Nadal’s injuries hurt all of tennis

Sports fans have short memories and are quick to move on, but both Rafael Nadal’s stature and the nature of the injury suffered calls for a moment to pause and consider. What made Nadal’s initial withdrawal, from the Olympics, all the more worrisome was that it had swiftly followed a Wimbledon match he had completed without sustaining any obvious injury. In football, some of the most damaging injuries are those sustained by players for whom there was no obvious external cause – such as an opposition stud or a dangerous tackle. They suggest chronic, deeper-lying structural flaws that cannot be totally overcome by surgery, nor detected until they flare up again, nor calmed without the passage of time. Nadal’s passage has now extended from the Olympics to the Rogers Cup, to Cincinnati and now the US Open. What kind of injury worsens, or simply doesn’t go away even when the player is resting?

His absence was easily forgotten in the heat of Murray-mania during the tournaments at Wimbledon this summer, but will slowly extend a shadow over the ATP the longer he stays away. If Roger Federer continues his excellent form, fans will look for confirmation of the worth of this late-period revival in the form of a contest against his most testing opponent. Andy Murray might initially take a first major on the back of defeating one or both of Federer and Djokovic, but consistently holding sway with every member of the big three will be a challenge denied him in full until the return of its longstanding member. Part of the appeal of the top four players in men’s tennis is the way in which they constantly push each other to new levels of greatness in unfailingly epic encounters, which provides a preferable option to when one player lords it over the rest. Nadal is a vital part of this competitive appeal.

Apart from all that, it is never nice to see a player – particularly one as lodged in the affections of the fans as Nadal – suffer such unplanned changes of direction to their career. Sportsmen take pride in shaping their own destiny, and it would be cruel to see the most hardworking tennis player of all be denied the chance to play out the second half of his career on his terms.

Neymar facing career crossroads in quest to be the best

A sports writer recently suggested that Barcelona and Real Madrid’s unfair hegemony in La Liga was setting themselves up for the same fate that befell Rangers and Celtic in the Scottish Premier League. The idea was that clubs that continued to widen the gap between themselves and the opposition through artificial means, such as the two Spanish giants’ practice of negotiating their own TV rights rather than agreeing to a shared pool, were diluting the quality of the rest of the league to their own detriment. Competition breeds excellence, and the lack of it for Rangers and Celtic transformed two previously regular participants in the Champions League into no more than big fish in a tiny pond, unable to compete at the highest level for lack of practice with quality opponents.

While it may be too much of a stretch to argue that La Liga’s dwindling quality will have the same corrosive effect on Madrid and Barca, whose traditions at the top of the game are well-ingrained over decades (although both did suffer surprising losses in last season’s CL to Bayern Munich and Chelsea respectively), it did illustrate a valid point. Players and teams need to expose themselves to the most competitive leagues to grow and nurture their talent. Part of what makes the artificial gap PSG are about to open up on the rest of the French League so worrying is the potentially stunting effect that regularly turning out against diminished opposition will have on the development of young starlets like Thiago Silva and Javier Pastore. It is also something that might be beginning to bear down on Neymar, the most eagerly anticipated of the clutch of young players on the verge of making their breakthrough.

Neymar’s continuing determination to ply his trade in Brazil until after the 2014 World Cup has the ability to both slow his development at a critical stage and severely hamper Brazil’s chances of lifting the trophy on home soil. There were patches in the Olympic final against Mexico on Saturday when it appeared that the prodigy’s training in Brazil had not equipped him with the knowledge to deal with several defenders instantly closing space around him and suffocating his movement. In the last ten minutes, three runs he attempted at the massed Mexican ranks resulted in the ball cannoning back off them and behind him, as his tricks failed to bewitch defenders who had probably had the opportunity to watch him in carefully prepared training videos beforehand. It is this kind of elite, tactically informed opposition comprising the ranks of international and European football that Neymar is missing the chance to grow against in Brazil, and for which he only has a parsimonious international calendar left to prepare him for in the run-up to 2014.

