Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Rafael Nadal: Hypochondriac or Malingerer?

Of course one possible answer is “neither”. I do not intend by the title of this article to imply that being a hypochondriac or alternatively a malingerer are the only two options that can possibly explain Rafa’s dramatic injury flares. But these are the two options that are most troubling to me and as such I would very much like to rule them out.

I certainly expect that any of his fans reading this entry would seize the opportunity to come to his defense. The last time I queried Rafa’s decision to bail on a match that he was clearly about to lose, his fans attacked me en masse. How dare the TennisChick imply that Rafa would ever do something as scummy as refusing to swallow his bagel like a man? Surely he must really be injured? Sure, injured like a fox.

If I were a diagnostician given the task of coming up with some kind of conceptualization of Rafa’s history of interestingly-timed injury complaints, I would certainly want to rule out if he is just a drama queen when it comes to his physical health, or whether he is a big fat fake who has found a clever way to cheat the system. And again, I do not mean to be either-or about this. Perhaps there are a zillion other explanations that I am not considering. As his fans, please feel free to fill in my blanks.

But first, is Rafa a hypochondriac? To address this question we have to first identify what hypochondriasis is. Hypochondriacs are people who become excessively worried or preoccupied about their health. At the first hint of a symptom, they become overly alarmed and start seeking medical help. But medical help does not reassure them. Nothing reassures them. They remain convinced that there is something majorly wrong.

And to be fair, the onset of hypochondriasis may coincide with a genuine injury. The sufferer becomes so frightened from that experience that at the slightest twinge of pain he runs off to get an MRI. And certainly Rafa has had his share of knee scares. And everyone who is anyone has commented on the brutal style of tennis that he plays and how hard it must be on his body.

But why all the drama? Why all the public pronouncements of a possibly broken foot when said foot has not even been X-rayed much less diagnosed? Surely the expert physical therapists tending to his smelly foot courtside would have had a sense of whether the ankle was broken? Surely there was no way he would have been able to continue running like a fricking gazelle in the match against Del Potro if he had indeed broken a bone?

No, I think we need to look for another explanation. And I am sad that malingering even comes to mind. Malingering refers to a deliberate and intentional faking of a medical condition for the purpose of secondary gain. In other words, the person pretends to be injured because there is some benefit, some pay-off to the charade. In which case I have to ask, if Nadal is malingering, what might be the benefits of his dishonesty?

Well, to answer that question, you might want to take a look at some of those close matches between Rafa and Federer over the past few years. How often did they involve some kind of hobbling at a precarious moment of the match? And how often did the sight of Rafa grimacing in pain end up derailing Federer? Next thing you know the supposedly injured Rafa is running away with the match. Running like a fox.

If Rafa is faking – and understand that I am not saying that he is – he certainly would not be the first. I used to ask similar questions about Sampras back in the day. In fact, I will never forget the time – I believe it was also at Wimbledon – when Sampras made a similar public pronouncement about getting an MRI for his supposedly injured back. Injured like a fox. He came back to beat everybody and hoisted the trophy aloft, bad back be damned. Between the episodes of vomiting and back spasms, it was a wonder how Pete Sampras managed to keep on winning. But he did. Winning like a fox.

But in order to prove that someone is malingering, you have to first be able to find evidence of the secondary gain. What is the pay-off attached to their behavior? Is the player just trying to distract and derail his opponents with injury claims? Is he just finding a clever way to buy time to figure how to adjust his strategy against a formidable opponent? Or is it none of the above. Does he really just call injuries because he genuinely believes that he is injured? I would really like to know what you think.


Klaas said...

According to the London Times Nadal suffered a hairline fracture in his foot, and has played with that since, and will now have to take a long break. Symptoms on court were completely concordant with that. Any player would have taken a scan after that.

I find it a bit strange to suggest that he could have feigned an injury. In the following tiebreak he was obviously hampered during the first 3-4 points, but Del Potro blew the opportunity.

Almost any player (with the exception of the Maestro) will try to downplay his/her possibilities in a grand slam, and often use all sorts of excuses to do so. It will take some of the pressure off, at least in his/her own mind. The great Borg once complained about back/shoulder problems before and during Wimbledon. He won that one without losing a set.

tennischick said...

Sorry Klaas but you seem to be wrong on this one. From today's NY Times:

"Though there have been reports in the British news media that Nadal has a stress fracture in his left foot, the same foot that required painkilling injections after an injury in the quarterfinals, Toni Nadal, his coach and uncle, and Benito Pérez Barbadillo, his publicist, denied there was a fracture."


Yaz said...

In other words, the person pretends to be injured because there is some benefit, some pay-off to the charade. In which case I have to ask, if Nadal is malingering, what might be the benefits of his dishonesty?