ATP Finals: Rafael Nadal's withdrawal due to injury just the latest chapter in painfully predictable cycle spanning over a decade

Musab Abid
The ATP Finals and Rafael Nadal have shared a troubled relationship over the past decade, with the Spaniard frequently and predictably pulling out of the tournament due to injury.

What makes for a good horror movie? A skilled makeup artist helps, as does a creepy background score. Psychologically deviant characters add to the thrill too, and if you can throw in a bunch of twisted, unexplainable phenomena, that's all the better. But everything would come to nought if the movie doesn't have a thoroughly convoluted and unpredictable plot.

What makes for a bad horror movie? All of the above elements, with just the last bit missing. Nobody likes to see something that follows a predictable pattern; even our thirst for sadomasochist scares can't make up for the dullness of expected tragedy.

It's tempting to think of Rafael Nadal's tryst with the ATP Finals as the worst kind of horror movie anyone could ever make.

The news of his withdrawal from the 2018 edition broke on Monday, and it wasn't even close to being a surprise. Nadal had pulled out of the Paris Masters just a few days ago, citing an abdominal injury that he had picked up while practising on the Bercy courts. And considering that he was only just returning from another injury €" the knee problem that had flared up at the US Open €" it was always going to be a race against time for him to be fit for the eight-man tournament beginning in London this week.

After making the sombre announcement on his Facebook page, Nadal also underwent a minor operation to remove a free-floating particle in his right ankle joint. The surgery has reportedly gone well, but it will take a few weeks to recover from €" to add to the abdomen and knee issues that the Spaniard is already grappling with.

Yes, it is a nightmare. Some might even call it a horror show. But as the last decade and a half have shown, it is an exceptionally lousy horror show, because it is all so predictable.

The first time that Nadal qualified for the Finals was in 2005, and he has qualified every year since. But you can count on one hand the number of times he has been 100% fit for the ATP's showpiece event. From 2005 to 2018, he has withdrawn with injury as many as seven times. And in the seven other editions that he actually did play, he was at his physical best only four times €" in 2006, 2007, 2010 and 2013.

Here's the disturbing gist of it: 10 out of 14 times that Nadal has qualified for the Finals, he has been prevented from taking a legitimate shot at the title. The injuries have been of varying nature, but their timing has been almost mechanically uniform. Every year in the fall, we get to know about some new physical disaster that has sprung up in Nadal's life, which invariably scuppers his plans to win the one last piece of silverware missing from his cabinet.

If you were one for superstition or the mystic arts, you'd think that Nadal's attempt to win the ATP Finals was cursed. But even that might have made for a more welcome, if slightly ridiculous, story. The reality instead is a lot more depressing: given Nadal's physical limitations and style of play, the year-ending championships are just one mountain too far.

For a man of Nadal's fitness levels, playing a full season shouldn't theoretically be such an impossible task. But we forget that he has Kohler's disease and chronic knee tendonitis, which tend to become more and more painful as your workload piles up.

There's a reason why Nadal always seems fitter at the start of the year than the end. The strain on his ankles and knees keeps building up over the course of the season, and gets exacerbated to an unmanageable degree when he plays on low-bouncing, hard surfaces (read: grass and quick hardcourts typically found in the second half of the tennis calendar).

Then there's the fact that indoor hardcourts aren't exactly suited to Nadal's style of play to begin with, even when he's at his freshest. Nadal's game thrives best when it is left out in the open, aided and abetted by the elements of nature. But when confined to an indoor venue, the topspin on his shots is robbed of some of its pop, and the explosiveness of his footwork is blunted just a tad. In that respect, winning the ATP Finals €" which is always held indoors considering it is part of the fall swing €" is always going to be a particularly difficult task for Nadal.

Whose idea of entertainment was it to make an inherently tough proposition even tougher by the addition of regular, uncontrollable and painful handicaps? It's almost as though Fate looked down at Nadal, saw him struggling with the unique challenges of indoor tennis, rubbed its hands together in glee, and said, "Here's some fresh hell for you. I'd like to see you beat this particularly nasty curveball. It's so much fun seeing you suffer like this!"

Perverse pleasure doesn't get any more soul-crushing than this.

Nadal will be 33 by the time the next year-end championship rolls around. 33 is not over-the-hill in the modern era, but his task is only going to get harder with each passing year. To truly challenge for the ATP Finals in the future, Nadal will have to not only be in good form throughout the year to build up enough momentum for London, but he will also have to be in peak physical condition until the very end of the season. That last requirement is particularly worrisome.

Nadal was brilliant whenever he took the court in 2018. He lost just four matches all year, and his only two hardcourt losses came via retirement. Never before had the Spaniard lasted until September with so few hardcourt losses, and riding such an impressive head of steam. Moreover, the competition at the Finals this year is noticeably lower, with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer the only true contenders.

Was 2018 Nadal's last real chance to win the ATP Finals, a chance that has once again been cruelly snatched away from him?

There's a silver lining in all of this, if a very faint one. As we wring our hands in frustration at the injustice of it all, it is likely that the man himself isn't too worked up right now. Nadal once said that he has learned to "enjoy suffering". On another occasion, after enduring a mid-match injury, he said, "That's part of life. That's part of sport. It's not the end of the world. It's just another tough moment." Why should he treat this latest disaster any differently?

Knowing that Nadal is probably at peace with his distinctly terrible luck at the ATP Finals is the only thing that makes this whole episode a little less painful. It's still very much like a bad horror movie, but at least it's a horror movie where the hero lives to fight another day.

Also See: Rafael Nadal confirms his season is over due to injury, will miss ATP Finals in London later this month

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Rafael Nadal pulls out of Paris Masters due to injury concerns; Novak Djokovic set to become World No 1

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