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Gallery by Ella Ling - Nadal

What to expect as Rafa Nadal returns to tennis

Tuesday 5th February will go down as the day when Rafa returned to town and despite the best efforts of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray, it is hard to avoid the fact that he has been badly missed by everyone connected with tennis.
With all due respect to the likes of David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych, one of the notable things about the Australian Open last month (and the US Open before that) was that every other day, there was a void where Rafa should have been. Not just in name but in the feeling and charisma he brings to the game. His absence left a distinctly underwhelming feel of what it might be like when he eventually hangs up his rackets.
If Djokovic, Federer or Murray had been absent, there would also have been a void but though they are all popular figures, when Nadal is playing, or even practising, there is a huge buzz about events. Federer may be the most popular player with the middle-aged tennis fans but when it comes to children and teenagers, there is no question that Nadal is the man.
So his return to the Tour after seven months out through injury, this week in Vina del Mar, Chile, is an exciting one for the ATP Tour, for television companies, for fans and for the journalists whose job it is to cover the sport all year round. Nadal is consistently interesting and on court, he brings an energy to the game that others cannot reproduce. The big questions now are: how will he do? And how long can he continue playing at the top? Well, traditionally, Nadal takes a bit of time to get into his stride after a break, especially when he has been injured. The Spaniard loves to play matches and unlike, say, Federer, usually needs to feel like he’s played a lot to play his best. However, considering that this time, he is starting on clay, then he may hit his stride faster.
Nadal’s first two events are 250s – the lowest rung of the top tier – which is a good indicator of how he wants to ease himself back in, a feeling supported by his words on arrival in Chile. “I have to take it slowly and be humble to know that things won’t be as good as they were before my injury,” he said. “I need weeks of working on the circuit. I need to be patient. Hopefully I’ll show an acceptable level. If my knee doesn’t hurt, I have no fear. I’ve had had more serious injuries in the past. This is the injury that has sidelined me the longest so maybe it will take me a bit longer to get back my confidence, the good feeling on court, but if my knee doesn’t hurt I don’t see why I couldn’t get back my movements and game style.”
By the time he gets to Acapulco, in Mexico, towards the end of this month, he ought to have a good idea of exactly how far he can push himself and how the knee is recovering from match to match. If he plays all three clay-court events – and I am not convinced he will – I find it hard to believe that he will play both Indian Wells and Miami. Switching to hard courts, with a troublesome knee, is far from easy and with the clay-court season beginning in Europe in April, he may feel it best to drop one of the US events or even both.
It is, though, a good sign that he is playing singles and doubles in Vina del Mar. On the one hand, it gives him a chance to test it out first, in doubles, which is less strenuous; on the other, it means he also feels like he can play a lot.
Having dropped to No 5 in the rankings and without knowing if he will be able to play a full schedule, Nadal is unlikely to be challenging for No 1 for a while yet, if at all. But winning grand slams is something completely different and I would not be surprised if he adds to his tally this summer. To do that, though, he will need the confidence that comes with winning matches and tournaments, which explains, surely, why he has decided to start in South America rather than Europe, where the fields are that much stronger.
If all goes well, we can expect him to put up a big effort to win a record ninth Monte Carlo Masters crown in April and if that happens, then another French Open win is very much a possibility. Grass is less stressful than hard courts for his knees, so Wimbledon will then be on the agenda. It would make for a very interesting summer.
  • Real_black_cat

    Big RF fan, not a big Nadal fan, but I must admit there’s something missing in the atp tour without him around.
    So yes: let’s hope he will be 120% ready for MC, RG and Wimbly!
    Interesting draws of course with Nadal @5: he may meet Federer or Murray in quarter finals, and also, great earlyrounds with possible Nadal vs Delpo/Berdych/Raonic, etc.

  • Mike Esule

    I’m a huge Rafa fan and the last 8 months have not been the same on the ATP tour without him. Something just wasn’t right, for the first time I questioned whether my love for tennis was waning. The rest of the players don’t seem to be making any effort to challenge top players so we often have to wait till semi-finals or finals to have an interesting match. Rafa’s matches are always interesting, I am super excited about his return and I hope my love for tennis will be rejuvenated. I have to say however I would love to see him skip the American hard courts this spring, keep it “Clay” till the French Open, and that’ll give the knee more time to strengthen.

  • Simon

    I hope he gets back to his best or somewhere near it.

    He is a big loss to the tour and I don’t feel it is the same without him.

    If his knee allows him then he has more than enough time to get his game together to win RG.

    He has been so dominant on clay that I can only really see Djokovic stopping him even if not 100% fit.

    I would like to see him pick up his 8th French Open.