For Rafael Nadal, winning the title at Indian Wells was a welcome surprise. For the rest of the ATP Tour however it was business as usual, i.e. the recent trend of seeing one of the “big four” standing in the winner’s circle at the biggest events. With a 17-1 record since returning to the tour in February after a seven month absence due to injury, the question now to ask is was Nadal’s return a comeback or merely a unexpected hiatus in his career?
Nadal’s BNP Paribas Open title was yet another milestone in his storied legacy. His victory in the finals over the Argentine Del Potro was the Spaniard’s 600th career win and Indian Wells was his 22nd Masters title, the most ever among active and retired players. Despite a seven-month layoff due to a knee injury that had Nadal fearing if he ever would play again followed by months of speculation, rumors, false starts and then that loss in the finals in Vina Del Mar to Horacio Zeballos that shocked everyone, Nadal looked like his old self as he raced around the purple hard courts of Indian Wells en route to victory.
Nadal may not be all the way back — he did withdraw from Miami to rest up for the clay court season — but he looks darn close. And though it is truly great to see Nadal back in action, one wonders if we can really call his return a true comeback considering how well he’s done so far. Nadal’s first matches on tour back in Vina Del Mar and then in Sao Paulo were more about him testing the knee, getting match experience, and tasting competition once again. He certainly did struggle at times, but there was never really a sense that he couldn’t find a way back to 100% form at some point, so long as he had got enough of the above three I mentioned during his sojourn during the “golden swing” in Latin and South America.
Nadal was also fortunate in that he didn’t also have to battle with having a lower ranking after being forced off the tour for several months. Nadal’s fall from No. 2 in the world, where he was post-Roland Garros last year, to No. 5 pre-Indian Wells may have felt like a disaster to his fans, but it certainly was not the precipitous drop that many other injured players have had to deal with when they are required to take time off to heal. Rather than spending months having to fight his way back into the top 100, top 20, or the top 10, Nadal is quickly back in the hunt for a top four seed in Paris this spring.
On the other side, Nadal’s cause to make a triumphant return was helped to some degree by the lack of anyone aside from Djokovic, Federer or Murray making any significant strides during Nadal’s absence. Another Spaniard, Ferrer was certainly the beneficiary of being seeded in the top four at the last two Majors. But if there was any hope that he might end his recent dry spell of wins against Nadal in the Acapulco finals, that idea was quickly extinguished. Ferrer, the three-time defending champion of the event, managed only two games in that final in what was both a sublime effort from Nadal and a near-capitulation from Ferrer. To put it bluntly, Ferrer will unlikely ever defeat Nadal again during the course of his own career.
While players like Del Potro and Berdych have certainly posted recent results that they can be dangerous anywhere, it’s hard at the moment seeing anyone else even in the current top 50 of the ATP that looks ready to breakthrough and not only enter the top ten but challenge the elite tier for the biggest titles, at least this year anyway.
What we saw in Vina Del Mar, Sao Paulo and then Acapulco was Nadal at 50% to 70% at his best and still basically beating almost everyone in sight. Nadal certainly was tested and pushed in Indian Wells, but the fact that he was able to raise his level on his least favorite surface and come out the champion, proved that he’s now probably on the cusp of reaching his peak level just in time for Roland Garros again.
How long Nadal has left in his career and to what extent his knee issue will play a part in that is still unclear. But for someone who at times publicly wondered allowed when he would ever return to the tour, these first steps in 2013 suggest that Nadal may indeed not only be making up for lost time but very able to create even more history. Perhaps the operative phrase to describe in total Nadal’s absence and now championship return should just be — “destiny delayed but not halted.”