Rafael Nadal's Relentless Style of Play May Be His Undoing

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009

MASON, Ohio

Among the countless boys who dreamed of becoming Spain's next tennis champion, a preternatural ferocity set Rafael Nadal apart.

The way he attacked every ball and played each point as if it were his last -- even at age 14, whether in practice or competition -- was so striking that it worried Jose Higueras.

Sooner or later, the former Spanish great remembers thinking, this promising youngster's passion for tennis would take a toll on his body. And it was simply a matter of time, he feared, before the boy would be forced to take a long break.

"Everybody told [me] this in the past: 'This guy only can play two years like this,' " Nadal said this month, during a break in preparations for his second tournament after the recent injury-induced hiatus that had been predicted. "And then, it's five now. Five years I am there [in the top ranks]. I am there. Still there, no?

"You never know when you finish your career. But I [am] 23, and I hope to be here a few more years."

Forced to the sidelines by tendinitis in both knees, Nadal disappeared from the tennis landscape for two months this summer. The layoff, which came on the heels of his stunning fourth-round loss at the French Open on May 31 and lasted until early August, robbed men's tennis of its most charismatic figure, stalled its most compelling rivalry and cost Nadal dearly.

He was unable to defend the Wimbledon crown that he wrested from Roger Federer in a 2008 final that was considered the greatest ever played. So he watched from his home on the island of Majorca as the peerless Swiss reclaimed the title and, with it, the No. 1 world ranking. In the weeks that followed, Nadal slipped to No. 3, his lowest ranking since 2005.

So here in suburban Cincinnati, at the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters, Nadal took measured steps back to form in hopes of being as fit as possible for his seventh assault on the U.S. Open, the one major title to elude him.

But the challenge that confronts Nadal on the eve of this year's tournament, which gets underway Monday in New York, is more deep-seated than the tricky first-round opponent he has drawn or even the lingering questions about his knees.

It goes to the essence of his game -- and how many more years he can mount a credible challenge given the painful ailment he's grappling with at a relatively tender age.

Nadal's relentless, physical style of play is what has made him exceptional. Yet it has also exacted a price, with different forms of tendinitis forcing him to cut short his 2008 season and halt his 2009 campaign at its most critical juncture.


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