• Chris Wilkinson

Playing through pain barrier part of life for Nadal and co

Chris Wilkinson October 13, 2014
Rafael Nadal was beaten in straight sets by Feliciano Lopez in the second round of the Shanghai Masters © Getty Images
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There are people out there who are amazed that Rafael Nadal could even consider playing on after being diagnosed with appendicitis, but he will know how his body is feeling better than anyone and would be the first to pull out if it was a problem he couldn't handle.

I was in Beijing to watch Nadal return to action after his 13-week lay-off to recover from a right wrist injury. He beat Richard Gasquet and Germany's Peter Gojowczyk but there was no doubt that he struggled, losing in the quarter-finals to Martin Klizan. His backhand simply wasn't firing - maybe he was a bit cautious because of the wrist.

He obviously wasn't playing his best tennis, but after being out for a few months he just wanted to get a few matches under his belt and was just starting to find his feet. It was pretty unlucky to get diagnosed with appendicitis so soon afterwards.

Rafael Nadal also suffered a shock defeat to Martin Klizan at the China Open © Getty Images
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Losing to Feliciano Lopez in Shanghai was more of a disappointment, given his record against fellow Spaniards, so overall the Asian swing has been a bit of a shame. I don't think he's got the matches or the confidence he was looking for from those events.

Getting diagnosed with appendicitis on top of that has robbed him of any good work he managed in China. For a tennis player, when you can't play at 100%, it can eat away at your confidence. I am sure that is what happened against Lopez - the news, announced a couple of days before his first match, would have been on his mind.

Nadal's plan is to manage the appendicitis with antibiotics until the end of the season. Players regularly play through pain. They take painkillers to get them through tough tournaments. If you look at the grand slams, where Djokovic, Murray and Federer are typically playing two straight weeks of five-set matches, they're going to be hurting when they go out on court. It's part of life as a tennis professional.

And Nadal has eased his schedule. He was meant to be playing in the International Premier Tennis League at the end of the season but has pulled out of that to be replaced by Roger Federer, which was probably the sensible thing to do.

After resting this week he's playing in Basel, Paris and the ATP World Tour Finals in London, so he's got three big tournaments to play in.

There will be expectations on him from other people, because he's Rafael Nadal, but if you know something about the game you would expect him to struggle. He's been out of action, and will be playing on a fast indoor surface that is hardly his favourite.

But, as I look at it, it's great for the tournaments and a chance for him to play matches as he turns his attention to 2015 - particularly at The O2.

An ATP World Tour Finals without Nadal would still be a star-studded affair but, from a selfish point of view, Nadal wants court time ahead of the Australian Open. In that regard, the guarantee of three group-stage matches against some of the best players in the world is the ideal preparation.

Nadal has already qualified for London so the pressure is off in that regard, but while he is set to join Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka in the eight-man field, behind them the battle is hotting up.

Tomas Berdych looks likely to join them as the fifth qualifier, but from Marin Cilic in sixth down to Grigor Dimitrov in 11th, it's still an open race for the remaining three spots.

Andy Murray is currently 10th, 95 points behind Milos Raonic in the last qualifying spot. He needs the points if he is to maintain his record of qualifying for the season finale every year since they relocated to The O2, and has to play tournaments to get them.

That said, I was surprised to see that he'll be playing in Vienna this week. It was probably his last chance to take a break before the season ends, and with only 250 points on offer to the winner.

He played in Shenzen, then Beijing and Shanghai. He's playing this week, and when you throw in Valencia and Paris that will be six weeks' worth of tournaments in a row - before the prospect of a seventh in London.

That's quite tough. Normally a player will try to play no more than three weeks in a row before a week of rest - from that point of view, his scheduling is unusual, but you can understand why he's doing it. All the guys in the hunt are playing - Raonic is top seed in Moscow this week, Dimitrov is defending his title in Stockholm - and it's great. So often we get to this time of year and the top eight is all but decided.

The ATP World Tour Finals are more important than it used to be. The top players are always focused on the slams, but they're far more aware of the year's final event now. Perhaps with it being played in London it's now a little more prestigious. There is no denying that it is a great event.

From the tournament's perspective, it's important for Murray to play, given that it's in London and the profile he brings to it, and what he'll get from it as a player. That's why he's pushing so hard to get there - and I think he's going to make it.

Chris Wilkinson is a former British No.1, who now serves as a tennis commentator and as a coach for the LTA. He is ESPN.co.uk's resident expert, providing an exclusive view on the world of tennis.

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Chris Wilkinson is a former British No. 1, who now serves as a tennis commentator and as a coach for the LTA. He is ESPN.co.uk's resident expert, providing an exclusive view on the world of tennis. Chris Wilkinson is a former British No. 1, who now serves as a tennis commentator and as a coach for the LTA. He is ESPN.co.uk's resident expert, providing an exclusive view on the world of tennis.