The curtain has fallen on another turbulent season for the Spanish legend. It may come as no surprise that Nadal’s 2016 campaign fell victim to his biggest rival over the last eight years — injury. Recurring injuries have manifested themselves as a cruel, fickle and ever-present obstacle in Rafa’s bid to reach the pinnacle of the sport. Of course, his place in the annals of tennis history is well and truly secured but the buckling knees, crippled back and now ailing wrist which have all over the years crumbled beneath the intense pressure Nadal puts himself under, have many questioning: what more could he have achieved were he free of these ailments? Perhaps a more astute question given the current circumstances is, what next?


Isolating the problem

The world number five will miss the rest of the season, including the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals for a third time. With no competitive tennis on the horizon until Abu Dhabi at the start of next year, Rafa has plenty of time to assess the situation in advance of 2017. No doubt he will dedicate much of his newfound availability to the pursuit of regaining the full potential of his famed lefty forehand. The Manacor native has stated in various interviews that he believes it is his lack of ability to ‘create pain’ for his opponents with this shot that has been the main reason for his declining standard over the last two years.

Some experts have pointed to Uncle Tony as the reason for the gradual slip. More specifically, they have posited that Nadal’s refusal to part with his lifelong coach has led to a predictability in his game. Both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have changed coaches many times over the years to add new weaponry to their respective tennis arsenals, why should Rafa not do the same? The answer is simple: Rafael Nadal truly believes he is the sole author of his own demise. He places the blame for this late downfall career squarely on his own shoulders. This means only he can pull himself out of his current predicament. To his credit, the Spaniard was playing with a renewed vigour and confidence following his shocking first round exit at the Australian Open and subsequent poor showing on the clay of South America. A 13-match winning streak on his preferred European clay that included titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona had many heralding the return of the King of Clay; however, it was not to be. Once again Nadal’s old foe, a foe that has caused him more heartache and disappointment than all his rivals combined, injury, intervened. Perhaps it is time for the 30-year-old to treat this rival with the same respect he shows those that stand across the net.

What approach to take

Skipping the home stretch of 2016 exhibited some shrewd thinking from the Nadal camp. Traditionally not his most successful part of the season, Rafa will not be missing anything other than match practice. It would be even more prudent to carry over this approach into next year: play a warm up hard-court event then the Australian Open, skip the South-American clay and go straight to Indian Wells before missing Miami to preserve enough energy to roll through the European clay court stretch, culminating with the French Open. Missing Wimbledon might also be wise but good luck telling any professional tennis player to do so. Perhaps Toni should consider scheduling his nephew for the entire American hard court swing including the U.S. Open, but have him skip the end of the season again as he is doing this year — with the exception of the World Tour Finals should Rafa qualify.

Playing a more streamlined schedule could be the key to keeping the injuries at bay. It may curtail his chances of ever reclaiming the number one spot but at thirty years of age playing at a sufficiently high level continuously, particularly with Nadal’s physical style, was always going to be a daunting challenge. Playing the next few seasons with the aim of maximizing form and fitness for the French Open could lead to more titles in Paris — after all, Roland Garros is Rafa’s house, so anything is possible. A player who has won the same title nine times should never be counted out of taking their tally into double digits.

Provided his recovery proceeds smoothly and he can reclaim the form he displayed earlier this year, the Nadal will have every chance for a successful 2017. In a press conference following his loss at the Shanghai Masters earlier this month the former world number one said: ‘I have two and half months to get where I need to be and I’m going to do it’. Coming back from injury and returning to top form is a feat rarely witnessed by the tennis world. To have achieved this twice already in his career is astounding and the Spaniard is clearly as vehement as ever in his belief that he can do it again. As long as Nadal is confident of his return, everyone else should be too.

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