Two weeks have passed since the Australian Open final, but Nadal’s injury is still making headlines. In a way, the 2014 Australian Open was more of Nadal’s back injury than Wawrinka’s maiden Slam. Some headlines even read: Wawrinka defeats an ‘injured’ Nadal. Are we overdoing it?
The debate on Nadal’s back injury has triggered mixed responses from tennis fans. There are sympathisers as well as skeptics.
According to the World No. 1, the Australian Open final was "the worst hour and a half" he ever spent on a tennis court.
While addressing Spanish radio network COPE, he said: "I knew I had no chance of winning, but I had no intention of retiring. It was the worst hour and a half that I have spent on a tennis court."
No wonder that Nadal is still haunted by the Melbourne nightmare. No loss ever gets easier. But calling that his ‘worst ever’ experience of his 13-year professional career sounds nothing short of an excuse.
During the Aussie Open post match press conference, he said: “It wasn't easy to be in that situation. It hasn't been easy for me. I just tried to play a good match, to fight until the end, in order to respect the public, for my opponent and for myself. “
“Now it's not the time to talk about my injury. Today is Stan's day and we all have to congratulate him,” he then added.
The 27-year-old was touted the favourite to win the title at Melbourne. He had surrendered only a set on his road to the finals, despite playing with a blistered palm and taped fingers. Nadal’s stigmata-esque wound became one of the most talked about injuries of the year. It was of no surprise that he played amazingly well despite that; we all know that the gritty Spaniard’s resolution knows no limits.
Nadal is notorious for his stalling tactics, however great a player he is. When the 13-time Grand Slam winner encountered the zero Grand Slam guy, the latter wasn’t expected to pose much threat. Nadal looked perfectly fine in the first set which he lost to Wawrinka 6-3, at least not until after being broken in the second set by his rival. Nadal then took a medical timeout, before Wawrinka’s serve. A visibly agitated Wawrinka who clinched the second set with ease against a seemingly ‘weaker’ Nadal, soon lost his momentum and gave away the third set to Nadal.
Post match, Nadal told reporters that he felt discomfort in his back during the warmup. But during the first set, he showed no such sign of pain.
Was Nadal really in pain or was he just being a cry baby? Was it actually part of his gamesmanship? These questions have no obvious answers, and we can do nothing but speculate. However, there are quite a few instances from his past that feed our doubt.
Hamburg Masters Final 2008
Nadal won 7-5, 6-7 (3), 6-3.
Federer was leading 5-2 in the first set when Nadal calls for a timeout. After taking a full five minute break, Nadal thrashes Federer by winning the next five games to take the set, and eventually the match.
Wimbledon 2010 Third Round: Nadal vs. Petzschener
Nadal won 6-4 4-6 6-7 (5) 6-2 6-3.
German player Philipp Petzschener was leading two sets to one and was up 2-1 in the fourth when Nadal called for a trainer before Petzschner’s serve. Earlier while trailing 5-4 in the third, the Spaniard had called the trainer for the first time to receive treatment for his elbow injury. But this time, it was for his right knee. After the time-out, Nadal won the next straight five points to clinch the set 6-2.
In the crucial fifth set, the umpire gave Nadal an official warning for receiving coaching from his uncle Toni, much to his ire.
A doubtful Petzschner later said: "I thought he was moving great. I could only say that if I was injured like this once, I would be happy. But I don't know, maybe he had something. Maybe it was just a clever part to take a timeout there. I don't know.”
Wimbledon 2011 Round Four: Nadal vs. Del Potro
Nadal won 7-6, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4.
Nadal took a 9 minute injury time out for foot pain before the first set tie break against Juan Martin del Potro.
The trainer told Nadal that it could be a problem with the bone before he got his heel retaped. Del Potro then looked pretty agitated, perturbed enough to lose his focus and give away the set to his injured opponent. Incidentally, Nadal played amazingly well for a player with a ‘bone injury’; he had little problem in returning Del Potro’s shots and win in four sets.
According to the rule, in a Grand Slam event, a player is allowed only 20 seconds between the points before he could serve; the ATP has a 25 second rule. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are known for violating these rules. When Nadal got penalised for the same at the Australian Open Round 4 match against Kei Nishikori, his coach and uncle Toni Nadal was quick to defend his boy. He opined that it would have been better if the umpires were selected from a group of professional players who know how to deal with such tensed situations. Toni didn’t just stop there, but came up with a strange observation that slowing down the rhythm of the match would be better for the spectators.
What Toni is missing here is the fact that such undue delays are unfair to the opponent. It sometimes halts the momentum of a player who has the lead. When players like Federer complain about the same, they have a point.
Whether or not Nadal had exaggerated his injury we don’t know for sure, but, there are allegations against the numero uno of tennis for such delaying tactics at crucial moments. Like his blistered palm, the back problem could also have been real, but lamenting over that loss again and again make little sense. He should stop crying over spilt milk.
The fact that a top seed and World No: 1 player has lost to a No: 8 seed who had never won a set against the former during their previous 12 encounters doesn’t mean that Wawrinka was lucky enough to have an ‘injured’ Nadal as opponent. At the end of the day, it’s the better player who wins. If Nadal really meant those words when he said it’s about Stan’s win, but not his own injury, he should stop justifying his loss. Sometimes, in tennis, even the greats do stumble.