Rafael Nadal is ready to play again. In America. On hard courts. Should he?

Rafael Nadal is ready to play again. In America. On hard courts. Should he?

Rafael Nadal is ready to play again. In America. On hard courts. Should he?
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For more than a month, the smoke signals out of Rafael Nadal’s camp have kept the tennis world on its toes, sparking predictions of everything from a triumphant spring on the red clay of Paris to him never playing another competitive match following yet another hip injury in Australia in January.

The only thing that seemed clear was that the 22-time Grand Slam champion was prioritizing the clay court season in Europe this spring. Nadal said as much in January when he returned following a year-long layoff because of hip surgery.

Sure, he was happy to be back and competing in Australia, where he won the year’s first Grand Slam as recently as 2022, but he was singularly focused on being in top form — or, at least, as close as he can get to it at this point — in three months when the red clay tournaments begin in earnest.

That was part of why he skipped the Australian Open once he suffered a small muscle tear near his hip three matches into his latest comeback. Logic suggested Nadal would wait until tennis returned to the organic surfaces that are far less taxing on the body and where an ageing, injury-prone player like Nadal, who is 37 and plays the most physical style of tennis, would have the best chance of staying healthy.

Few were surprised when he announced this month on social media that he was pulling out of a hard-court tournament in Doha. It was the second sentence of that post that caught some off-guard.

“I will focus on keep working to be ready for the exhibition in Las Vegas and the amazing Indian Wells tournament,” Nadal wrote on Valentine’s Day.

That would be an MGM Resorts exhibition match against the 20-year-old Spanish sensation Carlos Alcaraz this weekend in Las Vegas, which will be streamed on Netflix, and then the BNP Paribas Open in nearby Indian Wells, California, which begins next week.

Now that struck some as odd. Still, there was plenty of time for him to pull out of those events and spend another few weeks in Spain preparing for the clay.

And then, last week, Novak Djokovic posted a picture of him and Nadal on the same flight as Nadal made his way to the United States. “Vamos”, Djokovic wrote. Game on — at least, in theory.

The question, though, is why?

“If he is fit, he wants to play,” his longtime spokesman, Benito Perez-Barbadillo, said on Monday. “He is a tennis player and wants to play at the biggest tournaments. And he loves Indian Wells.”

As Patrick McEnroe, the commentator and former player calling the match against Alcaraz, pointed out, Nadal often thrives on the slow hard courts of Indian Wells, where he has won three times and made the finals on two other occasions.

Injuries in exhibitions are extremely rare, but will an exhibition and a hard-court tournament in March, even one Nadal loves as much as Indian Wells, improve his chances of being fit enough to compete for the title at the French Open in May and June, where he has won 14 times and there is a statue of him swatting his bull-whip forehand outside the main stadium? In recent years, Nadal has shut himself down after Indian Wells for roughly three weeks to begin honing his timing and conditioning for two months of clay court tennis, where the timing and style of play are markedly different from hard courts.

The elephant in the room here is money.

It’s always uncomfortable to count other people’s money, to suggest what should be enough. That is especially the case with professional athletes, whose careers are generally over by 40 and who have grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle.

That said, Nadal has won more than $134million in prize money during his 20-plus-year career. He has collected tens of millions, maybe more, in sponsorship and appearance fees. Terms of his deal with MGM and MGM’s deal with Netflix are not public, but he is likely to collect at least $1million for the Alcaraz match given how much he and other players of his caliber have earned for playing similar events

Nadal won’t receive an appearance fee to play at Indian Wells, since it is a mandatory tournament for healthy players. He has other incentives. Larry Ellison, the billionaire founder of Oracle who owns the tournament, has become a friend and hosts Nadal at his private resort.

There, Nadal can pursue his other passion — golf. He has been known to play 18 or even 36 holes a day during his time in the desert and he’s already been out on the links in California.

It’s a good life. The question is whether he is risking the clay season, where he likely has his best chance to win a 23rd Grand Slam singles title. Nadal would likely try to dismiss that thinking or anything that might suggest he is some kind of clay court specialist. 

“I think it’s fine,” said Paul Annacone, the longtime coach (Roger Federer, Taylor Fritz) and commentator. “He’s in California practicing already, getting acclimated. So the only issue is if he’s not 100 percent.  Then don’t go. But I don’t think he’d be here in California if he wasn’t close to 100 percent and ready for Indian Wells.”

Days after pulling out of Doha, Nadal posted a video of himself practicing slow service returns with the caption, “Work in progress.” There have been more videos since he arrived in Indian Wells, but no footage of anything approaching intense.

All of this has only added to the larger mystery surrounding when Nadal might call it quits for good. Last year, not long after his hip surgery, he suggested that 2024 would be his last season and serve as a kind of farewell tour as he visited the tournaments and cities that had meant the most to him during his career.

Then he showed flashes of his old self during his three matches in Australia and got a taste of the competition he craves. He has not committed to any hard-and-fast timetable since, insisting he is taking it day by day.

The Olympic Games tournament will take place at Roland Garros this summer, the site of the French Open. There had been speculation that might serve as his walk-off. Then he signed a deal to serve as an ambassador with Saudi Arabia’s tennis federation and to play in an exhibition in Riyadh in October with Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev, Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner and Holger Rune. That setting would seem like an odd choice for his final matches.

The Davis Cup finals will take place in Spain one month later. Perhaps then?  That is, assuming he can make it that far without another serious injury.

For now, and for better or for worse, he has a big payday in Las Vegas and a hard court tournament (and plenty of golf) in the California desert to focus on.

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