Injury woes end 'Rafa Slam' quest
MELBOURNE, Australia -- The last men's player to win four straight majors was Rod Laver 42 years ago. It doesn't happen often. Besides playing great tennis, everything else needs to fall into place.
There will be no "Rafa Slam" after the Spaniard's physical woes resurfaced at the Australian Open. He'll have to be happy enough in winning three straight, in Paris, London and New York after losing in straight sets to compatriot David Ferrer on Wednesday night.
"This is one of the bad [moments], one of the negative moments," Rafael Nadal said in a standing-room only press conference. "That's part of the sport. I think I am very, very lucky sportsman about what's happened in my career. I have to accept the fantastic moments that I had during a lot of the years with the same calm than when I have problems."
Buddy and on-court rival Roger Federer can sympathize, twice foiled as he tried to complete the "Roger Slam." No, it wasn't a virus that directly hindered Nadal. The illness, which delayed Nadal's departure to Australia by two days, sapped his strength and led to intense sweating in Week 1.
It wasn't even his knees, the same knees that forced him to miss Wimbledon as the defending champion in 2009. A year ago here in Melbourne, Nadal retired when he trailed Andy Murray at the same stage because of wonky knees, casting doubt on the longevity of his career.
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Rather, his left hamstring was the problem, which he injured in an 18-minute second game.
"He showed enormous class and respect for the game by just finishing the match, as he was in no shape to compete anywhere near his best," ESPN analyst Darren Cahill said. "It was tough to watch at times and tough to see the pain and frustration written on his face."
One can theorize that the virus didn't allow Nadal to train properly and that lack of adequate prep, coupled with the chilly summery weather in Melbourne on Wednesday, wasn't an ideal combination.
His camp didn't entirely disagree.
"We don't have luck here," Nadal's coach and uncle Toni said. "We think that when he had the flu, he was more [susceptible] to getting hurt."
And unlike 2009, when Nadal went for 5 hours, 14 minutes in the semifinals before topping Federer two days later for a first Australian Open crown, there was no miraculous recovery.
Ferrer is precisely the wrong type of player to face if ailing. He makes opponents work hard for every point and doesn't flinch. The second game of the encounter was a perfect example. The end result was that Ferrer broke Nadal's serve. Ferrer looked sharp, irrespective of Nadal's condition.
Mind you, the last time Ferrer defeated Nadal at a Grand Slam tournament, the 2007 U.S. Open, Nadal's knees were acting up. Ferrer lost seven in a row to the Mallorcan until this result.
Nadal needed to pull out the first set and almost did. Ferrer became nervy trying to serve it out at 5-3, and Nadal took full advantage. But in the ensuing game, Ferrer converted on a third set point as a Nadal forehand sailed way wide.
Nadal gave his fans a glimmer of hope, breaking Ferrer early in the second. The fun didn't last long, as Ferrer broke back and then hit one of the shots of the tournament, lashing a forehand down the line. When Ferrer grabbed a 4-2 lead, it was nearly over. Ferrer applied the knockout punch by breaking early in the third as the fans did their best to pump up the world No. 1.
Ferrer glanced over at his friend more than once in concern, and the look on his face suggested he was sorry it ended in this manner. Ferrer converted on a first match point with a forehand down the line, but didn't overdo the celebration.
"Full credit to both players for their handling of a difficult situation," ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe added. "But it was a brutal way for Nadal's quest to end."
Nadal thought he turned a corner after beating Croatian Marin Cilic in the fourth round. A match earlier, he toiled versus 18-year-old Aussie Bernard Tomic.
"I started the second week with a very good match against Cilic and was improving my level every day," he said. "Seriously, I was practicing much better than in the beginning of the tournament and I felt ready in the quarterfinals. But wasn't [my] day."
Although Nadal and his camp were glum, the immediate outlook for Federer, Murray and Novak Djokovic looks much better.
With Rafa's dismissal, they had extra reason to enjoy the fireworks that went off as part of Australia Day celebrations in the second set, which caused a delay of 10 minutes.
Despite Federer's getting the better of Nadal at the World Tour Finals in December, the Swiss still trails their head-to-head encounters 14-8. A rested and healthy Nadal is a completely different proposition.
Murray is heavily favored to beat Ferrer in the semis. To put it simply, Murray will really need to win one big match to end his personal drought and Great Britain's 75-year men's Grand Slam funk. He might not get a better opportunity. The Scot ousted upstart Alexandr Dolgopolov in four sets in the other men's quarterfinal on Wednesday.
Nadal has bounced back from injuries before. Take the middle of last year onward, when he swept to his three major victories, dropping only six sets combined along the way.
There's no indication he won't recover. The current ailment, outwardly, doesn't appear to be a long-term issue.
"Knowing Rafa, he's a fighter and will be back," Cahill said.
But it isn't the time to look forward just yet. It's a time to think of what might have been.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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