February is usually a pretty dead month in pro tennis, but thanks to a certain man from Mallorca that’s far from the case this year. After seven long, often agonizing months, Rafael Nadal finally returns to tennis this week in South America as all eyes in the tennis world will be focused on a tiny tournament in Vina Del Mar, Chile.
Nadal, who’s been battling a bad knee since Wimbledon, was on track to make his comeback at the start of the year in Australia, but an alleged stomach illness put the kibosh on those plans. Now, even despite reports that his knee is still not 100%, he’s back. He made trip. He’s on site. He’s playing!
Because of a singles bye, Rafa will actually play his first pro point of the year in doubles tonight when he and Argentine pal Juan Monaco take the court against the second-seeded Czech team of Cermak/Dlouhy.
Doubles, you say? Maybe the knee isn’t such a worry afterall?
The real fun comes tomorrow when with the world watching, Nadal meets either Guido Pella or qualifier Federico Delbonis. In this first match back situation, Nadal likely won’t be tested, which should launch his comeback in best possible way, with a rousing win! But what can we expect thereafter?
Over the next four weeks Nadal is smartly scheduled to stay on clay, playing Sao Paulo and then Acapulco to round out this Latin swing. He’ll meet presidents, dine with dignitaries, conduct clinics, parry questions from the press and get a practice in here and there. And I’d be surprised if by the end trip he doesn’t have two more titles to his name.
If things go well he’ll then move onto the hardcourts for Indian Wells and Miami. It’s an ambitious schedule for Nadal because knee injuries like Rafa’s really never go away. Speaking from experience, you have good stretches and then bad. That’s the reality. That’s his future.
The good thing is Rafa does begin his comeback on clay which is much easier on those damn knees. And the level of competition he’ll initially face is marginal, so he’ll have the opportunity to gradually work his way back into some kind of form. In Chile the next highest seed is Juan Monaco. In Sao Paulo he’ll have it a little tougher with Nicolas Almagro and David Nalbandian, who’s also making a(nother) comeback, in addition to Monaco. And at the end of the month is Acapulco where he should be nearing his highest level and where he’ll finally face some real challenges from David Ferrer plus Stanislas Wawrinka and Fernando Verdasco.
Rafa should also benefit from any long, physical matches like we often see when he plays rivals Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray or even Juan Martin Del Potro, because those guys aren’t playing those events. That, however, changes significantly next month when Rafa returns to the hardcourts at Indian Wells and Miami. And I think he’ll be lucky to play both.
The biggest concern I have right now with Rafa is that if his knee is still not 100%, how is it going to get any better playing three clay events? Medically, joint issues like tendinitis do improve with activity, however just walking around the neighborhood is a far, far different stress than playing a best-of-3 pro tennis match!
So unless Team Nadal is downplaying Nadal’s knee, I just don’t see how Rafa finishes this swing with a healthier knee, one that’s hardened for hardcourts. And if there’s any hint of continued issues, why chance it with the crucial spring clay season just around the corner?
Therefore I have my doubts. I hope I’m wrong because having Rafa around is that much better for the tour and the sport, but unfortunately I just don’t see this ending well. It could very well be rinse and repeat come July – he’s so frail when it comes to his health anyways. But until that day comes – and it will – at least we get to enjoy Nadal a little longer.
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