Yesterday was El Dia de los Inocentes in Spain, which is the equivalent of April Fool’s Day. Many top Spanish athletes took to Twitter to fool their followers. Unfortunately, one top Spanish athlete was not in a joking mood: Rafa announced his withdrawal from Doha and the Australian Open. A stomach virus is the official reason given for his withdrawal (Rafa pulled out of Abu Dhabi earlier this week for the same reason).
As it is, Rafa will now be making his return at Acapulco at the end of February. So far, Rafa has only committed to Acapulco. Other Golden Swing tournaments like Vina del Mar, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires may attempt to bid for Rafa.
Ferru will very soon take over the no. 4 ranking and he will have his own quarter of the draw at the AO. Ferru was last ranked no. 4 in Feb. 2008. Rafa will fall out of the top 4 for the first time since 2005. While his rise up the ranking comes on the back of Rafa’s withdrawal, Ferru best exemplifies the oft-heard-but-rarely-understood maxim, “You earn your own luck.” On a related note, new 5th and 6th seeds Berdy and DelPo could potentially overtake Rafa with a strong performance in Melbourne.
Given the scale of the news, many are now wondering about Rafa’s physical health. It is fairly surprising that he would announce his withdrawal from a Slam two weeks in advance (due to said virus). Naturally, people are wondering if there is a bigger problem (either with his knee or his immune system).
My two cents: Injuries are a mysterious creature. They can take months to figure out and the decision of whether or not to go the surgical route is equally complicated. Perhaps the stomach virus was serious enough that he did not want to rush his return to the tour, given the already sensitive process of easing back into competition. On the other hand, I do remember being surprised when I first heard Rafa would be playing Acapulco in 2013. I think perhaps Rafa and Toni were originally planning to return on clay, when they first committed to play the South American swing back in October. Toni had even paid a visit to Sao Paulo and Argentina in October. Given Toni’s vocal criticisms of HCs and his opinion that the ATP should have more clay tournaments, this theory is not entirely out of line (even if it is pure speculation). Perhaps the knee injury is causing Rafa to shift his focus to clay.
Rafa’s withdrawal from the AO also recalls Fed’s problems with mono in 2007-8. Fed’s comments about his subpar condition provide some perspective on the factors that may have guided Rafa’s decision to withdraw:
“When I heard it was mono I was actually even more happy to have made the semifinals of the Australian Open, because probably a doctor would have said. ‘You’re not allowed or can’t play,’ ” Federer said.
Fed implies he would have followed a doctor’s order to not compete, had he known of his condition before the start of the 2008 AO. Perhaps Rafa’s stomach virus is not that great of an anomaly and he’s making a smart long-term scheduling move by delaying his comeback. Better to return on clay than to risk an injury recurrence on HCs.
The news of DelPo’s comeback in 2011 created an equal wave of speculation and hypothesizing about his true mental and/or physical state. Some had posited that DelPo was mentally imploding from the expectations set by his ’09 Slam win. In retrospect, those proclamations seem hasty and rash; it was a wrist injury. DelPo still has intermittent problems with both wrists and there are inevitable dips in form that make one wonder if he will fully regain the “zoning” aura he had in late 2009. Still, DelPo’s 2012 season should finally put that tiresome question (“When will he truly be back?”) to bed. DelPo has been back since 2011.
Assuming Rafa does come back in February, I predict a similar plot for Rafa. His knee will always be a problem. There’s no such thing as 100% fitness (this is especially the case for a player who has as many miles in his legs as Rafa does). When he does come back, Rafa will be starting a new chapter in his career. Here’s hoping he recuperates and reaches his desired fitness level before Acapulco.