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Rafa Looking Good as Injury Crisis Deepens at the AO

By Alix Ramsay

It comes to something when Rafa Nadal ends up in the last eight of the Australian Open as one of the healthiest men still standing. The bloke who was writing off his chances a matter of days ago – sore back, can’t serve, can’t practice – now feels that he is well and truly on the mend while all those around him are wincing and groaning with newly acquired problems.

The current score at Melbourne Park is Abs 4, ATP 0. Along with Novak Djokovic and his sorely, poorly abdominals, there is Sascha Zverev (Djokovic’s next opponent) who is also having problems in the same area. He even joking suggested to the world No.1 that they play their quarter-final on Tuesday without serving. Djoko smiled as he told this story but there was that look in his eye that said: “you must be bloody joking, mate. I’ll have you on toast.” Djokovic, seemingly now miraculously recovered, is like that when it comes to grand slams.

But at least they are both planning on playing – at the moment, at least (who knows what the new day will bring in this bizarre tournament). Pity poor Matteo Berrettini, though. He bust a gut – quite literally as it turned out – to get the better of Karen Khachanov on Saturday, winning in three, long, tiebreak sets, but that was the end of him. He, too, had pulled an abdominal muscle and despite trying everything he could, he was in no state to face Stefanos Tsitsipas on Monday night. He pulled out without hitting a ball.

Matteo Berrettini of Italy (R) receives medical treatment as he plays Karen Khachanov of Russia during their third round match at the Australian Open. EPA-EFE/JASON O’BRIEN

“I got injured in the last match that I played,” Berrettini said. “I felt something on my ab. I thought that wasn’t something really big but the next day when I woke up, I felt it was big. So I spoke to the doctors and they told me, look, I can get really worse, so it’s not worth the try.

“Obviously I’m not 100 per cent. So to beat these guys, like, you have to be 100 per cent. I think it’s not really professional to step in when you’re not the best.”

What made it all the more frustrating and disappointing was that, at last, he was happy and enjoying life on court again. After his breakthrough year in 2019, reaching the semi-finals of the US Open, collecting two trophies and moving from No.52 in the world to No.8, he struggled badly when the tour restarted after the Covid lockdown. Living and playing in a bio-secure bubble and playing in empty stadia was depressing and it took its toll on his form. But with fans allowed into Melbourne Park in the first five days and in the lead-up events, life was looking good again.

“I was really feeling well,” he said, “not just obviously tennis-wise but everything else on my mindset. The ATP Cup was great. The first three rounds I was playing really good, so enjoy atmosphere, even though we experienced the lockdown, as well. But nothing. It’s just bad luck.”

And then there was Casper Ruud. He lasted little more than an hour against Andrey Rublev before he, too, was calling for the trainer to have his ailing stomach muscles attended to. After two sets, he threw in the towel leaving Rublev to face Daniil Medvedev, the 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 winner over Mackenzie McDonald.

Compared to that little lot, Rafa must be feeling pretty good. For all but a brief spell in the second set, he was in complete control against Fabio Fognini, winning 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in two hours and 16 minutes. If he was pleased that he could serve more normally in his previous match, he was delighted that he was able to forget about his back completely in the first set on Monday.

Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts during his fourth Round Men’s singles match against Fabio Fognini of Italy on Day 8 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 15 February 2021. EPA-EFE/JAMES ROSS

“I played first set and, without a doubt, has been my best level in the tournament,” he said. “I was able to practice for two days in a row. That makes an important difference. But at the same time, it’s important to find positive feelings now.

“My physical condition needs to keep improving. But I think this match helps, too. I was not able to practice the proper way for the last 19 days, but yesterday I started again to increase the amount of work on the practice, and today has been a positive victory with some long points, so that helps for the next match.

“I had that problem on the back for the last 19, 20 days. But yeah, I found a way to be what I am today and the feelings are right there without a doubt. So yeah, I make a step forward today, something that I needed, and I need to make another one for Wednesday against Tsitsipas.”

As he said this, Rafa realised he had let the cat out of the bag. At that point, no one knew officially that Berrettini was not going to play his night match against the Greek but, obviously, Raf had heard the locker room gossip and drawn his own conclusions. Giggling sheepishly, he admitted that he had “messed it up” – it was the only major mistake he made all day.

And then he turned his attention to the problems of playing through an injury. To illustrate his point, he used abdominal injuries as an example. This might have been a topical reference – dodgy abs are the injury de jour around Melbourne Park – or it might have been a dig at Djokovic and his miraculous recovery. Either way, Rafa has had these injuries before and he knows how carefully you have to treat them.

“It depends what kind of injury you have,” he said. “You have something broken, I think you have a strain or your abdominal — for example, I did it in the past, and you do mistakes because it’s impossible to know exactly what’s going on when you are competing.

“For example, I remember in the US Open 2009 that I started the US Open with a strain, I think, here in the abdominal. I start with six millimetres or so of strain and I finished the tournament – I lost in that semi-finals against Del Potro – and I finished the tournament with 26 millimetres. Of course it wasn’t a smart decision.

Rafael Nadal of Spain (R) is congratulated by Fabio Fognini of Italy (L) after winning his fourth Round Men’s singles match on Day 8 of the Australian Open. EPA-EFE/DEAN LEWINS

“If you are bad, you will not win. That’s clear. If you really have physical problems, you will not win. If you have some pain and it’s not putting you in a situation that limits you, the movements, maybe you can find a way. But when you really, really have an injury, it’s impossible to win a tournament like this.”

That fanned the flames beneath his less-than-harmonious relationship with the world No.1. If the two of them are still standing come Sunday, the final could be a bit tasty.