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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Nadal Ensnared in Tennis' Silly Season

Rafael Nadal is weak. His mind is mush. He can't run. What else can we conclude from his performance at the ATP Tour finals?

In three matches, he didn't win a set. Maybe he's finished as a dominant player?

Well, there is one other possibility. The tournament was a disaster.

Great, new sold-out indoor facility. Great to have just the select top players together. But the tournament was not a gathering of the best as much as a sign of a serious problem on tour, one that is costing Nadal.

That's what I'm going with. But the truth is, there are plenty of questions about Nadal, too. It's shocking when a guy known as a warrior says that in decisive moments, he didn't have the "necessary calm.''

But whatever the reason, this tournament was billed as the decider in the great Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal debate. Which will be No. 1 for 2009? Yet we ended up nowhere near a Federer-Nadal final.

We never do. Since their classic Wimbledon final in July of 2008, they have played each other just twice. The sport had a breakthrough moment with that final. And tennis has some momentum, as a recent survey shows. But in trying to milk that momentum, the tour has made demands with a schedule that endangers its best players, its best rivalry.

"Finish(ed) battery,'' Nadal said. "I need to charge a lot.''

This time last year, Nadal owned Federer and was tennis' dominant force, storming the court on every match. Now, he has lost four matches in a row. Storming the court? He isn't even a spring shower anymore.

"Not very disappointing, no,'' he said. "It's disappointing if you arrive here with the feeling that you have a big chance to win. But I didn't arrive here with that feeling ...

"The goal (for next year) is try to play hard and arrive generally in perfect condition. Have the feeling that when you are playing a point, you're not going to have a mistake.''

Nadal looks dangerously spent. The question is whether it's temporary.

You can say it's the result of his excessive work ethic or his throw-everything-into-every-shot style. Those are real issues.

But it's not just him. Andy Roddick didn't come to the tournament because his knee hurts. Federer, who did finish the year No. 1, lost his last two matches, couldn't find the court with his forehand and ran out of steam against Juan Martin del Potro. No. 3 Novak Djokovic was cranky all week, mentally worn out.

In the final Sunday, Del Potro looked like he could he barely find the energy to say "Uncle,'' against Nikolay Davydenko, who won 6-3, 6-4.

Davydenko is the last man standing on the ATP Tour. A short, skinny guy, winning because of his ability to stay consistent and because the top players were unable to find the patience or muscle to put him away.

The tour schedule is far too long and unrelenting. It is an 11-month season.

"I don't think it's coincidental that you see (Andy) Murray and Roger a little bit hurt now, or Rafa missing four months in the middle of the year, or maybe some odd results from del Potro and myself last week,''

Roddick seemed to agree in October, when he called the tour schedule, "ridiculous.''

"I just hope that the short-sightedness doesn't affect the length of players' careers. In tennis you definitely want your stars around as long as possible."

After years in dormancy, tennis has something going here. A survey showed that 30 million Americans played in 2009, up 12 percent from last year and more than 40 percent from 2004.

On top of that, there's a great rivalry to push, and, also, suddenly an American, Roddick, who is resurgent. So it has to be tempting to keep pushing for more.

But it's on the game's governing bodies to put the players in position to be on the court at their best, not their most vulnerable.

Nadal missed time this year with tendinitis in his knees, a wear-and-tear injury. Some people are asking whether he's done, at 23.

The truth is, you can't draw conclusions from this tournament. These weren't really the top players, but shells of them. They were on fumes.

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