Rafael Nadal’s Damn Knees: A Timeline

Sidelined for a year with a nasty joint injury, Rafael Nadal returns to the hard court today against Roger Federer. Will his legs hold up? Sujay Kumar runs down Rafa’s aches and pains.

03.14.13 5:36 PM ET

It’s unfortunate that 11-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal, known for his screams of “Vamos!” and wedgies, has bum knees. But after being sidelined for seven months, “The King of Clay” is finally back. In his first hard court tournament in nearly one year, he’ll battle Roger Federer at the quarterfinals of Indian Wells on Thursday.

Even for tennis watchers, the saga of Nadal’s pesky knees has been hard to follow. Sometimes he seemed to be recovering, only to slip back in devastating defeat. There was also a stomach bug in there somewhere. Nadal’s broken English (“I suffer a tendinitis”) hasn’t always helped clear things up.

To keep the joint points straight, what follows is a handy timeline of Nadal’s no good, very bad, injury-riddled 2012.

January 15, 2012 
The day when Nadal’s No.1 rival becomes a piece of furniture. The night before his first match at the Australian Open, he hurts his right knee. In a hotel room. While sitting.

"I was sitting on a chair in the hotel, I felt like a crack on the knee. [It was] really strange. I stand up. I felt the knee a little bit strange. I moved the leg like this two times to try to find the feeling. After the second time, the knee stays with an unbelievable pain completely straight. I have no movement on the knee. I wasn't 100 percent sure I would have a chance to play.”

January 29 
Hotel chairs be damned! Nadal coasts to the championship match in Melbourne. At this point, he’s now made the final of six out of seven of his last grand slam tournaments. Unfortunately, he’s been thrashed in the last two by Novak Djokovic. Here he loses to Djokovic again, this time in a grueling five set, five hour and 53-minute hard-court match.

March 30 
More signs of trouble emerge. After resting his knees for the month of February and a few weeks after being dumped by Federer in the semifinals at Indian Wells, Nadal withdraws from Miami with a left knee injury.

"It looks like it's nothing really different than happened a few times in the past," he says. "Hopefully with a few days off and with the right treatment, I will be in the right conditions to start to practice on the clay.”

June 11 
Boy was he right. Nadal spends April and May sliding his way to victories at Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome on clay. The maestro from Majorca then wins his record seventh French Open title, miraculously dropping just one set (to Djokovic in the final) the entire tournament. It’s actually the only set he’s dropped in 23 matches on red clay this season. In tennis terms, he’s an absolute monster.

“I really don't know how many more years I will be here playing.  Is impossible to predict the future, no?  I will be here until my physical respect me, until the injuries.”

June 15 
Uh oh. Nadal is bounced by Philipp Kohschreiber (who?) at a grass-court warm up tournament for Wimbledon.

"It's more a tennis problem than a mental problem," Nadal said. "The transition is difficult. It depends how much time you have. Playing on grass can sometimes be a bit of a lottery."

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June 28 
In what’s hailed as one of the greatest upsets in tennis history, 100th-ranked Lukas Rosol absolutely dismantles Nadal in five sets. The New York Times notes that Nadal doesn’t show any visible signs of knee pain in the match, though he slipped into the net on one point. In the third set, he bumped into Rosol on a changeover.

Nadal’s diagnosis: “Is not a tragedy. It’s only a tennis match.”

July 4 
Yep, he’s hurt. Nadal pulls out of an exhibition match with Djokovic. It’s his left knee again.“The doctors have been checking my knee and I suffer a tendinitis which will have me away from any practice or matches for 15 days.”

July 12 
Can’t blow off steam through tennis before the Olympics? Head to Sardinia! Nadal’s spotted hanging out on the beach fishing, harpooning, and even Jet Skiing. All with his “rockin’ shirtless physique,” that is.

