Much has been written lately about what Federer should do next. The Swiss star, having recently won his 20th Slam at the Australian Open may well be looking to once again skip the clay court season. He has played only a handful of events on the red dirt since 2015 and has missed the last two French Opens. But, Federer is in fact the only healthy member of the Big Four, and questions surely have to be asked about what steps his great rivals should take to preserve their own increasingly fragile health.
Murray and Djokovic have both recently resorted surgery, with Murray out until at least the grass court season. The timeline for Djokovic’s return to court is less clear, but it will be a while at least until we can expect to see him on court again. That leaves only Rafael Nadal close to fitness, though he is currently absent with a hip and knee injury that is expected to keep him out until around March. But what then for the Spaniard?
Never mind the Sunshine Double
Nadal has been reasonably successful in Indian Wells and Miami. He has won in the California desert three times, most recently in 2013, and is a four-time Miami finalist. But though he is the reigning US Open champion, one rather feels that the days of Nadal's hard court glories are over. Federer has more than mastered him on the surface, having won their last five matches, including four last year. All came on hard courts.
But more important than his struggles against Federer, is the toll that hard court tennis takes on his body. Whilst for Federer, whose graceful attacking tennis has always more or less spared his body, hard courts are relative risk free, the same cannot be said for Nadal. His grinding physical style exerts tremendous pressure on his body and the unyielding hard courts have inflicted real damage to the Spaniard over the years.
For Nadal at this point, the Sunshine Double is probably a risk he can’t afford to take. If he is healthy, then he can possibly look forward to another clean sweep of the clay court titles. All the more so if Djokovic, the only man ever to truly test him on clay, is still absent or struggling with injury. The big names of our sport look to be reaching a point in their careers where they will have to be extremely selective about when and where they play. Surely, the focus now has to be on titles they can win without risking serious injury.
Obviously it would be impossible for a player of Nadal's stature to skip every hard court event for the rest of his career. Rightly or wrongly, hard court events make up most of the events on Tour, including two of the four Majors and six of the nine Masters tournaments. Nadal will have to continue playing at least some of these tournaments, in part due to the ATP rules about tournament participation.
For Nadal it should be about finding the right balance. Federer's career has lasted as long it has in large part because he has been so careful in deciding his yearly schedule and listening to his body. It’s certainly something his rivals could learn from. Djokovic, for example, when dominating the game was arguably playing too much tennis and its ended up giving him serious injury problems. For Nadal, not playing the Sunshine Double and perhaps only playing in Montreal and New York during the North American hard court swing, could be profitable.
Then later in the season, Nadal could lighten his schedule by not playing either in Shanghai or Paris. That would also likely give him a better chance of being fit enough to play at the O2 for the ATP Finals, an event he has missed a number of times in his career. Nadal's peak may now be behind him, but that does not mean that there isn't still glory to be won for him. But to do it, he has to be healthy.
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