After seven months away from the ATP Tour, Rafael Nadal began his comeback from knee injury with a 6-3, 6-2 win over Argentina’s Frederico Delbonis at the VTR Open in Chile on Wednesday. Nadal, the top seed, shook off some early rust after dropping the first two games of the match to win 12 of the last 15 games and cruise to the victory in just over an hour.
A few thoughts on Rafa’s first competitive singles match in seven months:
• A rusty Rafa is still a dominant Rafa: The signs of rust — very understandable rust — were there to see. His timing was off early; he hit some wild forehands that looked like shanks but actually did come off his strings; and he was playing so far behind the baseline you couldn’t see his legs when he played in the near-court because they were obstructed by the bleachers, a sign of his lack of confidence. All that was to be expected at the outset, and his comfort level and confidence increased notably as the match progressed.
Regardless of the rust, Nadal dominated his opponent, a qualifier ranked No. 128. Delbonis tried in vain to outgrind Nadal in the first set before opting to take a more aggressive posture in the second. Neither tactic worked. Aside from a few unanticipated drop shots from Delbonis, Nadal covered the court well and, in the most encouraging display of the afternoon, did well to quickly take advantage of the rallies early and step in to control them with his forehand, which got better and better with each stroke. That’s a sign of a more confident and mature Nadal, who’s willing to take risks and seize control rather than rely on his defense to win rallies out of attrition.
• There’s still hesitation in his movement: His knees didn’t get much of a workout (that’s a good thing), but from what I saw Nadal is still driving under a caution flag. His footwork around the ball was crisp, most notably in his frequent moves to run around his backhand and rip a forehand down the line. His movement and execution of that shot alone was enough to make you believe he was already firing on all cylinders. But when’s the last time you’ve seen Nadal not even make a move to retrieve a drop shot on back-to-back points? It was a combination of a lack of recognition and caution with his movement, both of which were understandable but notable nonetheless.
• Now for the recovery: Given his form in his first match, Nadal should tear through the draw at the VTR Open this week, and that’s made even more clear after the No. 2 seed, Juan Monaco, was upset earlier Wednesday. (I do give third-seeded Jeremy Chardy a shot to pull off the upset if his forehand goes white hot this week.)
Aside from his in-match form, the big question is how Nadal’s left knee reacts between matches. Remember, this is just the first of three clay-court tournaments for Nadal, which means he could play 12 singles matches over the next four weeks and then hit the hard courts of Indian Wells and Miami in another set of back-to-back tournaments. That’s some aggressive and optimistic scheduling for a guy who says he still feels pain in his knee.