What's up with Rafa?

After three resounding recent defeats, all eyes are on Rafael Nadal – and in particular, on his increasingly troublesome knees and feet. Is serious injury affecting the young Spaniard's game? Paul Newman reports from Melbourne

There were no more than a dozen spectators in Rod Laver Arena at lunchtime here yesterday but nearly all were armed with long-lens cameras, each of them firmly focused on only one side of the practice net as two Spanish left-handers pounded each other with booming ground strokes. Feliciano Lopez, the world No 36, is a fine player, but the photographers knew their editors would have eyes only for his fellow countryman, Rafael Nadal.

The pictures that were flashed around the world later in the day probably focused on the world No 2's brilliant white bandanna or bulging biceps, but a seasoned observer might have noticed something more significant. Both of Nadal's knees were strapped. Like Michael Owen's hamstrings and Jonny Wilkinson's shoulders, the Spaniard's knees have become a perennial talking point. The 21-year-old Majorcan enjoyed his most successful year yet in 2007, but as he prepares for the start of the Australian Open on Monday he must know that every other media inquiry will be about his fitness.

Ever since Nadal won the French Open for the third year in succession seven months ago, the state of his knees and feet has been a source of speculation. He reached the Wimbledon final despite suffering from sore knees, played with a similar problem through the US Open, where he lost in the fourth round to David Ferrer, and was forced to take a six-week break before returning in October.

Since then, three resounding defeats have served only to fuel the debate about his long-term well-being. David Nalbandian beat him in successive Masters Series tournaments in the autumn – Nadal won only three games in the Madrid quarter-final and just four in the Paris final – while his 6-1, 6-0 defeat at the hands of Mikhail Youzhny in the final in Madras six days ago was the heaviest of his 324-match senior career.

There was a common thread to all three results, with each coming the day after gruelling victories, over Andy Murray, Marcos Baghdatis and Carlos Moya respectively. For a player who has made his name by wearing opponents down with his extraordinary willpower, stamina and sheer strength, Nadal's physical vulnerability has suddenly become an issue.

In Madras, Nadal said he had simply not had enough time to recover following his four-hour semi-final win. "I needed more time for recovery," he said. "I've started my season playing very well and I'm confident." Youzhny described his victory as "a present from Rafa" and added: "I didn't win. Rafa just lost the match because he couldn't move well."

Nadal's last two years have followed a remarkably similar pattern: some early success on hard courts, a wonderful season on clay culminating in victory at Roland Garros, defeat by Federer in the final at Wimbledon and then a barren run on hard courts in the remaining months of the year. It is tempting to conclude that the Spaniard can only maintain his all-action game on the more forgiving surfaces of clay and grass and that hard courts are taking their toll on his body.

The player himself always dismisses any talk of a long-term problem and was moved to call a press conference before Christmas after Toni Nadal, his uncle and coach, prompted worldwide headlines with talk in a newspaper interview of a "very serious" foot injury. "He has to learn how to live with it and so far he has managed for two years," Toni told Diario de Mallorca. "It's very serious. I don't know [if it's career-threatening]. I'll let the doctor reply to that. He has to take a lot of precautions when he plays.

"We're pleased with the season just finished, with the injury and everything. His play has improved and the matches have been less intense. Roger Federer is a fully rounded player. Rafael has a different style. The key factor has been to shorten the length of matches and we have achieved that. His problem is that he has to play to maintain his physical tone and fitness levels. There's no other way to do it than by competing."

Within 24 hours of the interview appearing, the Nadals stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the television cameras. "This injury hasn't stopped me competing at the top level for over two years," the world No 2 protested. "The story that has come out is totally false."

Nadal's doctor, Angel Ruiz Cotorro, said he was certain the injury was not a major problem. "It was a stress fracture in the left foot," he said. "Once cured, a specific programme was instigated along with his fitness trainer, Joan Forcades, and physiotherapist, Rafael Maymo. From a medical point of view, by following the programme Rafael has been able to develop his professional career to the highest level, winning 23 titles over the last three years."

Ask Nadal if he has any intention of changing his training programme or schedule in order to lessen his physical load and he gives an emphatic response. "No, no, no. Everything is going well. I've been No 2 in the world for the third year in a row, with 5,600 ranking points. With that number of points, in most years I would have been world No 1, so I think things are going very well.

"I don't have to change a lot of things. I have to continue improving. I have to try to improve my serve more and more. I have to continue trying to improve my aggressive return of serve, my volleys and my slice. I've improved my volleys and slice a lot. I'm going to the net more.

"You talk about being healthy. I only had one problem. I didn't play my best at the US Open because I had a problem with my knees, but I play a lot of matches. I played Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, Hamburg, Paris, Wimbledon and got to the final each time.

"It's very difficult to be 100 per cent all the time. Physically, I was very good all year, but some people are always saying that I'm injured. I'm not. Sometimes I have problems, but that's normal for any player, isn't it?"

He added: "My calendar is tough because I have to play a lot of matches in the clay-court season. Playing a lot of matches is good for me, but sometimes it's tough. It's a bit easier for hard-court specialists because they have Australia, Indian Wells and Miami. Then, after the clay season, they have Toronto, Cincinnati, the US Open, and then the indoor tournaments. They have more seasons, so it's easier for them. If I want to play and get a lot of points on clay, I only have two months to do it."

Because of his early maturity – Nadal won his first French Open title just after turning 19 – it is easy to forget that the Spaniard is still only 21. Talk of the "new wave" of players usually focuses on men like Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Richard Gasquet, but Nadal pointed out that he was of the same generation.

"Right now the tour is in a very good position, with very young players coming through," he said. "There's Djokovic, me, Gasquet, Berdych, Monfils, Del Potro, Murray – a lot of very young players, the same age as me or maybe one year younger. That's nice for tennis and nice for me too because I've been playing against these players since I was 14.

"They can improve – and they must if they want to be No 1. I must as well. I'm trying to improve every year, every month to try to be a better player, because I know these young players are coming through. And in two years' time there will be more and more. Tennis is always improving. A few years ago you had Hewitt, Ferrero, Federer, Nalbandian and Coria, so it was very tough at the top. Right now I think something similar is happening."

Until last year Nadal had the upper hand on Federer, but the Swiss won three of their five matches last year and beat the Spaniard on clay for the first time. Nadal, however, insists that he has to look at the broader picture. "This is not a competition against Roger," he said. "This is a competition against the other guys on the tour. I've always said that Roger, when he's 100 per cent, plays in another league."

Court short: Nadal's barren run

TORONTO MASTERS (August 2007)

Makes promising return after taking a week off because of a knee problem but loses to Novak Djokovic in semi-finals.

CINCINNATI MASTERS (August 2007)

Retires during first match, against Juan Monaco, after complaining of cramp and dizziness.

US OPEN (September 2007)

Troublesome knees contribute to fourth-round defeat to David Ferrer.

MADRID MASTERS (October 2007)

Beats Andy Murray but is unable to sustain form in next day's quarter-final and loses 6-1, 6-2 to David Nalbandian.

PARIS MASTERS (October 2007)

Loses 6-4, 6-0 to Nalbandian in final 24 hours after tough three sets against Marcos Baghdatis.

TENNIS MASTERS CUP (November 2007)

Loses to Ferrer in round-robin stage and goes out in semi-finals, beaten 6-4, 6-1 by Roger Federer.

MADRAS (January 2008)

Wins four-hour semi-final against Carlos Moya but has nothing left in the tank as Mikhail Youzhny wins final 6-0, 6-1.

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