Death. Taxes. Rafael Nadal being injured in October. This is the way the tennis world works.
It’s not fun. It’s not happy. It’s not what anyone wants… but it is reality, and has been for some time. That reality continued on Wednesday, as Nadal pulled out of the Paris (Bercy) Masters with abdominal pain. This means Novak Djokovic will become World No. 1 next Monday. Nadal’s withdrawal also throws his ATP Finals campaign into question.
Very simply: Should Rafa play London?
Let’s dive into that conversation.
I won’t spend too much time focusing on that piece, but I will simply make the connection that for all the times Nadal has been injured in autumn, he has suffered injuries a similar number of times in Australia. What has hampered Rafa in October and/or November has often bled into January.
Last year, Nadal played the Bercy when — let’s be honest — he didn’t absolutely have to in order to secure the year-end World No. 1 ranking. He played Beijing before Shanghai, where he had his knee taped in the final against Roger Federer.
Speaking of Federer: If Rafa had not played Bercy, the Swiss would have needed to win all five matches at the ATP Finals to have any chance of passing Nadal, who — without playing Bercy — might have been in better physical shape for London. As it was, Nadal did lock up the year-end No. 1 with a win in the round of 32 over Hyeon Chung in Bercy. He then defeated Pablo Cuevas in the round of 16 and withdrew from the tournament before the quarterfinals. He went to London to try his best at the ATP Finals, but he was clearly physically hampered in a loss to David Goffin. He withdrew after that first match.
I totally understand Rafa’s thought process: Secure No. 1 as soon as possible in order to not worry about it in London. To that extent, Rafa’s scheduling decisions were successful. Yet, the ultimate goal of scheduling is to achieve immediate results and aspirations while not sacrificing the future. It was terribly unfortunate that Nadal got injured at the Australian Open against Marin Cilic, but if he had not played Beijing or Bercy, would he have suffered yet another cruel instance of his Australian Open curse?
There are no guarantees, but it’s a question which can’t be easily brushed away.
Let’s look at Rafa’s late-2017 schedule map this way: He played and won Beijing. That was a significant point pickup. He then went to Shanghai and banked 600 more points with his run to the final, which ended with the Spaniard moving well below 100-percent capacity against Federer. The old adage — in gambling and life — is to “quit while you’re ahead.”
Nadal had already gained leverage over Federer in the race for year-end No. 1. He didn’t have the ranking locked up when he left Shanghai, but he was still very much in the driver’s seat. Beijing was an extra investment of time and effort on hardcourts, following a Laver Cup in which Nadal played four matches. This was the time to cash in his winnings at the poker table and sit out Bercy, being absolutely sure he was fresh for London, where a few match victories would have shut down any Federer attempt to pass him.
Instead, Nadal went for the instant gratification, which in a sense is antithetical to his love of suffering.
Nadal won the short-term battle for year-end No. 1, but he lost the war in Australia while Federer won it.
This larger background points to the very simple conclusion and thesis of this column: Nadal needs to follow three simple words of advice after his withdrawal from Bercy: Shut. It. Down.
Australia means more than the ATP Finals, for one thing.
Second: The ATP Finals (which Nadal has never won) are worth pursuing, but only if there is complete assurance that health won’t be risked or impaired. Nadal being uncertain if he can give 100-percent effort should be automatic cause to not compete in a tournament.
Third: Who thinks Nadal can come anywhere close to Novak Djokovic right now if he is hampered?
Fourth: Did I say that Australia is more important? Rafa needs to give himself the best possible chance to play at full strength in Melbourne. That is the only hardcourt event from now until the start of the 2019 clay season which matters for him. If he wins Australia, he will have nothing to prove in Indian Wells and can pull out of Miami to prepare for clay. As he gets older, managing his schedule will continue to matter more.
It is time for Nadal to not go to London in an uncertain state of mind. He did that last year, and paid a significant price for it.
The 2018 season isn’t yet officially over for Rafa, but it ought to be.
Don’t pick up the phone.
Shut. It. Down.