Rafael Nadal announced this morning that he's pulling out of the U.S. Open, which begins in less than two weeks. What for? An "injury." No one knows what. When Nadal pulled out of the Olympics—he hasn't played a match since he was bounced in the second round of Wimbledon—it was a little unclear what the problem was. Tendinitis? Fatigue? Was he hurt in one knee or both knees?
So, a storyline about Nadal's career that's laid dormant for a while will be fully resurrected today. It's nothing you haven't heard before. Unlike Federer, who at 31 has a No. 1 ranking and a recent Wimbledon title, Nadal has always been perceived as something of a ticking time bomb. Whenever he's injured, descriptions of his knees make it sound as if we're talking about early-'70s Joe Namath. He punishes his body so much. The New York Times Magazine was all over this narrative more than three years ago when it asked: "Can Rafael Nadal survive his own grueling style of tennis?" (To this point, that "grueling style" involves "beating everyone." You wonder: Which tennis player who is better than Nadal should Nadal strive to play more like?)
Patrick McEnroe just appeared on SportsCenter and the words "style of play" were thrown around a lot. And here's what you'll be hearing some version of for the rest of the day:
Nadal out of us open. Never good, but we've for years that his body/game simply isn't built for demands of full atp schedule— Jon Wertheim (@jon_wertheim) August 15, 2012
Nadal's inability to play the last few weeks emphasizes how crazy Federer's durability has been his entire career (no retirements).— Douglas Robson (@dougrobson) August 15, 2012
Nadal has 11 Slams.Knees not gettingbetter. Unless he finds miracle cure, wins 14 Slams tops by career end. Great but not Fed— Matt Cronin (@TennisReporters) August 15, 2012
Maybe there's something to it, but the problem with the analysis is that it ignores what happens all the time in sports—sometimes bodies adapt to peculiar, seemingly reckless styles of play. Tim Lincecum's scapula doesn't fly off into the San Francisco Bay; tiny Steve Nash is still going at 148 years old. There are absolutely issues with Nadal's body right now, but the jury is going to be out for a while on the long-term consequences of the 26-year-old's "style of play."