July 19 
The saddest day of his career: Nadal withdraws from the London Olympic Games. His uncle and coach says it’s those same pesky knees. The Spanish newspaper El Pais reveals that Nadal’s loss at Wimbledon was connected to his knee. The New York Times reports:

“[A]ccording to Spanish newspaper El Pais, Nadal twice underwent magnetic resonance imaging scans during Wimbledon because of concern about his knees, particularly his left knee. After the loss to Rosol, El Pais reported that he consulted with his personal physician Angel Cotorro, who also works with the Spanish Tennis Federation and then returned to Vitoria to receive injections from Mikel Sanchez, the same physician who has administered platelet-rich plasma therapy to Nadal in the past to address his tendinitis.” 
August 15 
And there goes New York. Nadal tweets that he’s out of the U.S. Open. That’s two major tournaments. Djokovic and Murray say it must be serious. This doesn’t bode well.

Federer: “It’s very surprising, because it was nothing that we heard of before the injury. He played so well on clay and then actually seemed fine at Wimbledon. He had more time by losing earlier at Wimbledon. So it came as a big surprise now, these two pullouts for me. Even the Olympics, too. So I’m sad for him.”

August 17 
Nadal’s doctor says that the star is suffering from Hoffa’s syndrome. That’s when the knee’s fat pad gets pinched between the thigh bone and kneecap. Ouch.  While it’s “annoying and painful” he says it’s not significant. For Nadal, this really isn’t anything terribly new.

September 3 
This guy can’t catch a break. Nadal announces he’ll be out two more months with a torn patella tendon. His rehab is going OK though—he won’t need surgery.

September 24 
Confession: in his first major interview since Wimbledon, Nadal tells the Daily Mail that his knees have been a pain all year. He’s been killing time golfing. But is his career over?

“Was it a mistake to play at Wimbledon? Maybe, but when you are playing well it is hard to stop. At Roland Garros I had to play with anti-inflammatories to get through. After that I felt really bad. My practice before Wimbledon was terrible. I played the first round with injections, otherwise it would have been impossible. That doesn’t help the knee.” 
December 21 
It’s winter and still no sign that Nadal’ll be back. He’s not convinced either.

"I have my doubts. It's normal. We are talking about a knee, so of course I am afraid to see how it is going respond ... I'm prepared to accept that at the start my knee might not respond well and I may have to take it easy, mixing periods of play and rest for the first three months."

In an interview from Majorca, Nadal tells the Times of London that he’s not ready.

 “The doctors say that the images are very good, so that is a big calm for me, but I still feel something. I need to be careful. I need to be focused on how the knee is getting better or worse every day and don’t make a mistake that can be negative for my future. Not yet do I have the feeling that I am 100 percent ready to compete, to say, ‘I’m going to go there, I will be ready to run for every ball, to play aggressive, to do what I want with my legs and then try to play my best tennis to win.’ ”

December 25 
And a few days later, Nadal drops out of his hotly anticipated return tournament in Abu Dhabi. As cruel fate would have it, this time it isn’t his knee! He has a nasty stomach ache

“My rehab has gone well, my knee feels good and I was looking forward to competing. Unfortunately doctors have informed me that my body needs to rest in order to fight this stomach virus.” 
December 29  
There goes the Australian Open. Tummy ache knocks out Nadal. 
Head doctor Angel Ruiz-Cotorro: “Rafa Nadal suffered last week a viral condition that caused gastroenteritis with a high fever for four to five days.”

January 1, 2013 
Nadal’s publicist Benito Pérez-Barbadillo reveals that on December 20, the star played golf on a cold day. He “didn’t feel well at dinner” which led to his stomach bug. He also reveals that Nadal was hurting as early as the French Open. 

"At the French Open he took painkillers in the last two matches. Then, after what he considers his best French Open ever, he played in Halle, also because of his commitment with the tournament. Then he came back in Mallorca before Wimbledon. He felt a lot of pain also in practice, but you can't say you feel pain to other players."

February 5 
Nadal is finally back in action after seven months. So what if he loses the final on clay in Chile? He’s back!

February 18 
He’s really back, as he wins on clay in Brazil. And his knees are fine.

"When the knee is feeling better like today I feel like that I can do more of the things that I used to do my entire life. If the pain is bearable like it was today, then it's fine."

March 3 
A sign that things are better: Nadal goes to the beach and Jet Skis with his girlfriend. And when you’re feeling good, it’s sombrero time! Nadal absolutely crushes world No. 4 David Ferrer in the Acapulco finals.

March 14 
In his first hard-court tournament in nearly a year, Nadal makes the quarterfinals of Indian Wells. On the other side of the net, a familiar face: Roger Federer.