The Australian Open, the first Grand Slam tennis tournament of the year, ended last Sunday.  Despite being defeated in the quarterfinals of the tournament, Rafa Nadal made a stunning comeback to tennis.  After taking a long nine months off for injuries, he definitely did his best and looked in top form for his early matches.  The power and exquisite ball placement was back, and people took notice.  (They also noticed his shorter shorts-thanks Nike!)

But in the quarterfinal match against Tomas Berdych his body may have failed him yet again. Whispers of a torn hamstring plagued after-match press conferences.  But when a reporter asked about the  “so-so” match, Nadal only said “…not ‘so-so’ [match].  Very bad.  You can say it, no problem.”

So, what’s up with Rafa?  Watch any of his matches and you will see his strength and power on the court.  In 2010 Rafa's doctor, Angel Ruiz-Cotorro, described him as being "able to mix the explosive pace of a 200-metre sprinter with the resistance of a marathon runner"

But if he is so strong, why is he so prone to injuries?  Many blame it on the hardcourt surface; others blame it on his powerful style of play and the intensity of his practice sessions.

I’m going to blame his body, as well as his brain (more on that in a later post).

First, let’s recount the injuries:

2004 Stress fracture, left ankle

2005 Foot injury

2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013 Patellar femoral tendonitis, both knees; Hoffa’s Syndrome (left knee); torn patellar tendon (left knee)

2009 Right abdominal rupture (1.02 inches)

2012 "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.” (HUH?)

2013 Stomach virus

2014 Right wrist injury

2014-2015 Low back disc “issues”--treated with stem cells

2011, 2015 Left hamstring pulled

2014 Large blister on hand

2014 Appendicitis (ok…well, he couldn’t help that one)

The world of tennis has made great strides with equipment (shoes, court surface, etc), medical treatment, and technology (like Rafa’s new Babolat “smart” racquet with the tiny computer inside). 

But maybe it is time to get back to the basics of his body. 

I am not making a diagnosis;  I am not a doctor, or physical therapist. But based on what we know about Nadal, and what we know about strength and conditioning training, I am sharing a few ideas to save Rafa Nadal and his tennis career.  Tennis fans spent the last nine months without Rafa Nadal--bad for tennis fans and bad for the business of tennis. (Are you listening, Nike?)  Maybe someone can save his body and his mind so we don’t have to be without him again.

So…what if he has some muscle imbalances? Or some movement impairments caused by joint mobility issues and/or by faulty movement patterns?  What if some corrective exercise would help?

This is the first of my FIVE ideas to save Rafa Nadal:

Rafa needs to get a complete functional movement assessment (FMS).  This means, stop looking at his body parts through a microscope.  All movements are three-dimensional, and are a complex coordination of joints, muscles, and ligaments.  As physical therapist and creator of FMS Gray Cook says, “muscles should do their job automatically, but if the reflex behavior that drives them is altered by poor movement patterns, poor flexibility, muscle imbalances, or poor warm up,” then fixing one injury is just like putting a Band-Aid on a dam that just broke.  The underlying weak link will remain unidentified.  Add intense training on top of that weak link and you have a recipe for disaster.

“You can’t put fitness on dysfunction,” as Cook says in his book Movement.

Prior to Cook’s Functional Movement System (a series of seven different movements requiring integrated mobility and stability), the only measure of “fitness” for an athlete was a 1RM squat test--a measure of strength only.

How about we take a look at Rafa’s deep squat form, his hip flexibility, trunk stability, and thoracic spine mobility?  And if we look at his movement patterns, instead of body parts, we can discover any dysfunction or asymmetry.   Find the weak link then prescribe some corrective exercise—the brain must be re-wired to execute these patterns correctly and without compensation.

To me, this means: an athlete’s longevity in their sport could simply be a function of healthy, functional movement patterns.

Look for my next four ways to save Rafa Nadal this week!