NEW YORK — Some of the biggest names in the history of men’s tennis are seriously concerned about the long-term health of Rafael Nadal.
Nadal hasn’t played since Wimbledon because of recurring knee problems and is not competing this week in the ATP World Tour Finals in London. His uncle, Toni, has said Nadal will return for an exhibition Dec. 28 in Abu Dhabi.
“I think be concerned,” 14-time Grand Slam singles champion Pete Sampras said at the NASDAQ Indexes Cup at Madison Square Garden.
“I really think he’s given himself a legitimate time to really let this thing heal. And if he’s still after all this still having problems with it six months later, or a year later, I don’t know what his next step would be but I think he’s played on it a little bit too long and injured, so I think now he’s giving himself a mental break, as much as physical.”
Because Nadal, an 11-time Major winner, puts such a strain on his body, specifically his knees, with his aggressive baseline style of play, there have always been questions about how long he could last.
“Rafa, the jury’s out,” eight-time Grand Slam champion Andre Agassi said. “Whenever you’re talking about a knee and you’re talking about somebody that moves that aggressively on the court, it’s a big component to his game. So hopefully he’ll recover fully and if he does he’s still right there.”
“Rafa’s health is the biggest question in the men’s game right now,” said U.S. Davis Cup captain Jim Courier, a four-time Major winner. “I think all of us who love tennis should be concerned because any time a player of that magnitude misses half of the season it’s concerning.”
John McEnroe said a prolonged absence by Nadal could open the door for someone else — perhaps a Juan Martin del Potro, a Tomas Berdych or a Jo-Wilfried Tsonga — to crack the “Big Four” of Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
“If Rafa’s out for even longer, things happen,” said McEnroe, a winner of seven Major singles titles, including four U.S. Opens. “That’s what happens with sports.”
Federer, Nadal’s major rival, has never missed significant time with injury but said this week in London that Nadal’s absence was noteworthy.
“It’s obviously never the same when Rafa doesn’t enter a tournament, but from time to time injuries just do happen, and we all wish him the best so he can return next year,” said the 31-year-old Federer, the all-time men’s leader with 17 Major titles.
Federer, currently ranked No. 2 in the world behind Djokovic, won his 17th major at Wimbledon this summer, and the legends of the game believe he can win at least one more Major title in his career, with Wimbledon the most likely tournament.
“I think he’s the greatest player that ever lived, so it wouldn’t shock me if he pulled the rabbit out of the hat and kept doing it,” McEnroe said. “He loves playing and he keeps himself fit and he takes great care of himself.
“His attitude is so great in general. He can shrug off tough losses better than I’ve ever seen anyone do it. And obviously he wins an incredible amount. So I thought he’d win another major before this year and I thought Wimbledon was his best chance and will continue to be his best chance because physically it takes less of a toll and mentally he can be so strong. But to keep doing it, it doesn’t get easier. It gets more and more difficult. It wouldn’t shock me if he won one more, but to win one a year [until he's 35], that’s another story.”
“I just think that it will be harder for him to be as consistent as he gets to 34, 35,” he said. “And I’m just basing that on historical precedent. He could break through all boundaries because he’s so incredibly gifted and effortless, which is why I think he’ll still be a factor at that age.”
Agassi, who, at 35, lost to Federer in the 2005 U.S. Open final, said he had given up trying to predict what Federer can or cannot do.
“I’m out of the business of predicting Federer anymore because he absolutely continues to impress me with what he’s doing at this stage,” Agassi said. ”He hasn’t suggested that anything’s going to slow him down.”
RAFTER WINS NASDAQ CUP
Pat Rafter who claimed his second PowerShares Series title in four days by defeating fan favorite John McEnroe, 8-3 in the championship match of the NASDAQ Indexes Cup Monday night at Madison Square Garden. The first-ever visit for the PowerShares Series to MSG marked Rafter’s second straight victory following his triumph Friday night in Philadelphia.
“It’s just a thrill for me to be back out here competing in front of the fans again,” said the two-time US Open Champion Rafter. “I had never played in this building, so what an added thrill, and a dream come true for me. I can’t thank the fans enough for coming out tonight to watch us play, in light of what this part of the country has been through lately. I hope we were able to provide some good entertainment.”
With the win, Rafter moves into a tie for third in the 2012 PowerShares Series rankings with Jim Courier. This was the sixth event of the 2012 tour, the halfway point of the season. With his semifinal victory, McEnroe gained 200 points and still sits atop the 2012 rankings with a 100-point lead on Pete Sampras.
In the evening’s first semifinal, Rafter used his full-court attack and aggressive returns to thwart Sampras’ legendary serve, 6-3. Sampras – who was battling a calf strain he suffered in practice last week that caused him to miss the Friday’s Champions Shootout in Philadelphia – put forth a valiant effort, but didn’t have enough in the tank to overcome Rafter’s athletic, all-around game.
In the second semifinal, McEnroe jumped out to a quick 4-0 advantage over Andre Agassi, who was playing in his first PowerShares Series event of the season. Agassi would soon shake off the rust and start striking the ball with authority, clawing his way back into the match by breaking McEnroe’s serve twice. But at 5-4, the native New Yorker thrilled his hometown crowd by breaking Agassi one last time to close it out 6-4.