If tennis players could ever be greeted on court with a robust and feverish ticker-tape parade, Rafael Nadal would have been a worthy recipient at his first singles match in more than seven months at the VTR Open in Chile on Wednesday. Tennis Channel scrambled to secure TV rights, Twitter was flooded with coverage and every stroke, slide and twitch was deconstructed as a tell. All this for a second-round match at an ATP 250 tournament in South America with an opponent ranked outside the top 100.
So, yes, Nadal. You were missed. Let’s not make a scene.
A lot has happened since Nadal’s knees said no mas in June after a shocking second-round exit at Wimbledon at the callous hands of Lukas Rosol. Andy Murray is no longer the Slam-less pretender and … well … there was … OK, never mind. Not much has changed. Aside from Murray’s wins at the Olympics and U.S. Open, the tennis world didn’t do much to leave Nadal behind. Sure, David Ferrer has passed him in the rankings to become the new No. 4, but the usual suspects still rule the ATP Tour, and Ferrer’s dismal showing at the Australian Open semifinals, where he won a mere five games off Novak Djokovic, was further proof of that. Not that we needed it.
No, as Nadal mounts his comeback, he’ll find a tour familiar to him. Djokovic is still the man to beat on hard courts and gunning once again to complete the career Grand Slam at the French Open. His great rival, Roger Federer, is older, wiser and just as dangerous on the quick surfaces as he was when he won Wimbledon last year and briefly recaptured the No. 1 ranking. And Murray, despite the U.S. Open title, is still trying to chase down the original Big Three in rankings, titles and accolades. As for the Other Four — Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Juan Martin del Potro — they’re still dangerous and capable of an upset here or there. But the reality is they failed to take advantage of Nadal’s seven-month absence.
While the tour hasn’t changed much since Nadal’s knees took a siesta, the same can’t be said about Nadal. There are the little, arguably trivial things. His Nike shorts are noticeably shorter — not Berdych short but it still takes some getting used to. Also shorter? His hair. And sticking to the theme, he clearly used his time off to read the ATP memo about time violations. He’s been much quicker between points in Chile than before.
More important, Nadal has shown signs that he’s not going to make things difficult for himself. His decision to begin his comeback on clay was a departure from his 2009 comeback that started on hard courts. In 2009, he sputtered through 11 straight hard-court tournaments, where he went 2-11 against the top 10 and won zero titles. He didn’t regain his mojo until nine months later during the spring clay-court season. And what mojo it was. He went on a tear to win the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open to reclaim the No. 1 ranking and complete the career Slam.
Of course, that was only two-and-a-half months off. This time, Nadal has been out of the game more than seven months, and history has shown that long a layoff can be hard to shake off. Del Potro sat six months in 2010 with a wrist injury, and it took him more than a year to get back into the top 10. Even then, he has yet to equal his pre-injury career-high ranking of No. 4, and he’s still trying to find the consistency and power from his pre-injury days. Nadal is a different caliber of player, but a lot has to go right.
Nadal turns 27 in June, smack in the middle of the French Open as the stars would have it. He’s no longer the invincible kid who could barrel his way across any surface with abandon. I suspect he’s more aware of his physical limitations than ever, and with time less on his side than it was when he was 20, he’s wisely made adjustments. Don’t stack the deck against yourself. Take all the time you need to heal. Don’t rush back. Avoid the hard courts as long as possible. Use the softer red clay to ease back into competition. Give yourself the best opportunity to win. Remind people that you can still do what you do on this surface that you own.
It’s all clay, but this three-tournament swing through Chile, Brazil and Mexico still must feel a little weird. He hasn’t played a lower-level ATP 250 on clay since 2007. But aside from his need to squeeze in as many clay tournaments before the hard-court Masters, Nadal’s decision to play in South America for the first time since 2005 may be a boon for the game. Not unlike Federer’s South American exhibition tour two months ago, which was met with feverish excitement, the heightened anticipation and expectation brought on by the Chilean crowds have a nice celebratory quality to Nadal’s return.
Tennis needs Nadal. His brand of relentless, punishing, physics-defying tennis is unmatched. I couldn’t help but smile after he hit one of those patented running forehands down the line that curled in like a banana Wednesday. That’s a shot I haven’t seen in seven months. With each leaping fist pump, snarl and “Vamos,” Nadal breathes life into the game not because he’s more of anything — intense, skilled, exciting, you name it — compared to the other men. It is simply because he has his own brand of that something that the greats all have that make you lean forward with anticipation to see what they’ll do next.