The Return of Rafael Nadal

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After being out of action for seven months now, Rafael Nadal has announced that he will return to tennis at next month’s Vina Del Mar Open in Chile.

We think.

It’s hard not to be a tad bit skeptical about any possible on-court appearances from the Spanish superstar. This is based on Nadal and, to a large extent, his management and publicity team’s recent pattern of holding a press conference or having Nadal be interviewed to tell everyone he is very close to recovery but only in the next week to have him express his sincerest apologies for not being able to compete at an event that he thought he would be able to attend, most notably this month’s Australian Open.

Nadal’s latest announcement of getting back to the courts, though met with the usual hopeful chatter from the media and his legions of fans, has also been greeted with a fair amount of lukewarm enthusiasm and rightly so. After all, how many times can you tell someone you will definitely be somewhere only to tell them at the last minute, “Nope. Sorry. Can’t make it.” Throughout his time away, Nadal’s PR team would have been better off telling everyone Nadal is recovering the best he can and hopes to get back to the tour soon. Period. Instead the constant updates without providing any real specifics, including the exact nature of his injury, created more confusion than was necessary.

But let’s move on and focus instead on Nadal’s return which has now been moved up a week to coincide with the Vina Del Mar event that kicks off what is known as the “golden swing” of clay court events throughout Latin and South America. This change in scheduling suggest optimism in the Nadal camp, but again we can’t know for sure if he really will appear. The tournament’s organizers sure hope he does as they are probably aiming for the same kind of overwhelming turnout Roger Federer got during his recent exhibition tour through South America.

Nadal playing his first matches on clay makes total sense if he wants to test his knee and see how it will perform under pressure. But even if Nadal does well and even wins an event or two, what would that portend for the rest of his season? Winning on clay doesn’t necessarily mean that Nadal will take things up a notch and appear at the Masters events at Indian Wells and Miami later in March.

While the “golden swing” is ideal for Nadal’s return, would he really risk switching immediately to a hard court surface, and dealing with tougher competition, so soon? This is especially true if Nadal is setting his sights on being in prime condition to perhaps win his eighth Roland Garros title. In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if Nadal sticks to only clay court events before Paris, even at the risk of seeing his ranking stay outside of the top four. This is of course means the likes of Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray may have to face off versus Nadal in the quarterfinals of the big events. Not exactly an ideal situation for all involved and one that could have a big impact on the rankings throughout the year.

If this part-time strategy of Nadal’s does work and he does win Roland Garros, would that mean he would venture onto the grass of Wimbledon or even the hard courts of America in the late summer? Or would he be content to remain a clay-court specialist, taking comfort in the knowledge that he’s already won every Major and his long-term health is not something he wants to risk, especially at New York, an event he won but has often struggled at?

In many ways, the Spaniard’s return and subsequent performance in what looks to be the last stage of his remarkable career could end up defining him more than his breakthrough as a young player and his rise to No. 1 in the world. While Federer himself is also playing a limited schedule this year, it’s more on his terms rather than Nadal who must now weigh every event as an opportunity for success yet also as a potential risk if he suffers yet another injury.

Rafa may have made some missteps during his absence in announcing his ultimate return, but it was only out of extreme caution to prevent a possible setback from having come back too soon. Now that he finally appears ready, it’s probably best if we all take his return with equal amounts of hope and temperance in our expectations of what he will achieve.

The greatest journey begins with one step and Nadal will attempt to resume his own personal quest for tennis immortality when he steps back on the court at Vina Del Mar in a month’s time.

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