• What the Deuce

Nadal's knees leave nagging doubt

Jo Carter April 3, 2012
Rafael Nadal remained upbeat about his knee problems. But just how bad is the injury? © Getty Images
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When Rafael Nadal pulled out of the Sony Ericsson Open last week, the Spaniard apologised to every man and his dog.

"I am very sorry for the fans. I'm very sorry for the tournament. I'm very sorry for everybody who were ready to watch the match on the television, for television, for everybody," he said.

But the world No. 2 refused to feel sorry for himself: "Today is bad news, but that's the sport," he said. "We cannot expect playing as much as we play, be perfect every day of our life. Today is my turn."

Nadal remained upbeat on what appeared to be a reccurrence of the tendinitis that ruined his 2009 season. But despite his optimism, it must be a cause for concern for Team Nadal. Such is the intensity of his game that he will never be free from the threat of such an injury, but he has learnt to manage the problem that denied him the chance to defend his title at Wimbledon in 2009.

"The tendons are much better today than three years ago," Nadal said. "The treatments worked fantastic. I am more healthy with both tendons than now. For the last couple of years, 2010, 2011, I was able to compete with perfect conditions for almost all the year."

"I cannot go on court and lie to everybody."

Rather than bemoan his bad luck, Nadal's reason for pulling out was rather curious. "I am not ready to compete," he said. "I cannot go on court and lie to everybody."

Tennis may be a sport where players still apologise for a lucky net cord, but it is ultimately one player trying to outfox the other. While outright cheating is frowned upon, mind games and trying to gain the psychological edge is part and parcel of the sport.

So what did Nadal mean by his comment? That by pretending to be fit when he was carrying an injury would be dishonest? Or that by not being able to give 100% he would be cheating his fans?

Unlike some of his rivals, who will only reveal problems after they have been knocked out of a tournament, Nadal is usually brutally honest about his injuries. But his withdrawal in Miami leaves a number of questions unanswered.

It remains to be seen quite how serious this latest setback is - it was obviously serious enough that he was not willing to take a risk, but the Spaniard seemed upbeat in his prognosis, claiming his tendons were generally in good health.

Rafael Nadal stretches for a volley © Getty Images
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If there is one thing we have learnt about Nadal over the years is that he is a fighter. We have seen him play through the pain - despite a catalogue of injuries, the last time Nadal forfeited a match was back in 2004, when he handed Georgia's Irakli Labadze the walkover in the Estoril quarter-finals.

The last time he retired from a match was against Murray in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open two years ago, with the same knee troubles that have sidelined him once again.

How much of his decision was a precautionary one? With the clay-court season just around the corner, surely part of Nadal's withdrawal was influenced by wanting to be fit in time for the Monte Carlo Masters which kicks off in a fortnight.

For a player who has learnt to manage his injury problems, and with 4700 points to defend on what is undoubtedly his best surface, the King of Clay must have taken that into account, right?

"I am not thinking, 'I am not going on court today not because I have the clay-court season.' I am not going on court today because I cannot go on court today," Nadal said. "Nothing about clay-court season. Clay-court season is there in two weeks, but this tournament is very important for me, and I feel very sad to have to go out before a beautiful match for me, semifinals against Andy."

While there is little doubt that Nadal's troublesome knees are giving him grief, to say that the decision to pull out of Miami was without any thought of the impending clay season is highly unlikely.

For a player who felt it would be a deception to play at something below full fitness, to claim there was no consideration of the weeks ahead, it seems like Rafa is trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Jo Carter is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk