When Rafael Nadal returns to the tour–very soon, we hope–he will be entering uncharted territory. Plenty of players miss time to injury, but it is rare for a top player to miss anywhere near this much time.
In fact, only three top 10-ranked players have ever left the tour and returned after a layoff of six months or longer.
Only one of those three–Juan Martin del Potro, in 2010–was forced to rest due to injury. John McEnroe twice left the tour for stretches of several months, and Tommy Haas took time off in 2002 to take care of his family. Haas’s layoff turned into something a bit more relevant, as his sabbatical was extended by a shoulder injury he suffered in preparation for a comeback.
While del Potro’s future is still unclear, the precedent for Nadal is concerning. None of those players ever returned to their pre-layoff rankings.
Del Potro’s story, in fact, is the most encouraging. When he suffered his shoulder injury, he had recently won the US Open and reached the final of the World Tour Finals, reaching a career-high ranking of #5. With the exception of a brief return in October of 2010, he missed almost exactly one year. While he didn’t return to the top 10 for another year, he won two small tournaments early on and reached the semifinals of Indian Wells barely two months into his comeback. Two years later, his ranking is up to #7, still short of his pre-injury peak.
When Haas left the tour at the end of 2002, he had just recently fallen from his career-high ranking of #2. When he returned more than a year later, he had early success similar to Del Potro’s, reaching the 4th round at Indian Wells and winning two events in his first six months. Yet he didn’t return to the top 10 for nearly three years.
McEnroe is the enigma of this bunch. Ranked #2 in the world at the beginning of 1986, he needed a break from the tour. Seven months later, he began a comeback at Stratton Mountain, where he reached the semis and lost to Boris Becker. After a clunker of a first-round loss at the US Open, he reeled off 18 consecutive wins, including three over top-10 players. That put him back in the top 10, but it was two years into the comeback that he regained a position in the top 5–in part due to another six-month layoff beginning in September 1987.
What the recaps of Haas’s and McEnroe’s layoffs hide is that, while they weren’t playing, they were headed into an age range where most pros start declining. At the time of their returns, McEnroe was 26, Haas 25–a typical player’s peak age, at least before today’s new era of indestructible 30-somethings.
While McEnroe has shown astonishing longevity, his years as a contender for world #1 were probably about over when he took his sabbaticals. And Haas missed the year in which he might have played his very best tennis.
Neither player is a clear precedent for a clay court genius with knee problems, but the age factor is tough to ignore. Nadal turned 26 in June, putting him right in between Haas and McEnroe at the times of their departures from the tour.
Assuming Rafa is healthy, there’s little doubt he’ll maintain his position in the top 10. I’d be surprised if he didn’t win at least a couple of clay court events this year, even if he maintains a much-reduced schedule. But if history is any indication, he has seen the last of the top two.