However Neymar’s obligations in becoming the world’s best player go beyond simply honing his talent in the most competitive leagues in Europe, and thereby becoming a player who scores match-winning goals for both club and country in crucial competitions. Goals can be scored by any great player, and Cristiano Ronaldo is perched atop the best of the rest in this regard. Yet in four consistently wondrous years at Barcelona, Lionel Messi has set the bar higher than that. Beyond the staggering number of goals scored and assists made, what really thrills about Messi is observing how he speeds and flies past tactically educated European defences who have learnt his moves by rote in the most sophisticated pre-match instructions available and are still powerless to halt him. Knowing how effective European leagues are at turning games into tactical battles designed to negate a forward’s natural ability, and then seeing Messi take all of the twenty-two men on the field back to the playground with moves that should only exist on PlayStation and in a child’s imagination is perhaps the closest thing to surreal that sport has to offer.

There is perhaps some truth to be had in the argument that Messi’s genius is unlocked by Barcelona’s unique ability to retain possession in threatening areas and create space for him to launch his unique runs at defences. However, the fact remains that there is not a single footballer from South America playing in Europe today that has managed to retain, let alone polish, the fantastical magic of how they play the game in that continent to the extent that Messi has done. For Neymar, it is the challenge of representing and demonstrating the limitless magic of South America’s game at the highest level of competition to at least the same extent that Messi has done that now awaits him in his anointing as crown prince.

Liu Xiang’s Olympic dramas boggle the mind

It is difficult to know what to make of Liu Xiang’s recurring problems at the biggest event for both his career and his country. If pulling out of the 2008 Beijing Olympics whilst on the precipice of starting his first-round heat was not abrupt and mystifying enough, his decision this time to move his training base to Germany from London – the city in which he had to compete – because it was too “wet and cold” would have only further grown suspicions that there was something phony or spurious around the cult of Liu. It was not too long after pondering the complete absence of logic and whiff of panic in his sudden decision to move camp to Germany that I heard he had pulled out of the hurdles yet again after crashing into the first barrier, citing a repeat of the injury suffered in Beijing four years ago and limping to add a kiss to the last hurdle in his lane for good measure.

To pull out of the Olympic hurdles in the first heat, and in almost exactly the same fashion twice in eight years will arouse the suspicions of anyone with enough common sense not to believe in such unlikely coincidences. Liu would have been attended to by the best trainers and doctors China has to offer, and it is inconceivable that they would not have used the intervening four years to ensure that he was able to make his one date with destiny. Although his true health before the event may have been concealed in the wish not to disappoint people, the general impression given by his staff is that they were as surprised by the sudden reoccurrence of his Achilles injury as we were . That is hard to believe. Seasoned sports watchers might also add that an athlete’s instinctive reaction to having his world and lifelong ambition come crashing down upon him in the way Liu did on Tuesday would have been to burst out into tears at the disappointment. Instead, Liu remained admirably controlled enough to act out a photogenic moment that will be replayed time and again despite possibly having very little to do with sport, and everything to do with a prima donna instinct honed by a decade of adoration in his native China.

Yet, it is impossible to dismiss Liu as a complete fraud who has relied on lies and PR to build his image as a super-athlete. He gave the people of China good reason to love him by winning gold in the 2004 Olympics as a prodigious 21 year-old, and setting a world record in the event a little later. It may be that he was afraid to tar that reputation by failing to live up to expectations either in China or London. Whatever has gone on behind the scenes (and despite the recent announcement that he is undergoing surgery on his Achilles tendon, there are still legitimate questions that might never be answered), should he make it to Rio 2016, I would advise the Chinese people to ignore Liu even during his first-round heat. They may then be surprised to find that their champion, miffed at being slighted, would have raced through his heat with a clean bill of health and given them a contest in the final full of the sort of athletic integrity his recent no-shows have – fairly or unfairly – called into question.