Rafa’s Knees

The Rochus brothers aren’t ready to give up their tennis careers just yet but some changes might be in order for Rafael Nadal

I see that Benjamin Becker has made his way back into the top 100 by winning three challengers and he’s still moving up in Halle this week. He plays Olivier Rochus in the quarterfinals tomorrow. Let’s call that the “comeback player stakes” match.

Becker started his trip up the rankings by sending Andre Agassi into retirement at the 2006 U.S. Open and reaching the fourth round. He stayed in the top 100 for the next year then slowly dropped down the rankings and started this year at number 135. He’s a small guy – 5ft 10in (177cm) – with a big serve and an average ground game and I wondered if he’d figure out how to add enough groundies to his game to take advantage of his serve.

Rochus is even smaller at 5ft 6in (167 cm) and he was in the top 20 as recently as 2006. But last year he fell out of the top 100 and now finds himself at 136. Maybe Rochus is inspired – or even pissed off – that his older and equally small-statured brother Christophe has crawled all the way up to number 61 after almost falling out of the top 200 last year.

Getting to the top can be a lot easier than crawling back up there after falling way down. What keeps you going if you’ve been a top player and you lose it? By top I don’t necessarily mean the top ten. I mean a solid ranking and a yearly income in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for running around the world playing tennis. In Becker’s case he’s only been on the tour four years so he’s still learning, but Olivier Rochus hasn’t sniffed a ranking this low in nine years and that was when he was on his way up.

Maybe the Rochus brothers feed off brotherly jealousy, maybe they feed off brotherly support, or maybe they’re freaked out by the thought of dropping off the tour and having to find a day job like people I know who’ve extended their college careers way beyond any educational interest because the last thing they want to do is join the real world.

Olivier and Christophe are players near the end of their careers who are hanging on as long as they can and bless them for that, but what about players in their prime with serious and recurring injury problems. When should they hang it up? How long should they hang around?

I’ve lost count of Tommy Haas surgeries at this point and I wonder how long into his retirement it’ll take for arthritis to start settling into his troublesome right shoulder. Haas is near the end of his career too but what about Rafael Nadal?

Rafa hasn’t looked right since he pulled out a titanic semifinal over Novak Djokovic in Madrid. He lost the final to Roger Federer and then we realized how bad things were when he lost to Robin Soderling in the fourth round at the French Open. The problem is tendinitis in both knees, which is a recurring problem, and though Andy Roddick had this to say about Rafa’s situation this week, “I’ve had tendinitis for years and years. It’s a fancy term for overuse. It’s uncomfortable and painful but it’s not something that’s career-threatening if you play on it,” I don’t believe it.

I’ve no doubt Roddick has tendinitis and has had it for years but I haven’t seen it affect his movement. He’s been in the year-end top ten for the past seven years and this year, in fact, his movement has improved. Rafa’s movement, meanwhile, is clearly hampered.

Rafa is a young guy, he just turned 23, and he’s got chronic problems already. What does he do, skip the hard court season – the surface that he blames for most of his problems? Play selected events? Play only one of the two hard court Masters events leading up to the U.S. Open? Not bloody likely. Rafa has a good shot at a career slam too Mr. Roger and he’s not going to pass that up.

In the past Rafa has played until he dropped then skipped however many events he needed to recuperate. Not an intelligent approach. Last year he missed the year-end finals because he wore down at the end of the season. Two changes are obvious and minimal: cut down the playing calendar and not just on hard court – skip Barcelona for heaven’s sake, and stop playing when the pain starts, Rafa, not when it becomes disabling.

The biggest problem for Rafa is predicting the future. Let’s say he retires in a few years because his knees give out. Does he play sporadically to play longer or play like hell until that day comes? And how does that affect his quality of life when he retires? Here in the U.S. we have plenty of ex-athletes who can barely walk up the stairs when they get into their later years. How many slams are worth that?

Most athletes would say I’ll take the slams but that’s their younger self talking. My older self does exercises seven days a week to manage the remnants of a severe back injury and hold tendinitis and cracking joints at bay, and I’m hugely distressed when a new snap crackle and pop turns up in my spine or I have to load another pillow under my knees to get through the night pain free.

Whatever happens, Rafa has reached a point where slam appearances are affected. Expect other parts of his career to be affected too.