Rafa’s back – at the Mubadala World Championship in Abu Dhabi, where he promptly lost to Andy Murray 6-2, 6-0 in the semifinals. It was the first time Andy – who also knows a thing or two about coming back from an injury – beat a top-four player since he defeated Novak Djokovic in the 2013 Wimbledon final. Andy won the exhibition tourney after Nole withdrew with a fever from the unofficial season opener. Nole had beaten Stan Wawrinka 6-1, 6-2 in the other semifnal.
Rafa – who’s on the comeback trail from an appendectomy after missing the U.S. Open with a wrist injury and suffering a back injury in last year’s Australian Open – is unfazed by the poor showing against Andy. And I don’t think at this point there’s any reason for concern. Entered in next week’s Qatar Open, Rafa is using these tournaments as tune-ups for the Australian Open, which begins Jan. 19.
Still, there is something troubling about the pattern that has emerged from Rafa’s intense style of play. He goes great guns through his favorite, clay-court season, then collapses at Wimbledon or US Open time. It’s a balancing act: Too much play is as bad as not enough. But you have to play regularly.
Rafa’s the greatest clay-court player to date. But to be the greatest tennis player to date, he’s going to have to prove he’s still a man for all seasons.