Following the French Open last year, the tennis world was shocked to hear that Rafael Nadal would be away from competitive tennis for a period of over two months. A period that would see him unable to defend his hard-earned Wimbledon title and eventually losing his No. 1 ranking, which he had so deservedly attained.

The culprit?

Knee tendinitis.

When he finally made the first of his long awaited returns at the 2009 Roger's Cup, it was clear that he was not the same player the tour had come to fear. Sure, he lacked some confidence, but more importantly he wasn't moving like his old self and it seemed he was missing his patented never-say-die attitude.

Somewhat surprisingly, he refused to let the lack of success and his apparently still bothersome knees deter him from finishing the remainder of the season.

Come this year's Australian Open, all eyes were on the Spaniard. After the much deserved break he was back under the microscope. Every round he advanced seemed to solidify his healthy return to the game.

Then, in the quarterfinals, disaster struck. After playing two extremely high level, physical sets against Andy Murray, Nadal made the difficult decision to retire due to pain in his knees. Yet another title forced out of his grips by the chronic sports injury.

Despite the withdrawal, Nadal seemed more optimistic than after his first long-term absence. He assured the tennis world that he would be back in time for the year’s first Masters 1000 title in Indian Well, and he did not disappoint. He played a very high level tournament, losing to eventual champion Ivan Ljubicic, who in total would be responsible for the exits of three top-10 seeds.

More importantly, he showed no signs of discomfort throughout any of his matches while maintaining the sort of level of tennis that saw him challenge for the No. 1 ranking over a year ago.

The same could be said for Masters 1000 Miami. By the fourth round Nadal was the last remaining top-four seed in the tournament, and in the quarters he continued his rampage by dismissing a very in-form Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He then went on to face Andy Roddick in the semis.

In their last three meetings, all on different surfaces, Nadal had not given up a single set against the American, and after the first set it seemed the trend would continue. Roddick, however, appeared to change his game plan in the second as he began to hit bigger and take more risk. The risks paid off big time, and Roddick eventually went on to win the match, seemingly surprising Nadal with his sudden offensive play.

It was generally accepted that Roddick simply played too well and Nadal could not have done much more at that point. While Roddick did play very well beginning in the second set, Nadal did not seem quite himself in the latter stages of the match. On a couple occasions he simply gave up on shots that one would expect him to run down.

He also sprayed a few forehands, making it look like he was rushing, desperate to keep the points short. This was not the new, more selective and aggressive Nadal that we had seen throughout the rest of the tournament; this was a Nadal who had something else on his mind.

Many who watched his match against Roddick may not have noticed odd behaviour from Nadal during a change-over midway through the third set.

For those interested, here it is.

While sitting down, a very frustrated Nadal could be seen yelling at his corner and pounding angrily on his left knee.

Never had he shown this level of frustration over a physical ailment in the past. On previous occasions, Nadal would opt for injury time outs, requesting the trainer maintaining a cool, calm demeanour. This time it looked as if his worst fear, something he thought he had seen the last of, was showing its ugly face once again.

So could it be that the sceptics were right all along? Has Nadal indeed burnt out?

For the sake of the sport, let's hope not.

steve Reply:

Nonsense, utter nonsense.

Here’s Federer after various big losses:

AO ’05, SF, l. to Safin:

“He was the better player in the end, you know, because we don’t have ties or draws in tennis. So the winner is the better man, and that’s him.”

FO ’08, F, l. to Nadal:

“Rafa played well today, made it hard for me, and, yeah, was better.”

W ’08, F, l. to Nadal:

“Rafa served well and played well and deserved to win in the end.”

USO ’09, F, l. to Del Potro:

“I thought Juan Martin played great. I thought he hung in there and gave himself chances, and in the end was the better man.”

This sound like a poor sportsman to you?

Nadal’s modesty is really just a way of taking the pressure off himself. He wants the privileges and praise that go with success, but he doesn’t want the burdens and responsibilities that necessarily come with it–pressure to perform, media scrutiny, other players wanting to kick your ass, etc.

I guarantee you he will claim that he is not the favorite at AO, despite having won 3 straight majors. That is nonsensical–how can you not be the favorite if you’ve won all four majors, including the AO, and 3 consecutive, and are number 1 by a large margin?

Most other great champions–Federer, Sampras, Serena Williams–have willingly accepted the burdens that come with being number 1, as the price they must pay for their exalted position. Nadal doesn’t think he has to pay any price whatsoever, but he’s happy to take the sweet and leave the sour for others.

The same thing goes with his membership on the Players’ Council. Federer uses his position on the council to advance the good of the sport as a whole. He understands that he has an obligation to the players who voted for him to represent their interests fairly and to eschew his own narrow self-interest in favor of the good of the tennis community. Although he has stated that of course he’d personally like more grass-court events, he has always said that that wouldn’t be fair to everyone to do that.

Nadal also has a position on the Player’s Council, but he uses it in a completely self-aggrandizing way. He pushes for more clay-court events and fewer hard-court events, which of course means more opportunities for him to win titles and ranking points.

He already wins at least two clay Masters titles and one clay Grand Slam pretty much every year, and it’s still not enough for him.

It’s an abuse of trust, because he’s not representing the interests of the players who voted him into his powerful position, but instead using it for his own personal benefit and putting himself and his own needs above the community.

This is why I find his sanctimonious moralizing (“people who write lies about people are bad people”) so totally empty. His idea of what’s fair and moral is identical with what’s good for him personally. It’s a very childish perspective.

Nadal’s behavior may seem like modesty, but it is really an act of supreme arrogance toward the tennis community–he is saying that despite the great debt he owes that community, and the fact that it has accorded him its highest honors, he is above its rules and doesn’t have any obligations toward it.

Either he is a citizen of that community or he is not–if he is, then he has to play by its rules. If not, then he has to accept being an outsider and forgo the benefits of citizenship. And so far he has had it both ways–enjoying the privileges of the community while thumbing his nose at its rules.

It amazes me that he has gone so long without being called on it, but then again this world is full of inattentive and careless people who are slow to see these things and who are easily flattered by ingratiating behavior.

Federer has been recognized with the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award five times. This award is voted for by the players themselves. A majority of the players apparently think he’s a great sportsman; do you know something they don’t?

Many young players have spoken warmly of how Federer has taken the time to talk to them and help them in various ways; Sam Querrey mentioned how he got a text from Federer wishing him well after his near-career-ending accident, John Isner remarked that Federer congratulated him on his first title win, and also sat down with him for a conversation about how to deal with recovering from mono.

He doesn’t have to do any of this; he’s a busy man with many commitments. Just being at the top of tennis would be enough of a burden for most people; to say nothing of running his own charitable foundation and his multitude of business obligations while also raising a family. Yet he finds the time to take an interest in all aspects of the game, and players at all levels, from the bottom to the top.

And you dismiss Federer because a few tears shed. What a shallow and superficial way to judge such a great man!