The following article by Juan José Mateo appeared in El País on 4 August 2013. It has been translated for us by nou.amic.
New York in three weeks
Juan José Mateo Madrid 4 August 2013
The US Open. For six weeks, the last Grand Slam tournament of the season (starts 26th Aug) was like a fixed idea on the horizon of Rafael Nadal and his left knee. After losing in the first round at Wimbledon, where he played without daring to bend his knee as much as the low bounce on grass demands, the Mallorcan sweated out the summer with his knee heavily taped. This is a tennis player who returned to competition in February after seven months out injured; a competitor who since then has won seven of the ten tournaments he has played; one who took his return to work after Wimbledon calmly so that the "insecurity" he felt because of the poor support his legs gave him in London would not end in a relapse. Nadal has now launched his attack on the North American swing, which begins on Monday at the Montreal Masters, goes on to Cincinnati and ends with the US Open. To be ready for it, he designed a six week plan of increasing intensity which he punctuated with intervals to treat his knee and for which he had an unexpected ally: Nenad Zimonjic, ex number one in doubles and team mate to Novak Djokovic in the Serbian Davis Cup team.
"I've known Rafa for a long time and we've spent years talking about doing this," explained Zimonjic by telephone. "We practised together about seven times, but in between time there were sometimes periods of two or three days of rest for his knee to be treated. Sometimes he moved more, sometimes less, depending on how he felt, but he always pushed himself to do the most he possibly could each day," he continued. "It was impressive. It's not easy to practise with him. Not many people can keep up with his rhythm, his level, his intensity, the speed he hits the ball and his consistency. I was able to see I'm still in good form!" he added. "In this sense, he's a bit different from Djokovic in intensity, though they both have concentration and the ambition to improve each segment of their game in common. If Rafa reminds me of anyone practising, it's Andre Agassi."
Accompanied by Joan Forcades, his physical preparer, the Mallorcan put the accent on softening the impact on his knees. So, he did his resistance work on an antigravity treadmill enclosed from the waist down in plastic that enables him to control the quantity of air around his legs and to "float". In search of explosiveness, he got into the swimming pool where the water also acts as a buffer while Forcades, holding him on elastic reins, provided the counter weight for his sprints. He used a stationary bicycle. When he started on two practice sessions a day, the cement court in Manacor became a kind of temple. As well as dozens of spectators, four-time Grand Slam champion Guillermo Vilas and Shamil Tarpishev, the historic Russian Davis Cup captain, made the pilgrimage there. Then there was Zimonjic. Finally, Nadal practised with Carlos Moyà, just like when he was a boy.
"A guy like Rafa, who has won everything, could well think... 'what are they going to teach me that I don't know already'... but he's not like that," says Galo Blanco, ex world No.40, director of the 4Slam Tennis academy and a witness to those summer days. "Many times that's the difference, that mentality, which many times can be instilled in youngsters from when they're very small. If I'd brought along one of my pupils with me, I would have told him to watch how they [Nadal and Moyà] listen, how they share things with one another, how they always want to learn something new. That's the only way to get better every day."
Now, at 27 years of age, Nadal is back starring in the same stakes that took him to the final of the US Open in 2010 (champion) and 2011 (finalist), the last times he took part: after seven weeks without playing, coming into the tournaments prior to the Grand Slam rested but without any rhythm and trusting in his racquet until his lungs respond.
"Tenniswise and technically I'm improving. It's not as difficult now as it used to be for me to get my touch back in after a lay-off," he said in Mallorca. Those who watched his last practice sessions observed that his left knee was completely free from taping. The hardcourt examination will show if the compression tape comes back and will put the elbow that has been bothering him since the clay court tour to the test. The world No.4 is tuning up for New York. "I'm looking forward to the (hardcourt) season as much as I usually do ( ... ) There's a lot ahead and you have to be well prepared."