Rafael Nadal makes his comeback this week after seven months on the sidelines, Mark Kendall asks if he'll be the force of old or whether injury has now started to catch up with him?
By Mark Kendall - Twitter: @SkySportsMK. Last Updated: 07/02/13 10:42am
Some seven months on, Rafael Nadal will step back out on court and into competitive singles action on Wednesday, embarking on arguably his biggest challenge to date.
While Nadal could very well win this week's VTR Open on the clay in Chile at a canter, the battle to re-establish himself at the summit of the world game now looks a daunting one for a 26-year-old making the fourth major comeback from injury of his career.
The last time he stepped out on court, Nadal fell victim to one of the biggest shocks in the sport's history as he was ousted in the second round at Wimbledon by Czech loose cannon Lukas Rosol.
The Spaniard has been quick to make clear that his overriding concern this week will be to prove his fitness and has deliberately played down expectations despite headlining at a tournament that boasts only Juan Monaco, Jeremy Chardy and Tommy Robredo as credible challengers.
"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. Results are the least important thing right now."
Nadal's presence in Vina del Mar on Chile's Pacific Coast has ensured an event which previously struggled to capture the locals' imaginations has now become the hottest ticket in town.
After limbering up with a doubles engagement alongside Monaco on Tuesday, Nadal will return to singles action in low-key style with a second-round clash against little-known Argentine Guido Pella, or a qualifier.
It is all very understated stuff for a man with 11 grand slam titles to his name and in truth it will probably be a couple of months at least before we really have an idea of his chances of adding to that haul.
But Nadal looks to have been canny with the timing and selection of his reappearance as he should rack up some facile, confidence-boosting victories on his favourite surface over the next few weeks with clay-court tournaments Sao Paolo and Acapulco to follow.
The Pearl of Manacor can also draw comfort from his last comeback from knee trouble in 2009 when he would go on to win the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open the following year, regaining the world No 1 ranking in the process.
But can Nadal still be the same force physically? He is by no means a young 26, his aggressive, all-action style of tennis has been widely cited as part of the reason for his injury problems, with his knees bearing the brunt and perhaps unsurprisingly succumbing to the tendinitis issues that have prompted his last two extended absences.
The Spaniard is cautious but optimistic of getting his body back to the level it has been previously and insists patience will be the key in his rehabilitation.
"If my knee doesn't hurt, I have no fear. I've had had more serious injuries in the past and I got stronger after them," he added. "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."
But Nadal's physical problems do not start and end with his own injuries because, unlike in the past, he is no longer the man that sets the bar highest when it comes to conditioning and fitness. The Spaniard used to be the outstanding athlete in the game; his strength, muscularity and endurance made him the marathon man that no others could touch.
But times have changed and firstly Novak Djokovic and now Andy Murray have taken their games to new levels having developed into physical specimens at the very least the equal of Nadal, even in his pomp.
For Nadal to dine at the top table with those two once again he will have to prove his injury problems are not only behind him but have left no lasting damage, because both Djokovic and Murray are a year younger and considerably less battle-weary than the Mallorcan.
For a competitor like Nadal it could well prove exactly the incentive he needs and if any player has the will and single-mindedness required to get back to winning grand slams it is the left-hander.
Certainly the game would be richer for a fully-fit, reinvigorated Nadal; the rivalry developing between hard-court specialists Djokovic and Murray is a fascinating one, but the re-emergence of the master of the red dirt would add another dimension.
This week's run-out in Chile will provide the biggest tennis story of the year thus far, but the real story will start to emerge in a couple of months when Nadal, all things going well, will test his left knee on the hard courts of Miami and Indian Wells.
For while a win in Vina del Mar would provide the perfect return, Nadal will ultimately be judged in Paris at the end of May where an eighth title in what has developed into his personal playground at Roland Garros would speak volumes about his long-term prospects and durability.
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