping the Spaniard off the courts?
It's a story of a thousand theories. And one pull-out. Spanish superstar Rafael Nadal's withdrawal from the season-opener in Qatar and the Australian Open in Melbourne came as a deadly new year greeting to the tennis world. Rumours of every hue - from medical negligence to a drugs ban to the fear of failure to the deteriorating condition of Rafa's knees, raising questions of whether the 26-year-old would ever hit a tennis ball again - went viral on the net. Like Mohammed Ali might have said, 'It wasn't pretty'.
The 11-time Grand Slam champion blamed his no-show in Doha and the Australian Open on a stomach bug. While the virus may have given the former world No. 1 ground to delay his comeback until late February in Acapulco, Mexico, it isn't the sole reason for his pullout. In the only official communication from the Nadal camp, following the December announcement, a release stated the stomach virus had deprived the former world No. 1 of valuable practice time which played 'a large part' in his decision to withdraw from the tournaments. The release then goes on to quote Nadal as saying, "My (left) knee is much better. " That, however, doesn't translate to 100 per cent recovery and perhaps therein lies the reason behind Nadal's decision to delay his comeback.
In the last two months there have been quite a few posts of Nadal practising on the internet - rallying and serving. Around the second week of December he even started giving interviews, commenting on his longawaited return. So much so that a full Spanish and world media was in attendance at the Qatar Open event in Doha this week, waiting to cover Rafa's return. Clearly, the news of the withdrawal came from left field.
Spanish journalist Neus Yerro, who has covered Nadal for more than a decade now, says that there was reason to believe that the Mallorcan would be back at his best soon. "To come back on hard courts, in this brutal heat, so close to a Grand Slam tournament which is to be played on hard courts would have been hard on his knees. I think he isn't 100 per cent ready for that yet. Too much to lose and nothing to gain, " Yerro says. "At around this time, he expected to be at a certain place in his rehab and recovery process, the stomach virus perhaps set him back. I don't think he was willing to go out test himself against a top-class field being less than 100 per cent. At this stage in his career, he isn't playing to prove anything to anybody. He has to do what is right by his body. "
The generously gifted Parisian 26-year-old Gael Monfils, who was hampered by a knee injury last season, playing only eight competitive matches in the last seven months, feels there was just no point in coming back from injury if one didn't feel 100 per cent. Monfils says, "When you are injured you are not a tennis player anymore. You are just someone trying to get healthy real quick. Then when you chose to come back, it's because you are 100 per cent. I'm here because I feel 100 per cent, I'm ready to give off my best and take on the challenges that I need to face to get back to playing at the highest level. "
Interestingly, two days ago, a news report from Spain stated that Nadal had returned to the practice court. Not the hard courts he was seen on earlier, but his beloved red clay.
The questions that hovered over Nadal when he was forced to break from the Tour last summer grew in decibel levels when he delayed his comeback to December. So much so that Nadal's media manager Benito Barbadillo took on questions from fans in a live chat with readers, where he said the Spanish superstar was tested up to even four times a week in the last six months. For the rest, Nadal has trained relentlessly - swimming and diving besides several hours in the gym - gearing up to answer that all-important question of whether he'll ever be No. 1 again.
World No. 5 David Ferrer, who is set to overtake his countryman in the ATP rankings in the next couple of weeks, says, "I believe he will be back and playing at his best soon. He has the ability to reclaim the No. 1 ranking, but it is going to take time. It's not going to happen in a week or two after his return. Nadal is a unique player. He's probably not as gifted as Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic, but he has got great mental strength. He is very competitive. "
The reason for the intensity of the uproar was because no one saw the delay in his return coming. That's the thing about Nadal though. Hardly anyone outside his entourage knew he was playing Wimbledon 2012 injured. He had just won his record seventh French Open crown and then just like that he was bounced out of the second round of The Championships by a little-known Czech Lukas Rosol, ranked 100 in the world. Rafa walked off the court that day, not to return to the Tour for another eight months. To Rosol, however, all was well on the other side of the net that evening. What the Czech knew was all that he was allowed to see.
"I didn't see anything, " a surprised Rosol said in Doha, six months on. "I mean, he was running fast and everything. You know, he was trying his best that day, chasing balls. Sometimes, you know, my game is like this. If I don't give him chances, it's difficult to play against me. But on that day, I didn't notice anything. "
Nadal's injury breaks have often come without word or warning. Similarly, his returns have been sans expected fanfare. Whenever it is that he chooses to come back to the Tour, Nadal will expect to fit into the mix perfectly, take his place at the top of the game sooner than later. To be sure, he isn't coming back to play chess. He'll do what he does best - chasing the ball all over the rectangle. When the Spaniard initially announced January as a possible date for his return to the Tour, he fully expected to be ready to compete at his best on a hard court. No less. There were no doubts in his mind. No excuses. He works very hard, mentally and physically to perform at that optimum level. However, the recovery was slower than expected this time. Then came the stomach bug that took a whole step off his build-up and suddenly he wasn't where he wanted to be. If it wasn't how he planned it, he wasn't going to show up and that just because he said he would.
As Rafa might say, "It's a true. "
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