Rafa Nadal's triumphant return to top level tennis has seen his French Open odds tumble, but Ralph Ellis warns against getting swept along with the enthusiasm
"If there is the slightest hint of his fitness being less than 100 per cent this year then the young bucks of the ATP circuit will sense the chance to make themselves a bit of a reputation by hurting the champion."
Rio Ferdinand is not the only big name to withdraw from a high-class sporting event this week. just a few days after winning the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, Rafael Nadal has pulled out of the Miami Masters.
Like Rio, Nadal has to undergo an intricate pre-planned fitness routine, of course. That's what happens when your body has suffered years of pounding playing top-level sport. And his doctors have advised him not to play next week. It's understandable. Every now and then you have to take a break away from the action, and miss something you would like to be involved in, to get yourself right for the occasions that are most important.
The Spaniard has just given a textbook example of dealing with longstanding conditions to drag himself back into the top four of the world rankings after winning in Indian Wells.
It was a heroic achievement to crown an astonishing comeback after seven months out with knee problems. His victims on the way to the trophy included Roger Federer plus two others from the top ten. It was a reward for hours of work in the gym, meticulous dedication to his rehab programme, and fantastic mental courage and commitment. But while it is easy to salute the achievement of the 26-year-old Spaniard who was once the world's number one, it also means you need to exercise some caution about what happens next.
Nadal will next appear on the clay courts he loves most, and inevitably his price to retain his French Open title has tumbled on the back of his success in America. He is [2.02] favourite this morning to extend his record of seven successes at Roland Garros to eight. That is good news for the punter who got a couple of quid matched at [22.0] a while back, but cold reality says it is one to lay rather than back.
Read in detail the glowing tributes in the reports of Nadal's performances in America and there are clues that all is still not well with his fitness. He still walks with a limp. He admits himself he must do more to build up the power in his left-leg quadriceps. He has to take anti-inflammatory tablets by the bucket load.
Now it is one thing to go through even the rigours of a Masters tournament with most of the world's top players under that sort of stress, but yet another to play a Grand Slam where every round can go to five sets - and must take a minimum of three. We all remember last year's near four-hour final against Jovak Djokovic, but even when he was blowing people away early in the tournament Nadal's easiest match, a 6-2 6-0 6-0 hammering of Juan Monaco, was only 14 minutes short of lasting two hours.
If there is the slightest hint of his fitness being less than 100 per cent this year then the young bucks of the ATP circuit will sense the chance to make themselves a bit of a reputation by hurting the champion and those early round matches could be even more demanding.
So, celebrate Nadal's return - and his ability to undergo an "intricate pre-planned fitness routine". But just as those demands will almost certainly rule Rio Ferdinand out of playing in a World Cup, so they will put a question mark on even Nadal's ability to last the course of one of his sport's major tournaments.